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The scent of hot, fresh coffee called to him from the kitchen of his penthouse suite in the Tempest Hotel, New Orleans. Code Landon walked over to the coffeemaker and poured himself a mug. Thick, mudlike brew, just the way he liked it, slid down his throat, warming him instantly from the cold Louisiana day. He strolled over to the long L-shaped sofa and sat down. Sipping coffee, he picked up the television remote and hit the power button. The wide-screen bleeped on, bringing bright hues to Code's parlor and lighting up the room. He channel surfed, put his boots up on the coffee table and leaned back.
Sarah Rose's face appeared on the screen, fifty-two inches of green eyes, soft features and auburn curls. Code took a sharp breath. His heart pounded. He whipped his boots off the table and sat ramrod straight, listening to Sarah's interview.
"My work for the Dream Foundation is very important to me. I'm thrilled to be here in New Orleans and thank the people at Tempest for allowing me the opportunity. This is a great city. We want everyone to work together to rebuild homes for the most needy. No child should be without shelter and a place to call home."
The female interviewer stood beside Sarah, holding the microphone very close to her face. "You're a country superstar now, but you came from humble beginnings, I understand. Is that what drives your charitable work?"
"Yes, I think so. My mother was left with three children to raise and a houseful of bills. I remember that terrible fear as a young girl, thinking we might lose our home any day. No child should live with those frightening thoughts. And because of a natural catastrophe, many people here have already lost their homes. They need our help."
Sarah took it all in stride. She'd been in the limelight most of her adult life. She could handle the press, Code thought. She'd been through a scandal or two earlier in her career. Linked to playboys and
athletes, the rumor mills had churned and churned about love triangles and breakups until Code couldn't take hearing about it any more. He'd turn the television off at the mention of Sarah's name. He'd read headlines in tabloids until he learned to ignore them. He'd managed to block out the public Sarah Rose from his mind for the most part, but it was the private girl that he rememberedthat had stayed with him all these years.
They'd been deeply in love in high school. He thought he'd found the girl of his dreams, the one and only girl he'd ever want. God, he'd loved her like no tomorrow. But Sarah had plans that didn't include him. She wanted out of Barker, Texas, at all costs. And when the first opportunity had come, she'd packed her bags and left her hometown, leaving him high and dry and completely heartbroken.
It wasn't too long after that Sarah became America's newest female country-western artist, a woman whose concerts earned her big bucks. She raised money for charity. She had small movie roles. She got just what she'd wanted in life.
Code had never gotten over Sarahthe way he'd loved her so deeply and how she'd betrayed him for her career. It had taken him years to figure out that he couldn't move on with his life until he purged her from his system. But he wanted more than that now.
He wanted revenge.
He'd tracked her down at Tempest West in Arizona weeks ago and seduced her. They'd had a brief fling, and Code wanted it to end there and then, but he was drawn to Sarah in ways he couldn't name. He wasn't through with her yet.
His company, Landon Security Agency, had a contract with Tempest Hotels. The timing was perfect; while Sarah was performing here, he would oversee his team's work revamping the hotel's security system. Brock Tyler, owner of the hotel and Code's best friend, had seen clear through his guise but Code didn't care what anyone thought at this point. He had aright to insinuate himself into Sarah's life.
She owed him, and the payback would be sweet.
"Damn it," he said, pushing the power button off. He got up from the sofa, wondering what the hell he'd been waiting for, a personal invitation from Sarah to resume the fling they'd started in Arizona?
Code showered and changed into an Yves Saint Laurent jacket and black trousers, and slipped his feet into calfskin Ferragamo shoes. A quick comb to his thick hair kept the locks from falling onto his forehead, and a pat of cologne finished off his grooming. Satisfied with the cleaned-up version of Code Landon, he strode out the front door with one thing on his mind. Getting back at Sarah Rose for all the heartache she'd caused him.
* * *
"C-Code? W-what are you doing here?" Stunned, Sarah leaned against the doorjamb of her penthouse suite, facing Code Landon. He was the last person she thought she'd see in New Orleans, much less standing at her door. She'd expected room service, for heaven's sake.
She continued to stare as an unwelcome flash of warmth surged through her system. She battled not to let his sudden appearance and those piercing, dark-blue eyes get to her. Wearing black from head to toe in expensive attire, he was as devilishly handsome as they come. But seeing him dressed like a man of success and power was a good reminder of how much he'd changed since they'd known each other in their younger days.
One side of his mouth cocked up in a slight smile. "If I didn't know better, I'd guess you didn't want me here."
She didn't. She thought they'd put their feelings to rest in Arizona. They'd made tender and tumultuous love, a culmination of years of wondering, yearning and heartache. It had been bittersweet yet wonderful, and all Sarah had hoped for when she'd dreamt of making love to Code.
But why was he here now?
She couldn't deal with the myriad emotions swirling through her stomach seeing Code again.
She'd been keeping a hectic pace with interviews, rehearsals and touring the ninth ward, or as the locals called it, the Mighty Nine, and all of it led to the place Sarah wanted to help the most, the area desolated by Hurricane Katrina. Seeing the city's destruction firsthand had put her in a melancholy mood lately. She needed to keep her focus and raise as much money as she could. Code's appearance today could only complicate matters.
"I'm sorry. My mama taught me better manners. But I am surprised to see you here. Did you want something?"
Code blinked slowly, revealing thick dark lashes and tiny lines around the corners of his eyes that appealed to her in a dozen different ways. "That's a loaded question, babe."
The endearment stayed with her as she combated her innermost feelings.
"Actually, I'm here on business," he explained finally.
"I came to check out your setup here. While you're on Tempest property, my company is responsible for your safety." Code glanced past her into the suite. "Are we having this conversation in your doorway?"
"No, no. Come inside," she said and allowed him entrance. As he walked past her, brushing her arm,
she caught a faint whiff of his cologne, the same musky scent that had lingered on her skin after their night between the sheets.
"I'm perfectly safe here in the hotel. My manager takes me wherever I need to go, and if I leave the premises, I have a bodyguard."
"You were attacked while up on stage in Nashville."
He turned to her just as blood drained from her face. She couldn't conceal her discomfort, the memory never far from her mind. A crazed fan had jumped on stage and rushed at her with such force that he'd knocked her down. She'd been startled and frightened, and she'd never forget that one moment when the man had been upon her. She still recalled his insane rumblings in her ear.
A security officer had apprehended the fan and taken him away, but it was Robert, her manager, who had calmed her. He'd cosseted and comforted her, making sure she hadn't been injured in any way. For all his flaws, Robert had come through then, protecting her and giving her the option to cancel the rest of the show. She'd never forget his concern and compassion. After an hour of his soothing talk, she'd made the decision to continue with her performance, and the fans had greeted her with warmth and kindness, giving her a standing ovation at the end.
"How did you hear about that?"
Code cocked a corner of his mouth upward.
"Who didn't hear about it? You made headlines. The whole incident landed on YouTube. Besides, it's my job to know these things."
"It's your job?" He made it seem as though he was worried about future employment when they both knew that his company branched out to every corner of the country. She'd read about him on the Internet and in High Tech Today. The magazine article depicted the Landon Security Agency as the fastest growing, most innovative company of its kind. He and his father had developed some new type of sensor device that they'd patented and sold to the government for millions.
He wasn't a mere bodyguard. Far from it, yet he'd come from humble beginnings, too. He'd taken the lead fromhis father's military training and learned the security business from the ground up. His life had followed the American Dream to the letter just as much as hers had, maybe more. Her talent was a gift, not a honed skill born of hard work and gritty perseverance.
"I find that hard to believe, Code."
"I'm doing Brock a favor, Sarah. He asked me to oversee things while I'm here. And you're the big draw to the hotel during the holiday season. I'm just making sure his interests are secure."
Sarah didn't believe him, but there wasn't much she could do about it other than throw him out of her suite.
"Okay, do what needs doing." She wanted to add, then leave.
But Sarah didn't really want Code to leave. That was the problem. In her heart of hearts, she wanted Code Landon to stay. There was so much heartache between them. Sarah had run off to pursue her career, abandoning him and their love.
She'd met Robert Gillespie when he'd seen her perform at the Barker County Fair. He'd offered her a way out of the desolate life her family led and Sarah hadn't really had a choice in the matter. Though Code would never see it that way, she'd left Barker, Texas, with nothing but the best of intentions.
Sarah peered into Code's unreadable melt-your-heart eyes. Tingles of awareness crept up and down her limbs when Code removed his jacket and tossed it on the sofa's edge. Sarah whirled around, her way of dismissing him. All she'd wanted to do tonight was to get some rest. The bedroom beckoned, but she wouldn't dare entertain the thought. If Code followed her inside, she wouldn't have the willpower to deny him.
And they'd make another mistake.
Like the one they'd made in Arizona.
Code uttered a quiet oath when Sarah turned her back on him. He had no use for ambitious, callous females: prima donnas who always got what they wanted, no matter the cost. But he saw something flicker in her eyes for one unguarded second. She was an actress of sorts, and that one quick blink squashed her air of indifference toward him.
Sarah wasn't as immune to him as she let on.
He went about inspecting her enormous penthouse suite, giving the place a good examination and double-checking what his team had already put into place for security.
There were hidden cameras in the hallways and corners outside the suite that were classic Landon surveillance, and half a dozen visible cameras which served as an obvious deterrent. All fed into Landon's security center, located on the floor below. The penthouse suites had their own private keycard elevators and a guard posted, so no one could really get by unnoticed.
Code knew his team was top-notch. He didn't need to see their work firsthand. Sarah wasn't in any danger. He'd come here for a different reason and had only used her security as an excuse.
Code finished examining the suite, lingering one minute in her massive bedroom, eyeing the rose-colored bedspread and satin sheets turned down on the bed. The room smelled of her, the sweetly innocent scent of fresh, ripe strawberries.
Code remembered that scent from his youth.