Read an Excerpt
Cooling his heels in a backwater like Hunter's Landing wasn't Ryan's idea of a good time, but then, nothing was these days.
He was so close to victory he could almost taste it, and since revenge was a dish best served cold, he intended to take his time savoring the triumph.
In the meantime, he didn't intend to let his prey off the hook. Webb Sperling—CEO and chairman of the board of Sperling department stores, and the man he was forced to call his father—would never know what hit him.
Now he walked along one of the main shopping drags around south Lake Tahoe, keeping his eye out for a place where he might pick up a wedding gift. If he was stuck in Hunter's Landing for the month of June, he might as well figure out what amusements lay nearby.
There were precious few amusements to be had in Hunter's Landing itself, that was for sure. He figured the locals in such a quiet little place depended on their cable service for access to television, the Internet and the world.
Cable interested him. Cable had made him rich. His company, El Ray Technology, was among the bigger players in California's fabled Silicon Valley.
A store sign hanging from a metal bar up the street caught his eye. Distressed Success, it announced in flowery type.
His lips curved in sardonic amusement.
The sign summed up his life.
When he drew even with the store, he was able to see it was a tidy little shop devoted to home furnishings. Its facade was white with light blue and yellow trim, like an Easter egg, and both its store windows presented cozy tableaus of domestic bliss.
The window on the left showcased a table set for tea with mismatched cups and saucers. The table had a distressed finish and was covered with a chintz tablecloth and set for four.
The window on the right displayed an old–fashioned settee—something that looked as if it had been salvaged from a garage sale—strewn with an outrageous assortment of silk, beaded and tasseled pillows.
It was domesticity with a hint of sin, he thought, his gut tightening.
The look would have suited a room tinged with Eastern exoticism—or a madam's boudoir. Here, on the California border with Nevada, where regulated brothels were legal in some localities, the decor would have found a ready market.
Intrigued by the storefront, he decided to have a look inside.
A chime above the door announced his entrance. "These raw–silk photo albums just came in last week—"
The woman's voice, with just a hint of huskiness, washed over him, along with the faint scent of a flowery blend.
He walked around a display table and came faceto–face with the owner of that voice.
She glanced up, smile in place, and he felt the air leave him as if he'd taken a sucker punch to the stomach.
Hello. "Good afternoon…"
Her voice trailed off as they stared at each other. He went tense, the elemental reaction of a male who's gone too long without a mate.
He looked at her hand, noticed she wasn't wearing a ring and felt his spirits lift.
Things were looking up for his enforced month–long stay in sleepy Hunter's Landing, he thought bemusedly.
Tall and curvaceous, she had hair that flowed past her shoulders in loose curls. He had to call it titian colored, for lack of a better word.
She was a latter–day Venus—a model for the goddess of love that would have made even Botticelli proud. She had a pale heart–shaped face and symmetrical features.
She was dressed in a brown velvet top, ruffled skirt and high–heeled sandals. The look was professional but with a hint of the bohemian, and it dovetailed with the image of her shop.
She stood with a well–dressed, middle–aged female customer, the two of them flanking a waisthigh white counter upon which were arrayed a number of albums.
She cleared her throat and righted the smile that had wavered. "Please take a look around and let me know if you need anything."
She hesitated a second, as if she belatedly realized how the words could be interpreted, and he felt his lips twitch.
"I'll be able to assist you as soon as I'm done," she said.
He thought about how he'd like her to assist him and smiled with lazy assurance. "No problem. Take your time."
She looked momentarily uncertain, then turned back to deal with the customer in front of her.
The mood broken, he sauntered around the shop, at the same time taking the opportunity to study her.
Over the years, he'd had plenty of confirmation that women found him attractive. Still, his charm was rusty from lack of use. His last relationship—if a three–month fling could be called that—had ended nearly a year ago.
Her voice reached him from the back of the shop. "These are interleaved with acid–free pages—"
He eyed a floor lamp with a tasseled flower–print shade, then a wrought iron chandelier with beaded glass strands of blue and green.
He felt as if he'd entered a fantasyland, one with a profusion of colors and textures.
Still, her shop couldn't compare to her. She interested him as no woman had for a long time.
"—we also have some leather–bound albums you might like—"
Her voice caressed his mind like the stroke of a petal.
he'd definitely been too long without sex, he thought. Too long without anything except work.
And now, thanks to his old college buddy Hunter—who'd gone to his grave too young—he had too much time to think about it.
At Harvard, he and Hunter and five other guys had formed a small band—a fraternity unto themselves.
One night, across a table strewn with beer bottles, they'd vowed to make their own marks on the world, though they'd come from families of distinction and wealth. They'd vowed to come together again in ten years to celebrate their friendship and success.
But shortly before graduation, Hunter's sudden and shocking death from melanoma had ripped the group apart, and they'd eventually lost touch.
That is, until a few months ago, when he and the remaining Seven Samurai had gotten letters from a Los Angeles law firm representing the Hunter Palmer Foundation.
Before his death, Hunter had apparently made arrangements for a lodge to be built near Lake Tahoe, and now, reaching from beyond the grave, he expected his friends, as they reached their milestone decade past graduation, to honor the vow they'd made to one another.
By the terms of Hunter's will, if each guy spent a month at the lodge, at the end of six months, twenty million dollars would go to charity and the lodge itself would be bequeathed to the town of Hunter's Landing so it could be used as a restorative place by cancer survivors and patients.
Twenty million was a lot of moola, and not even Ryan, hard–hearted millionaire that he was, could say no.
So that was how he found himself in this predicament. He was trapped in Hunter's Landing at the precise moment he was closing in on the goal he'd worked years to achieve—making Webb Sperling pay and then pay some more.
His mouth twisted. Of course, leave it to Hunter to find a place called Hunter's Landing for his old college buddies to serve their time. Hunter had always had a peculiar sense of humor.
Three guys had gone before him to the lodge, Ryan thought, so they were already halfway through this ordeal.
Of course, all three of his old buddies had somehow managed to get themselves engaged or married, including Devlin, whose month at the lodge had just ended.
In fact, Ryan had shown up in Tahoe early—and had stayed at a casino last night while the caretaker was having the lodge cleaned in anticipation of his arrival—because Dev was getting married tomorrow and had asked Ryan to be his best man.
Ryan grimaced. Devlin had even referred to the lodge as the Love Shack.
He eyed Venus again. he'd settle for a good lay, since that alone would be a vast improvement over his recent love life.
"I hope you enjoy your purchase."
Venus's voice broke into his thoughts.
He glanced around to see her walking her customer to the door.
A jangle of bells marked the customer's departure and Venus paused to organize a display of books. Silence heralded the fact that they were alone.
He watched her line up the spines of some books and then adjust the angle of a photo frame.
Finally, after what felt to him like aeons, but what was certainly no more than a few moments, she looked up and fixed him with a smile.
"May I help you?" she asked, walking toward him.
"Looking for a wedding gift," he said. "I was passing by and the name of your shop made me curious."
"A lot of people have had the same reaction," she admitted. "The name's served as a good advertisement for the shop."
"You're a savvy marketer."
This close, he could see her eyes were hazel beneath perfectly arched brows. Her lips were full and glossy pink, her complexion creamy and unblemished. It was hard not too be knocked over by so much perfection.
"Thank you." She seemed to consider him. "Our style aims for shabby elegance so—"
"Shabby elegance?" The name wanted to make every male cell in him snort in derision. "That's an oxymoron if I ever heard one."
"Yes," she responded, "but it's also part of a hip trend—one of its hallmarks being furniture with a distressed finish." "And here I thought the name of your store was a description of my life."
He liked her laugh. It had a musical quality to it and he wondered if he could get it to a huskier timbre in bed.
He lifted a clock from a nearby shelf, checked the price and raised his eyebrows. "People are willing to spend a lot of money to look poor."
She nodded. "Celebrities included." She added with a light laugh, "This is Tahoe, after all."
"There's a market for expensive mismatched china?"
"Yes," she confirmed, refusing to look the least bit insulted. "It's an art form to bring together disparate pieces to create a harmonious look. I'll hunt for something a client is looking for if one of my regular suppliers doesn't have it."
He supposed more than one customer had been seduced by Venus's sales pitch. "Any suggestion for a wedding gift for a couple that already has everything?"
His question brought a smile to her lips. "Young couple or old?"
"Young," he said. "He's a millionaire and she's about to become the wife of one."
"Lucky girl," she said, then looked around her shop thoughtfully.
He glanced around, too. Everything in her store seemed designed to appeal to feminine tastes—to women, with perhaps the occasional husband in tow.
He was lost.
Her eyes alighted on something and she took a few steps forward. He followed.
"What about crystal candlestick holders?" she suggested.
The candlestick holders on a nearby shelf were about a foot high and had deep, crisscrossing cuts.
He knew he'd be sending a more expensive gift to Dev and his bride in the future, but he liked the thought of bringing something with him tomorrow, to add to the significance of the day.
Venus looked from him to the candlesticks and back. "Crystal is always appropriate, always timeless, always—"
"Sold," he said. "I'll take them."
She looked surprised but pleased.
He took one of the candlestick holders off the shelf and turned it over. The price was hefty, but he could well afford the cost, especially since the purchase would be worth every penny if it won him points with Venus.
After she took the other holder off the shelf, he handed the one he was holding to her.
As she took it from him, their hands brushed, sending a little electric charge through him—and, if he wasn't mistaken, judging by her sudden tension, through her, as well.