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Paige McCauley stopped dead in her tracks. Her heart banged like gunfire on the CNN news, and her face felt as if someone had pointed a heat lamp at her.
The beauty of a one-night stand was that once it ended it was supposed to be O-V-E-R. That went double if it had been a humiliating experience.
She'd spent a good part of the past twelve months worrying about this day, looking over her shoulder and flinching at the sight of every tall tawny-haired businessman. That wasn't good considering her job routinely required her to deal with conventions and men in suits. But there was no mistaking that the face and body purposefully striding toward her belonged to the man who'd found her so lacking he couldn't even—
She flinched away from finishing the thought.
The memory of that night made her want to run clear back to South Carolina and hide behind the counter at her parents' hardware store. But she couldn't do that. Not only did she have a job keeping her in Las Vegas, but going home meant facing the gossips and worse, admitting to her family that she'd exaggerated about her new and wildly exciting life in Sin City.
Curling her toes in her shoes, she held her ground and prayed she'd get through the next five minutes without totally disgracing herself. Perspiration dampened her palms as she watched Trent Hightower's handsome face and waited for him to recognize her.
He gave her a slow once over, then when their gazes collided he nodded with no sign of recognition and walked right past her, leaving a faint trail of cologne behind.
Her lungs deflated like a blown tire. Was she invisible with her clothes on? The man had seen her naked. Didn't she at least deserve ahello?
Ticked off, she snapped her gaping mouth closed and spun on her heel to visually track him. He didn't look back. "Trent?"
He stopped and slowly pivoted. Only mild curiosity lit his eyes. "Yes?"
She'd spent her entire life being the invisible middle sister until she'd taken drastic steps to change that— steps including Trent, her first and only attempt at a one-night stand.
And he'd forgotten her?
She fisted her hands, squared her shoulders and strode toward him, determined not to let him know his dismissal had ripped the scabs off old wounds. Not that she'd imagined herself in love with him or anything. In fact, the entire episode in his suite last year had been awkward and embarrassing and hadn't lived up to her expectations. But she had her pride, and at the moment she wound it around herself like a razor wire prison fence.
"Weren't you going to say hello?"
He looked a bit impatient, as if he had to be somewhere else. "Hello."
"Are you in town for the aviation convention again this year?"
She waited for the less than subtle hint to ring a bell in his memory. Judging by the polite mask of his handsome face, he wasn't hearing any chimes. The realization pierced her skin like slivers of glass.
Discarded and forgotten by yet another man.
"Yes, I am. Is there something I can do for you?"
She wanted to slink away and pretend this encounter had never happened, but she'd taken the easy way out when she'd packed her Jeep and driven twenty-three hundred miles west to start over in Vegas fourteen months ago. And she'd been paying for her cowardice ever since.
Her fingernails bit into her palms. "We met last year."
His eyes narrowed.
"And spent time together… upstairs… in your suite," she prompted uneasily.
His entire body stiffened. Seconds ticked past. The muscles in his square jaw flexed and relaxed. "Yes. Of course… um…"
"Paige." She forced the word through teeth clenched so tightly she could probably bend metal with her molars. Clearly, he didn't have even a faint memory of her. But then, could she blame him for wanting to block the unpleasant incident from his mind?
They'd been having so much fun flirting harmlessly in the bar. He'd been attractive, funny, smart, and he'd made her feel feminine and wanted. Then he'd issued his invitation.
Going upstairs with him that night had taken two ap-pletinis and every ounce of courage she'd been able to dredge up. And then with the way it had ended…
That had to be tough for a guy.
But not as tough as it had been for her to be found lacking. Again.
"Of course. Paige. I'm sorry. My apologies for not recognizing you. I'm a little preoccupied."
Previously, he'd been a smooth-talking charmer from the moment he'd offered to buy her a drink to when he'd put her on the elevator after…the disaster. There wasn't anything inviting or charming about him today. He flashed No Trespassing signs like a strobe light.
Crawling under a rock appealed tremendously. She couldn't believe what she'd done with him, couldn't believe she'd been such an idiot, couldn't believe what a disappointment her first and only walk on the wild side had been. She'd been too mortified and disillusioned to try again.
But that didn't stop you from faking it for your sisters, did it?
She cringed inwardly. One of these days she would have to take her medicine for the stories she'd been telling. But better to embellish her boring, lonely, work-filled life than let her family worry, or worse yet, pity her.
She'd deal with the fallout if and when it happened. But how was she going to salvage this encounter?
Coolly. Calmly. Politely. She forced her fingers to uncurl. Everybody made mistakes. Trent Hightower had been one of hers—a big one. And the fact that he'd never called afterward made it clear he felt the same way about her.
Trent's eyebrows dipped. "There were no repercussions from our… meeting, were there?"
Another wave of shame rocked her. She had been a little concerned that someone from work had seen her go upstairs with him, but no one had, and she hadn't been tagged as loose the way she would have been if she'd been caught slipping into the local motor lodge back home. "No."
"Good. Nice to see you again… Paige. If you'll excuse me." He nodded and resumed his path across the mezzanine. Speechless, she watched him go.
Something struck her as off. She studied his back, trying to pinpoint the difference in him. There was no mistaking the man with whom she'd had her only no-strings-almost-sex encounter. Some things a girl just didn't forget. Like those incredible light eyes, that square jaw and his deliciously carved mouth. She'd been drawn by his looks immediately.
But something nagged at her. Trent's stride seemed more confident, more decisive. His shoulders looked broader. He must have been working out. His voice seemed a little deeper and firmer, but that might be because he was as uncomfortable as she about the way things had ended and that made him sound gruff.
She'd tried to forget that night. But it looked as though she'd have to suffer through a reminder for the rest of the conference. One thing was certain. She'd never let Trent Hightower know how much he'd rattled her or that he'd killed her fantasy of an exciting life in a big city, a life that involved getting over the guy who'd dumped her instead of proposing the way she'd expected.
She glanced at her watch and winced at the time. Another moment wandering down bad memory lane and she'd be late for work. Her curiosity about the man from her past would have to wait until their next encounter, and since they'd both be sharing the same piece of real estate for the next week, she didn't doubt there would be one.
* * *
Damn his conniving, lying and apparently adulterous twin.
Trent Hightower veered away from his path to the conference room and stepped into a crowded elevator. He needed to talk to his brother and the conversation didn't need to be overheard by others in the aircraft industry.
Who was the woman? And why had his brother risked his marriage to be with her? Hadn't Brent learned anything from their mother's numerous sordid affairs?
The second his hotel suite door clicked shut behind him Trent hit speed dial on his cell phone. He paced impatiently, waiting for Brent to pick up.
"Hey, bro. How's Vegas? Have you checked in yet?" his brother answered.
"Brent, what in the hell did you do while you were here last December?"
"Good crowd?" His twin ignored his question. Typical.
"Who is she?" Trent all but growled into the phone.
"I don't know what you're talking about." The overkill on the too innocent tone made Trent's ears burn with fury.
"I ran into a woman in the hotel who says she spent time with me in my suite at this convention last December. I wasn't here, Brent. You were. And you used my name. Again. Didn't you? You're too old for that impersonation crap."
"Using your name was easier than changing the reservations and registration. You backed out at the last minute, remember?"
"I had to handle a work crisis. Remember?" One his twin as sales manager had caused by promising a client more than Hightower Aviation could deliver. Trent had pulled all kinds of strings and called in numerous favors to avoid violating that promise. In business, reputation was everything.
"Who is she and how badly did you screw up?"
"That depends. Is she a blonde, a brunette or a redhead?"
Trent's anger grabbed him by the throat, threatening to choke him. "How many women are we talking about?"
"At that conference? Hmm. Let me think. Three. One of each hair color."
"This one's a blonde named Paige."
His brother's odd tone caused the muscles in the back of Trent's neck to seize with tension. "What?"
"Did you or did you not take her to your suite?"
Silence seconds ticked past. "I did."
"None of your business."
"Brent, you are an idiot."
"If you remember, Luanne and I were having marital difficulties at the time. I was exploring my options." Brent's defensive tone set Trent's teeth on edge.
"Your marriage is a combat zone. You're always fighting over something, and your wife is always going home to her momma about something. But this? What were you thinking?"
"Get rid of Paige before Luanne and I hit town next week."
"No can do. My wife has her heart set on seeing Vegas."
"It's too risky."
"Just deal with Paige and any other women who might come out of the woodwork. If this gets back to Luanne there'll be hell to pay."
"And deservedly so. But somehow I always end up footing the bill for your mistakes. Your wife would filet you and Hightower Aviation's assets. She's likely to leave your ass for good this time and take a chunk of HAMC with her. You should never have given her half your company stock."
"I had to prove my love. Fix this, Trent, the way you fix everything else."
"Damn it, Brent, I can't keep cleaning up your mistakes. You're thirty-four. When are you going to grow up?"
"Save your breath, bro. I can recite this lecture by heart. We both know you're not going to let disaster strike. You value Hightower Aviation Management Corporation over everything—including your identical twin's happiness."
"Don't try to twist this and make me the bad guy."
"Luanne and I aren't changing our plans. She's determined to renew our vows in front of Elvis before the baby arrives, and we don't want to upset the delicate mommy-to-be or ruin my second honeymoon. By the way, I'll want you to be best man again."
"Why? So I can object this time like I should have the first time? You were too damned young to get married."
"But I did. Can I count on you?"
"Don't change the subject. We're talking about your screwup and the potential disastrous consequences."
"Were we? I thought we were discussing me renewing my vows."
Trent clamped his jaw shut on the string of vicious curses battling for freedom. The pregnancy was probably the only reason his bitch of a sister-in-law had dropped her threat of an extremely expensive and very public divorce. Discovering her husband had screwed an attractive, brown-eyed blonde with a sweet Southern drawl would drive Luanne right back to her overpriced attorney's office, and that would stir the tabloids into another Hightower feeding frenzy. The last two had barely died down.
"Trent, you could always leave and skip the conference."
The suggestion didn't surprise him. Brent lived by the "why fix what you can avoid" motto—the opposite of Trent's "why avoid what you can fix" strategy. They might look identical, but their philosophies on most things were polar opposites.
"I'm the speaker for three of the seminars. I won't leave the organizers in the lurch."
"Guess you're stuck then."
"Who is this woman?"
"Just some chick I picked up in a bar. She probably snags a new man every conference. Get rid of her. Please. I'm finally going to be a daddy, Trent. I don't want to blow that."
Trent scraped a hand across his knotting neck muscles. Brent knew exactly how and when to pull the ace from his sleeve.
"You should have thought about that before unzipping your pants."
"Then think of the board meeting you've called for the week you get back. This news won't help your cause."
Damn it. Brent was right. Trent's plans for Hightower Aviation would never get off the ground if his family didn't quit making asinine decisions and drawing negative publicity. Every time one of the Hightowers made the gossip columns Trent's credibility as CEO went down a notch. If he couldn't control his family, then the board would not believe he could control a multibillion-dollar company or endorse the financing for his proposed expansion plans.
His grandfather had wisely instigated a convoluted board approval process for large cash expenditures as a safeguard back when Trent's father had been blowing big bucks on gambling. The policy had not yet been overturned because his mother, as president of the board, had dug in her designer heels. She might not work for the company anymore, but she liked to flex her muscles and maintain as much control as possible.
Trent paced his suite, irritation, frustration and fury warring inside him. He had to strike now while HAMC's smaller competitors were struggling. In this down economy he could buy them for a song and gain territory and assets. But to get board approval he had to avert this latest potential catastrophe.
Brent had him over a barrel and knew it. "I'll see what I can do. But Brent, this is the last time I'm hauling your ass out of the fire."
"Yeah, yeah, that's what you always say. But I know I can count on you, big brother. Hey, gotta go. Luanne's coming." Brent disconnected.
Trent crammed his phone back into his pocket. They both knew he would do anything to save the family business—a fact he'd demonstrated repeatedly, first by forfeiting his dream of becoming an air force pilot to join HAMC after college and clean up the mess his father had created and then most recently by not correcting Paige downstairs.
Priority one: Get rid of the woman.
Two: Formulate a damage control plan.