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Four minutes. He'd be here in four minutes. Or maybe he wasn't the type to be prompt, as confident and insouciant as he always seemed.
She must be starkraving mad for calling him and asking him into the privacy of her offices for planning on making him such a scandalous proposal.
Her anxiety mounted, and she froze when she heard a door open and close in the lobby. It was late for a workday. The two attorneys she shared office space with were already home, having dinner with their families.
So much for trying to forecast Liam Kavanaugh's actions. He'd come early.
Natalie sat up, ramrod straight. She'd tilted her small lamp
toward the chair in front of her desk. Otherwise, the office was thick in shadow, thanks to the heavy drapes on the windows. It intimidated her to think of meeting him in the intimacy of darkness, but she'd be damned if she would display herself. Not to him.
The words were two of the hardest she'd ever uttered.
Her first thought was that he'd cut his hair since she'd seen him two nights ago. The tousled, blond mess used to be his hallmark. Natalie was stunned to see he looked impossibly more handsome with a shorter, mussed style. It looked darker now, almost brown in the dim light of the room. The goatee he wore was so short it was nothing more than a shadow that highlighted the cut of his jaw and his firm mouth.
She'd been wrong about his hair. His true hallmark was his eyes, which currently were spotlighting her with a cool, narrowed gaze. Gone was the carefree, charismatic playboy she remembered—in his place was a controlled, observant, slightly suspicious cop.
All the better. She wanted a professional for this job, after all.
"Please, sit down. Thank you again for agreeing to see me." She was pleased to hear that her voice didn't tremble.
"I still can't imagine why you wanted to," he said before he shut the door. Natalie jumped slightly at the brisk bang. She held herself unnaturally still as he sauntered toward a chair in front of her desk, all careless ease, a male animal in his prime who was supremely comfortable in his own skin. As he started to sit he leaned forward several inches, peering into the light cast by the single dim lamp on her desk.
Natalie moved subtly back into the cloaking shadows.
"I'm not accustomed to meeting strangers in dark rooms, Ms. Reyes. How do I know you're not planning to jump me?"
For a few seconds, she was too knocked off balance to reply. His eyebrows went up in wry amusement and he leaned back in the chair. He, too, became shrouded in shadows with the exception of an angle of light that fell across his lower face, allowing her to see his mouth. It was a compelling mouth decisive. Made for giving orders and laughing and Other things.
His lips tilted ever so slightly, as if he'd read her mind.
"I can assure you I have no plans to 'jump' you, Mr. Kavanaugh," she replied with what she hoped was cold austerity.
"Too bad. A little action might have spiced up my evening."
"I'm sorry to have disappointed you."
He gave a slight shrug, ignoring her sarcasm. "No need to apologize. I'll get used to the slug's pace of Harbor Town before long."
"Do you already miss it, then?"
She sensed his muscles tensing despite his seemingly negligent posture. "What? My old job?"
"What do you know about my old job?"
She set down the pen she'd been nervously twisting in her lap. She could feel his gaze on her hand, which shone clearly in the pool of light cast by the shaded lamp.
"I'm friends with your sisterinlaw, Mari. She's the one who told me you'd retired from your position at the Chicago P.D. and were returning to Harbor Town to become our police chief. Congratulations on your new position. We're very lucky to have a detective who has been decorated so many times and has so much experience." He remained unmoving and silent. She found herself leaning forward slightly into the light, trying to assess his expression.
"You don't believe me? Why?" she asked quietly when she saw his lips were tilted slightly in skepticism or was it derision?
"I'm sorry, I'm just finding it hard to believe you invited me into your office to welcome me to Harbor Town and extol my virtues. I'm a Kavanaugh, after all. You're a Reyes."
For a few taut seconds she heard nothing but her heart pounding in her ears.
"I'm an individual, Mr. Kavanaugh. Not a history."
He laughed, the low, rough quality of it taking her by surprise.
"Stop with the 'Mr. Kavanaugh.' I'm Liam."
"Fine. I'm Natalie," she replied breathlessly.
"And nothing against your individuality or anything, but I doubt even if you'd been marooned on a desert island for the past sixteen years you'd be unaffected by our history, as you put it. So why don't you just tell me why you asked me here tonight?"
Liam experienced a moment of regret at his bluntness when he noticed Natalie's hand go still on the blotter. She had beautiful hands. In the absence of any other visual information, he'd been focusing on them to a ridiculous degree. Something about their movement struck a chord of recognition in him. The woman he spoke to had a slender neck and dark, lustrous hair that stood in contrast to the pale suit jacket she wore. It gave off a subtle gleam when she shifted her head ever so slightly. The line of her jaw was firm, but delicate. Her shoulders were narrow and finely made. He didn't know why the phrase popped into his head, but it seemed to fit. Her breasts were unexpectedly full beneath the soft blouse and tailored jacket she wore.
Slowly, he dragged his gaze away from that beguiling display of soft femininity. He was more than a little curious.
She was obviously a beautiful woman. So what was with the dark glasses, dim room and cloakanddagger routine?
It'd shocked him to the core when she'd identified herself on the phone yesterday. Up until then, one thing had been certain in his life: a Reyes didn't pick up the phone and call a Kavanaugh for a friendly chat.
He'd only been fifteen years old when his life had changed forever. It had been like a lightning bolt striking out of a clear blue sky. Sixteen years ago, his father, Derry Kavanaugh, had gotten drunk out of his mind one hot summer night and caused a threeway crash, killing Kassim and Shada Itani— his new sisterinlaw's parents—along with Miriam Reyes, Natalie's mother.
Liam knew from his older brother's terse comments and his mother's tightlipped fury that the lawsuit, and hearings following the crash had been especially bitter and ugly.
This whole situation with Natalie made him uncomfortable edgy. He'd rather sit across a desk from a hit man with a rap sheet that stretched all the way down Main Street than this smoothvoiced female whose life had been altered by his father's crime.
"I'm very aware of the years of tension between my family and yours. There's no need to be flippant. Perhaps you're under the impression this is easy for me, Mr. Kavanaugh. If so, you're mistaken."
His eyebrows shot upward. A shard of steel had entered the cool silk of her voice. "So we're back to Mr. Kavanaugh, huh?" He sighed and shifted in the undoubtedly expensive, but uncomfortable, straightbacked leather chair. He cast his gaze around the luxurious office, trying to discern any details that would help him to better comprehend this strange meeting and cool woman. "Look, do you suppose you could just get to the point? Why'd you call me?"
Seemingly of their own volition, his eyes flickered down again over her breasts when she inhaled. "I'd like to hire you," she said.
He raised an eyebrow. "Hire me? For what? I love my sisterinlaw like crazy, but if Mari gave you the impression I'm up for spying on cheating boyfriends or roughing up someone who owes you money, she's dead wrong. Besides, I'm on vacation."
"I don't want to hire you to rough up anyone." He couldn't fully make out her expression, but from the sound of her voice, she was frowning. "You're a detective, aren't you? I'd like to hire you to do some investigative work. It shouldn't take much more than a few hours every day—probably less— and I understand you won't start your new job until next month."
"Oh, you've got it all figured out, do you?" he asked with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "Do you mind if I ask just what it is you think I'm going to investigate?"
A silence settled between them like hot, flowing lead. It seemed to burn her cheeks, but her gaze didn't waver. She did start when Liam leaned forward suddenly, his elbows on his jeanscovered knees.
"The crash?" he clarified bluntly.
"Is this some kind of a joke?"
"No. I assure you I'm very serious. If you don't take the job, I'll hire another investigator."
A bark of laughter erupted from his throat. "Maybe you were too young to realize it at the time, but the state police conducted a full investigation of the crash."
"I know that."
"Do you?" he asked sarcastically. "Then what is it that you expect me to investigate? What do you imagine I'll find, exactly?"
"I want to know why he did it."
He gaped at her. "Why who did what?"
"Your father. I want to know what was going through his head that night. I need to know."
He'd been insulted by plenty of men in his day, but not in such a personal way, and never by a woman who probably weighed a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet. The fact that her voice never wavered, never trembled once, infuriated him.
"Do you really believe my father got in that car with the intention of causing a crash and killing all those people?"
She leaned forward, apparently affected by his low, dangerous tone. "No—"
"What, do you think he had some deep, dark suicidal and homicidal wish? You'd be better off hiring some crackpot psychiatrist if those are the type of crap answers you're looking for."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you."
"You're doing a pretty great job of it, nonetheless," he muttered through a clenched jaw. He stood, ignoring the fact that she started in alarm at his abrupt movement. "Look, I know what my father did to you and your family. My dad made the hugest, most horrible mistake of a lifetime. He paid for it with his life, and my family has paid for it every day since then. I know yours has, too. That doesn't give you the right to ask me here and make nasty insinuations about his motivations. He was drunk. He caused an accident. End of story."
"Are you sure about that?"
He started. She either was the ballsiest woman he'd ever run into, the craziest or the meanest. Quite possibly she was all three.
"Yeah. I'm sure about that." Turning, he walked out the door without looking back. But he had the impression that she remained behind her desk, frozen in the shadows.
Brigit Kavanaugh invited Liam and his sister Colleen to dinner at the house on Sycamore Avenue the next evening. After he'd filled up on his mom's fried chicken, Liam retired to the front porch.
He brooded as he listened to the familiar sounds of the neighborhood evening tree frog orchestra and the waves hitting the beach at the end of the street. When his sister joined him on the front porch, he couldn't help but notice she looked as irritated as he felt.
"Where're the kids?" Liam asked, referring to Colleen's two children, Brendan and Jenny. Colleen was a widow. Her husband, Darin, had been killed in service in Afghanistan three years ago.
"They're watching that new video Mom got them. So what're you frowning about?" Colleen asked grumpily before she plopped down on the porch swing.
"I was just thinking about the fried chicken. Do you think Mom is actually following her diet?"
Colleen's grimace told him she'd been wondering the same thing. Their mother had had a mild heart attack last year. At Brigit's latest checkup her doctor had told Colleen her mother had been neglecting her medications and ignoring her dietary restrictions. The news had stunned the Kavanaugh children, who had thought their mother was perfectly healthy.
"I think she is." Colleen gave the screen door a furtive look. "I check with Margie at the pharmacy, and she says Mom has been picking up her medicine regularly. She only had one piece of chicken tonight, and she used vegetable oil to fry it."
Liam sighed. They couldn't follow their mom around like she was a twoyearold and make sure she followed doctor's orders, after all. Brigit Kavanaugh was a warm, caring mother. She was also a wellguarded fortress when it came to her private life.
"I told you why I was frowning, so you spill about why you're in such a bad mood," Liam challenged his sister. "Oh, wait I've got it. It's Wednesday evening."
Colleen pulled a face as she twisted her blond hair and clipped it at the back of her head. She didn't respond, but she didn't have to, really. His comment explained everything. Eric Reyes, Natalie's older brother, volunteered at the facility where Colleen worked as a clinical social worker. Being around Eric tended to make Colleen a tad tetchy.
It wasn't that Liam or Colleen didn't understand Eric's and Natalie's anguish over the loss of their mother. It wasn't even that they begrudged them for their suit against their father's estate or the court order that resulted, whereby the majority of Derry Kavanaugh's savings and property had to be liquidated to pay the Reyes and Itani families for damages. It was Eric Reyes' insolent attitude whenever he encountered a Kavanaugh that really got to Colleen—and Liam, for that matter.
Unfortunately, Reyes volunteered at the Family Center— the treatment facility and organization for victims and survivors of substance abuse that Mari Kavanaugh had opened last year. Liam had learned from experience that his sister would likely be in a bad mood on Wednesday evenings, since Eric worked at the center on Wednesday afternoons.
"What'd the prince of physicians do this time to get your knickers in a twist?" Liam asked.
"He trumped me with one of my clients."
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