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Justice King opened the front door and faced his past.
She stood there staring at him out of pale blue eyes he'd tried desperately to forget. Her long, light red hair whipped around her head in a cold, fierce wind, and her delectable mouth curved into a cynical half smile.
"Hello, Justice," said a voice that haunted his dreams. "Been a while."
Eight months and twenty-five days, he thought but didn't say. His gaze moved over her in a quick but thorough inspection. She was tall, with the same stubborn tilt to her chin that he remembered and the same pale sprinkle of freckles across her nose. Her full breasts rose and fell quickly with each of her rapid breaths, and that more than anything else told him she was nervous.
Well, then, she shouldn't have come.
His gaze locked back on hers. "What're you doing here, Maggie?"
"Aren't you going to invite me in?"
"Nope," he said flatly. One thing he didn't need was to have her close enough to touch again.
"Is that any way to talk to your wife?" she asked and walked past him into the ranch house.
Automatically, his left thumb moved to play with the gold wedding band he'd stopped wearing the day he had allowed her to walk away. Memories crashed into his mind, and he closed his eyes against the onslaught.
But nothing could stop the images crowding his brain. Maggie, naked, stretched out on his bed, welcoming him. Maggie, shouting at him through her tears. Maggie, leaving without a backward glance. And last, Justice saw himself, closing the door behind her and just as firmly shuttering away his heart.
Nothing had changed.
They were still the same people they'd been when they married and when they split.
So he pulled himself together, and closed the front door behind them. Then he turned to face her.
Watery winter sunlight poured from the skylight onto the gleaming wood floors and glanced off the mirror hanging on the closest wall. A pedestal table held an empty cobalt vase—there'd been no flowers in this hall since Maggie left—and the silence in the house slammed down on top of them both.
Seconds ticked past, marked only by the tapping of Maggie's shoe against the floor. Justice waited her out, knowing that she wouldn't be able to be quiet for long. She never had been comfortable with silence. Maggie was the most talkative woman he'd ever known. Damned if he hadn't missed that.
Three feet of empty space separated them and still, Justice felt the pull of her. His body was heavy and aching and everything in him clawed at him to reach out for her. To ease the pain of doing without her for far too long.
Yet he called on his own reserves of strength to keep from taking what he'd missed so badly.
"Where's Mrs. Carey?" Maggie asked suddenly, her voice shattering the quiet.
"She's on vacation." Justice cursed inwardly, wishing to hell his housekeeper had picked some other time to take a cruise to Jamaica.
"Good for her," Maggie said, then tipped her head to one side. "Glad to see me?"
Glad wasn't the word he'd use. Stunned would be about right. When Maggie had left, she'd sworn that he would never see her again. And he hadn't, not counting the nights she appeared in his dreams just to torment him.
"What are you doing here, Maggie?"
"Well, now, that's the question, isn't it?"
She turned away and walked slowly down the hall, bypassing the more formal living room before stepping into the great room. Justice followed, watching as she looked around the room as if reacquainting herself with the place.
She looked from the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two walls to the river stone hearth, tall and wide enough for a man to stand in it upright. The log walls, with the white chinking between them that looked like horizontal striping. The plush chairs and sofas she'd bought for the room, gathered together into conversation areas, and the wide bank of windows that displayed an unimpeded view of the ranch's expansive front yard. Ancient trees spread shade across most of the lawn, flowers in the neatly tended beds dipped and swayed with the ocean wind and from a distance came the muffled roar of the ranch tractor moving across the feed grain fields.
"You haven't changed anything," she whispered.
"Haven't had time," he lied.
"Of course." Maggie spun around to face him and her eyes were flashing.
Justice felt a surge of desire shoot through him with the force of a lightning strike. Her temper had always had that effect on him. They'd been like oil and water, sliding against each other but never really blending into a cohesive whole. And maybe that was part of the attraction, he mused.
Maggie wasn't the kind of woman to change for a man. She was who she was, take her or leave her. He'd always wanted to take her. And God help him, if she came too close to him right now, he'd take her again.
"Look," she said, those blue eyes of hers still snapping with sparks of irritation, "I didn't come here to fight."
"Why are you here?"
"To bring you this."
She reached into her oversize, black leather bag and pulled out a legal-size manila envelope. Her fingers traced the silver clasp briefly as if she were hesitating about handing it over. Then a second later, she did.
Justice took it, glanced at it and asked, "What is it?"
"The divorce papers." She folded her arms across her chest. "You didn't sign the copy the lawyers sent you, so I thought I'd bring a set in person. Harder to ignore me if I'm standing right in front of you, don't you think?"
Justice tossed the envelope onto the nearest chair, stuffed his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and stared her down. "I wasn't ignoring you."
"Ah," she said with a sharp nod, "so you were just what? Playing games? Trying to make me furious?"
He couldn't help the half smile that curved his mouth. "If I was, looks like I managed it."
"Damn right you did." She walked toward him and stopped just out of arm's reach. As if she knew if she came any closer, the heat between them would erupt into an inferno neither of them would survive.
He'd always said she was smart.
"Justice, you told me months ago that our marriage was over. So sign the damn papers already."
"What's your hurry?" The question popped out before he could call it back. Gritting his teeth, he just went with it and asked the question he really wanted the answer to. "Got some other guy lined up?"
She jerked her head back as if he'd slapped her.
"This is not about getting another man into my life," she told him. "This is about getting a man out of my life. You, Justice. We're not together. We're not going to be together. You made that plain enough."
"You leaving wasn't my idea," he countered.
"No, it was just your fault," she snapped.
"You're the one who packed, Maggie."
"You gave me no choice." Her voice broke and Justice hissed in a breath in response.
Shaking her head, she held up one hand as if for peace and whispered, "Let's just finish this, okay?"
"You think a signed paper will finish it?" He moved in, dragging his hands from his pockets so that he could grab her shoulders before she could skitter away. God, the feel of her under his hands again fed the cold, empty places inside him. Damn, he'd missed her.
"You finished it yourself, remember?"
"You're the one who walked out," Justice reminded her again.
"And you're the one who let me," she snapped, her gaze locked on his as she stiffened in his grasp.
"What was I supposed to do?" he demanded. "Tie you to a chair?"
She laughed without humor. "No, you wouldn't do that, would you, Justice? You wouldn't try to make me stay. You wouldn't come after me."
Her words jabbed at him but he didn't say anything. Hell, no, he hadn't chased after her. He'd had his pride, hadn't he? What was he supposed to do, beg her to stay? She'd made it clear that as far as she was concerned, their marriage was over. So he should have done what exactly?
She flipped her hair back out of her face and gave him a glare that should have set him on fire. "So here we are again on the carousel of pain. I blame you. You blame me. I yell, you get all stoic and stone-faced and nothing changes."
He scowled at her. "I don't get stone-faced."
"Oh, please, Justice. You're doing it right now." She choked out a laugh and tried to squirm free of his grip. It didn't work. She tipped her head back, and her angry eyes focused on his and the mouth he wanted to taste more than anything flattened into a grim slash. "Our fights were always one-sided. I shout and you close up."
"Shouting's supposed to be a good thing?"
"At least I would have known you cared enough to fight!"
His fingers on her shoulders tightened, and he met that furious glare with one of his own. "You knew damn well I cared. You still left."
"Because you had to have it all your way. A marriage is two people. Not just one really pushy person." She sucked in a breath, fought his grip for another second or two, then sighed. "Let me go, Justice."
"I already did," he told her. "You're the one who came back."
"I didn't come back for this." She pushed at his chest.
"Bullshit, Maggie." His voice dropped to a whisper, a rough scrape of sound as the words clawed their way out of his throat. "You could have sent your lawyer. Hell, you could have mailed the papers again. But you didn't. You came here. To me."
"To look you in the eye and demand that you sign them."
"Really?" He dipped his head, inhaled the soft, flowery scent of her and held it inside as long as he could. "Is that really why you're here, Maggie? The papers?"
"Yes," she said, closing her eyes, sliding her hands up his chest. "I want it over, Justice. If we're done, I need all of this to be finally over."
The feel of her touching Justice sparked the banked fires within and set them free to engulf his body. It had always been like this between them. Chemistry, pure and simple. Combustion. Whenever they touched, their bodies lit up like the neon streets of Vegas.
That, at least, hadn't changed.
"We'll never be done, Maggie." His gaze moved over her. He loved the flush in her cheeks and the way her mouth was parted on the sigh that slipped from between her lips. "What's between us will never be over."
"I used to believe that." Her eyes opened; she stared up at him and shook her head. "But it has to be over, Justice. If I stay, we'll only hurt each other again."
Undoubtedly. He couldn't give her the one thing she wanted, so he had to let her go. For her sake. Still, she was here, now. In his arms. And the past several months had been so long without her.
He'd tried to bury her memory with other women, but he hadn't been able to. Hadn't been able to want any woman as he wanted her. Only her.
His body was hard and tight and aching so badly it was all he could do not to groan with the pain of needing her. The past didn't matter anymore. The future was a hazy blur. But the present buzzed and burned with an intensity that shook him to his bones.
"If we're really done, then all we have is now, Maggie," he said, bending to touch the tip of his tongue to her parted lips. She hissed in a breath of air, and he knew she felt exactly as he did. "And if you leave now, you'll kill me."
She swayed into him even as she shook her head. Her hands slid up over his shoulder, and she drove her fingers up, into his always-too-long dark brown hair. The touch of her was molten. The scent of her was dizzying. The taste of her was all he needed.
"God, I've missed you," she admitted, her mouth moving against his. "You bastard, you've still got my heart."
"You ripped mine out when you left, Maggie," he confessed. His gaze locked with hers, and in those pale blue depths he read passion and need and all the emotions that were charging through him. "But you're back now and damned if I'll let you leave again. Not now. Not yet."
His mouth came down hard on hers, and it was as if he was alive again. For months, he'd been a walking dead man. A hollowed-out excuse for a human being. Breathing. Eating. Working. But so empty there was nothing for him but routine. He'd lost himself in the ranch workings. Buried himself in the minutiae of business so that he had no time to think. No time to wonder what she was doing. Where she was.
Months of being without her fired the desire nearly choking him, and Justice gave himself up to it. He skimmed his hands up and down her spine, sliding them over the curve of her bottom, cupping her, pressing her into him until she could feel the hard proof of his need.
She groaned into his mouth and strained against him. Justice tore his mouth from hers and lowered his head to taste the long, elegant line of her throat. Her scent invaded him. Her heat swamped him. And he could think only of taking what he'd wanted for so long.
He nibbled at her soft, smooth skin, feeling her shivers of pleasure as she cocked her head to one side, allowing him greater access. She'd always liked it when he kissed her neck. When his teeth scraped her skin, when his tongue drew taut, damp circles just beneath her ear.
He slid one hand around, to the front of her. He cupped her center with the palm of his hand. Even through the fabric of her tailored slacks, he felt her heat, her need, pulsing at him.
"Damn it, Maggie," he whispered, lifting his head to look down at her. "If you tell me to stop, I'll…"
She smiled. "You'll what?"
He sighed and let his forehead drop to hers. "I'll stop."
Maggie shifted her hold on him, moving to cup his face between her palms. She hadn't come here for this, though if she were to be completely honest, she'd have had to admit that she'd hoped he would hold her again. Love her again. She'd missed him so much that the pain of losing him was a constant ache in her heart. Now, having his hands and mouth on her again was like a surprise blessing from the suddenly benevolent fates.