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Everything was running smoothly.
Well, almost everything, Guy Jarrod amended as he strode into the cobbled square that lay at the heart of Aspen's famous Jarrod Ridge resort.
Erica Prentice, his newly discovered half sister, had sprung the unwelcome news on the family at breakfast this morning that Art Lloyd, one of the Food and Wine Gala speakers, had called yesterday to cancel his appearance because of a bad bout of influenza. Apart from the minor headache of finding someone to replace Art, the annual festival was on track and the tall, snowy-white marquees that lined the square on three sides hummed with activity.
If his old man had been here, even he would've admitted that the spectacle was impressive.
Heaviness pressed down on Guy's heart. Don Jarrod, his father—and an Aspen legend—was gone. Forever. Yet Jarrod Ridge remained a monument to his father's life's work.
A large shadow floated over Guy. Squinting skyward, he saw awestruck faces peering down at him from baskets that hung below brightly hued balloons drifting lazily across the morning sky. Guy's mood lifted and he raised a hand to wave before making for the nearest marquee that, even this early in the day, was already crowded.
He could see Erica huddled next to Gavin, one of his two younger brothers, her finger stabbing the air as she emphasized a point. And over to the right, beside the wine-tasting tent where an early-bird charity auction was already happening, his twin brother, Blake, was talking to—
The press of people opened for an instant, long enough for Guy to catch a tantalizing glimpse.
It couldn't be.
The crowd shifted again.
His gaze homed in on an achingly familiar blond head and a petite curvy feminine body that should've been nine hundred miles away in California.
His twin bent courteously to hear what the blonde was saying, and Guy's eyes narrowed dangerously when her slim hand pushed a pair of designer sunglasses to the top of her head. The action revealed the curve of a cheek he'd stroked with his fingertips under the cover of darkness, the corner of a lush, smiling mouth he'd kissed until all smiling had ceased and she'd moaned instead.
God, he remembered those moans….
Little mewing sounds that had clawed at his groin and made him go wild with hunger.
So what the hell was Avery Lancaster doing staring up at his twin in that intent fashion?
Without conscious thought, Guy began to move, long strides that ate up the ground. All too soon he was looming over the Barbie-blonde who barely reached his shoulder.
She must have sensed his approach. It took only one startled glance from those wide china-blue eyes for Guy to feel the imperceptible tightening of his skin, the rippling of the muscles below. A slight shudder quaked through him before he remembered to breathe and sucked in a lungful of air. Being this close to Avery had always made him feel invincible, like some kind of superhero.
Yet, for once, Avery looked rattled, too.
In the month and a half—okay, so he'd kept count—forty-nine days—since he'd last seen her, Avery's sorcery hadn't diminished a whit. In her absence, Guy had half convinced himself he'd imagined it. No woman had that much power.
But standing beside her brought home that he hadn't imagined a thing. A once-over showed that her composure was back—if indeed it had ever slipped. Avery looked like she'd stepped from the pages of a glossy magazine that would have every female reader rushing to buy the floral dress she wore. Her soft honey-gold skin tempted his touch. Only the blond tendrils that had escaped the restraining sunglasses broke the model-like perfection and made her look tousled—and very, very kissable.
"Avery," he responded with just enough frost to cause Blake to raise an eyebrow.
"You two know each other?"
"Avery helped me review the wine list at Baratin."
His glare dared her to contradict him. Avery's gaze fell beneath the force of his—as he'd known it would. Traitor. It felt like a lifetime since the day she'd swept into his life with the force of a hurricane—and proved to be every bit as destructive. In reality little more than two months had passed since the day they'd met. Fourteen hours after that first meeting she'd been in his bed. The next day she'd moved out of the hotel where she'd been staying into his apartment. Two weeks later she'd been gone.
Yet instead of boasting about what a fabulous job she'd done at Baratin, Avery now turned her head away, presenting him with a smooth, flawlessly tanned cheek, and fixed her attention firmly back on Blake.
Over my dead body.
Guy's lips tightened. She could forget about seducing his brother. One Jarrod would have to be enough.
Blake grinned. "I remember you mentioning employing a freelance sommelier—you didn't tell me she was gorgeous."
Avery hadn't spared Guy another glance—he might as well have been invisible. And his normally brisk-and-businesslike twin hadn't taken his eyes off Avery. Irritation spiked through Guy as a rosy flush spread over her cheeks.
Could she have faked that?
A dimple appeared beside her mouth, and a little husky laugh followed. "Flatterer," she said to Blake, her polished fingertips fluttering like butterfly wings against his brother's arm.
Guy started to frown.
She'd better damn well stop flirting with Blake or he'd drag her away and send her packing back to Napa Valley. He wasn't having destruction follow in her wake as it had before.
He was onto Avery Lancaster.
She chose that moment to remove her hand from Blake's arm and flick the bangs off her forehead. The crossover neckline of the dress printed with pink roses—without a warning thorn in sight—pulled tight. Guy's lip curled. No magical illusion there, just plain feminine wiles, as old as Eve.
It infuriated Guy that even he wasn't immune. Giving himself a mental shake, he forced his eyes away from temptation, only to discover his charismatic twin still assessing her with amused interest.
"You two must be brothers." The breathy voice that had once made him shiver with longing held a note of discovery.
Guy suppressed an annoyed growl as Blake instantly responded, "Guy is my twin."
"I knew there was something familiar about you—"
"Fraternal twins," Guy bit out, determined to make Avery stop examining Blake as if he was a juicy cut of filet mignon. "Not identical."
The gaze that switched to meet his with startling directness was carefully blank. "Funny, I didn't even know you had a brother, much less a twin," she murmured. "Or that you were one of the Aspen Jarrods."
Funny? They'd had an affair. Passionate. Explosive. Nothing remotely funny about it. Then she'd walked away. There'd been no obligation to bare his soul, dammit.
"Now you know—and, since you're obviously interested, I have two more brothers as well." Gavin and Trevor were every bit as eligible as Blake.
Despite the curve of her lips, her vivid blue eyes had dimmed, and held none of the sparkle he remembered. Only an unfamiliar wariness.
She should be worried.
Unless she was a fool. And, despite the sexy-Barbie exterior, Avery had never been dumb. In truth, the way it had played out he'd been the dumbass; she'd played him for the fool.
Guy snorted at how he'd fought a primal, gut-deep fear and tried to do romance. For her. How he'd planned the most romantic birthday gift he could dream up. An extravagant meal of all the foods he'd learned Avery loved. Shrimp tempura. A light salad with walnuts, blue cheese, pear and a hint of ginger. Cherries. Tiramisu. Baratin's frenetic Friday night bustle had been replaced with the intimacy of soft candlelight. Twenty-seven white candles—to match her birthday—glowed around one solitary table, with all the other chairs and tables packed away.
Surrounded by the aroma of the fluffy rolls he'd baked himself and the fragrance of cut flowers in tall vases filling the air, Guy had waited.
And while he waited, his heart more exposed than he'd ever allowed, Avery had been seducing Jeffrey Morse.
The big romantic gesture had cost Guy more than a night's takings. It had cost him a week's sleep and most of his self-respect. And nearly two months later his pride still smarted.
Of course, if Avery had known he was one of the Jarrods from Jarrod Ridge, Aspen, Guy doubted she would have switched her attentions to Jeff, his Go Green business partner, so readily—despite Jeff's sizeable trust fund.
But the subject of his family had simply never come up. There hadn't been time. They'd either been talking about wine and work—or tumbling into bed. And Guy was suddenly, savagely glad that she hadn't known before he'd gotten a chance to discover exactly what she was.
Well, there'd be no Jarrod gold for her here….
Forcing himself to ignore her considerable physical endowments, he speared her with a cold stare. "What are you doing at Jarrod Ridge?"
The instant he bit out the words Guy wished he'd kept his mouth shut. What the hell did he care why she was here? He despised her. It was obvious that she'd come to Jarrod Ridge to prospect for another wealthy fool at a festival renowned for attracting the rich and famous. Jeff had sent her packing once guilt at the way he'd betrayed a friend had set in. Guy knew he should be grateful for his own lucky escape, that he'd found out Avery was looking for nothing more than a wealthy man.
Except gratitude was not the emotion that filled him as Avery's pink tongue slid across her pouty kiss-me-senseless bottom lip. In another woman the gesture might have suggested anxiety; in Avery it was pure feminine seduction. Her tongue retreated and Guy breathed again. Then her lush lips parted. Guy couldn't have glanced away if there'd been a gun against his head. Right now all he cared about was sexy Avery and her provocative, pink mouth.
Clenching his fists at his sides, Guy swore a silent streak.
Poor Jeff hadn't stood a chance.
And this time her wiles were clearly directed at his twin. Eyes narrowing, Guy leaned closer. If Blake was to be her next target, she'd miscalculated. Yet, as he opened his mouth to growl at her to back off, he caught a whiff of the sweet, intoxicating floral scent that was all she ever wore to bed. Hot blood rushed through his veins, pooling in his lower belly.
If only his body hated her, too…
With grim realism, Guy shut his mouth with a snap and decided it was just as well the resort was full to capacity. The crowds would make it easier for him to avoid her.
"Art sent me."
"Art sent you?"
The question must have betrayed his dazed disorientation because Blake spoke from beside him, reminding Guy that he and Avery were not alone and that he'd asked Avery what she was doing here. "Avery is Art Lloyd's niece—even though she doesn't resemble him in the least."
Avery flashed a quick smile at Blake, and Guy could've sworn the woman fluttered her eyelashes at his brother. Damn her.
"You're Art's niece?" Disbelief was certainly better than following through on the overwhelming impulse to shove her away from his brother.
"Uh-huh." Avery nodded, and the wispy bangs shimmered with the lustre of gold in the sunshine. "I'm sure you're aware he was scheduled to speak at the gala, but he's ill. Flu on top of asthma and a weak chest. The doctor says he can't possibly fly in that condition."
He could've sworn he read apprehension in her wide, Barbie-blue eyes. Not that he blamed her. Even now, seven weeks after she'd run out on him, he wanted to shake her.
Instead he shoved his fists into his pockets and said, "I'm sorry to hear he's ill. I like Art."
He didn't need to add that he detested her. Avery wasn't stupid—if she didn't see it in his face, she'd be able to draw that inference herself.
She inhaled sharply.
Guy couldn't help himself, he looked down. The pink roses moved, her sweet floral scent surrounded him, and he could've sworn his world tilted, too.
From a distance he heard her say in that breathy, bedroom voice that drove him crazy, "Well, I'm here to speak in Art's place."
Inside the snowy-white bower of the grand marquee the Friday night oyster-and-champagne cocktail party that launched the Food and Wine Gala each year was in full swing. Waitresses circulated with trays piled high with hors d'oevres, while dinner-jacketed waiters refilled tulip glasses that glinted in the light of the glittering crystal chandeliers overhead.
"Erica has outdone herself," Guy said with grudging approval to Blake as he scanned the chattering crowd who'd paid top dollar for tickets to tonight's event.
"It's the food that's got the crowd talking," said Blake, "and that's your domain."
Guy inclined his head in acceptance of the compliment. "It helps that every available ticket was sold," he pointed out. "The more people here tonight, the more media coverage the festival will get, and the more word-of-mouth buzz will spread."
"She's certainly better at public relations than we ever expected," his twin conceded. "But I was always certain there wouldn't be any tickets left over to give to the local business suppliers as Erica suggested."
"The gesture would've won Jarrod Ridge plenty of local goodwill." Guy had joined his twin in vetoing the suggestion when Erica had made it. Deep down Guy suspected he'd done it more because he resented his illegitimate half sister's very existence, rather than for sound business reasons. It was a suspicion that made him decidedly uncomfortable, one that he was not yet ready to confront.
"Anyway it would've made the function too big—lost the exclusivity." Blake sounded certain.
"We could've limited the number of speakers who gained complimentary entry." Guy's brooding gaze settled on the woman whose arrival earlier had turned his hard-won peace on its head. Avery didn't look like she had a care in the world. But he would've breathed a lot easier without her here tonight.
"Dad always gave festival speakers free entry to the opening night cocktail party. Mom set the tradition."
Blake's point hammered the final nail in the coffin. And Guy resisted the urge to argue that none of them had done what Don Jarrod wanted in life. So why the reverence for his opinion now that he was dead?
But the night of the official opening of the Food and Wine Gala was certainly not the time for friction with his twin.
Particularly not with Avery nearby. A sideways jerk of her head warned him she'd seen them. Guy edged closer to his brother. He fully intended to save his twin from Avery's irresistible advances tonight. And damn irresistible she was, too, in a dress the color of summer sunshine. Every time she moved diamond drop earrings sparkled through the pale gold feathers of her hair. Even in this celebrity-studded crowd she attracted attention.
After giving them a brief smile of greeting, Avery showed none of this morning's interest in Blake. From the corner of his eye Guy watched her intercept a tall, well-built stranger. His mouth twisted as she flung her arms around the man and kissed him on the cheek, before stepping away with a beaming smile.