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It was inevitable.
Rebecca Huntington knew it was only a matter of time before her path and Alejandro Montoya's collided. In this case, literally. Stepping from the brilliant Texas sunlight into the elegant interior of the Texas Cattleman's Club, she walked straight into his arms.
He caught her. Of course, he caught her. He had the reflexes of a cat, no doubt thanks to his years on the soccer field. For one brief, insane second her body gave, imprinting itself against his like a bittersweet memory. How many years had it been since they'd made love as though there were no yesterday, no tomorrow, only this moment of endless joy? She'd thought she'd found the love of a lifetime. Instead, he'd taken her innocence and ended their relationship with breathtaking cruelty, something it had taken her years to get over. And here she was, back in his arms, shades of that long-ago love affair haunting her still.
"Excuse me." His voice caressed her, the passage of years having deepened the slight Latino intonation, making it even more delicious than when they'd dated. "If you'll let go of me, I can leave."
Part of her wanted to cringe and pull away. But she refused to allow him the satisfaction of seeing how much he could still affect her. She released her grip on him—why in the world were her hands grasping his crisp, white shirt?—and held her ground.
The sunlight streaming in through the open doorway hit him square in the face, leaving hers in shadow. She could only be grateful for that fact when she saw the expression in his rich brown eyes—one of acute dislike, bordering on loathing. She didn't understand it, had never understood how their affaircould have gone so hideously wrong. Nor could she understand why every part of her responded to him as though they were still one.
He towered over her five-foot-six frame by a full eight inches, though she managed to gain a small advantage with three-inch heels. High, sweeping cheekbones emphasized his deep-set eyes and framed a straight nose and full, sensuous mouth. She'd lost herself in that mouth, one skilled in the art of giving a woman pleasure beyond description.
She didn't dare let him know how deeply he'd affected her. Somehow, someway, he'd use the information. And it wouldn't be to her advantage. "If you'll step back, I'll be on my way," she said.
He held his position for an extra second. And then she saw it. A blistering hint of those communal memories drifted into his expression, a fading echo of the passion they'd once shared. Like an ember hidden deep within a banked fire, her touch uncovered the white-hot blaze of his passion. Alex felt something for her. Still. Some small trace of the hunger and desire they'd once shared lived within him. And then it was gone, the sweetness fading beneath the acrid burn of bitter discord. But it was too late. She knew. He'd managed to bury his reaction with impressive speed, but she hadn't mistaken it. The flame had been there.
Just as a matching flame burned within her.
As though aware of how much he'd given away, he stepped backward and gestured her in with a gracious nod. Both he and his sister, Alicia, had impeccable manners. Their mother, Carmen, who had also been the Huntington's one-time housekeeper, had insisted on it. Forcing herself to move, Rebecca swept past without giving him another look. Recovering her equilibrium was an entirely different matter. She could feel his gaze like a fine-tuned laser frying a hole between her shoulder blades as she continued on her way.
She made a beeline for the Texas Cattleman's Club Café, relieved to see that her luncheon date and best friend, Kate Thornton—now Brody—hadn't yet arrived. It gave Rebecca a moment to sit and pull herself together. The waiter, Richie, who often served her and who had memorized the preferences of all the regulars, brought over unsweetened iced tea and a dish of lemon.
He greeted her with a broad smile. "Lots of action today," he said in an undertone.
She grasped the topic like a lifeline—anything that would help erase Alex Montoya from her mind… and heart. "Interesting," she said, taking a long, refreshing sip of tea. "What sort of action?"
"Some sort of meeting among our newer mavericks. Maybe they're planning a coup to replace the old guard," he joked. He looked up in time to catch a reprimanding glance from the hostess and segued smoothly back into the role of waiter. "I assume someone's joining you?"
"Ah, yes. Unsweetened tea during the summer, boiling-hot coffee during the winter. I think her husband is one of those participating in the meeting."
Rebecca shook her head with a grin, her tension easing. "How do you know so much about what's going on, Richie?"
He leaned in, keeping his voice low. "Pays to know, Ms. Huntington. Better tips. And sometimes I pick up suggestions on how to get ahead in life, like from Mr. Montoya." Richie's eyes shone with hero worship. "He's always helping out the staff."
She stiffened. "I… I didn't realize."
And she hadn't. Granted, she'd been out of the loop while living in Houston and learning how to run a retail business. But where had she been the past year since she moved back to Somerset? Working her fingers to the bone getting her lingerie shop, Sweet Nothings, established and in the black. And during her few precious hours off, she got together with her friends. If she were honest, she'd admit that she'd been careful not to listen to gossip about one of the TCC's newest members, especially since the other recent members—like the Brody brothers, Darius Franklin and Justin Dupree—were at odds with Alex. But maybe it was time to pay closer attention. Especially now that Justin was poised to become Alex's brother-in-law.
Kate appeared in the doorway of the café just then, scanning the tables for Rebecca. Tall and lanky, she was beautifully turned out in one of the chic pantsuits the two of them had selected on their Houston shopping spree. In one short day, her best friend had gone from country-bland to Southern sophisticate and Rebecca couldn't be more delighted, especially since it had led to Kate's then employer—now husband—tripping right over his tongue and into her bed.
Spotting Rebecca, Kate broke into a broad smile and worked her way around the blue-and-yellow floral-chintz tables. "So, what's got you all worked up?" she asked as they exchanged hugs.
Was it that obvious? Not good. Rebecca took a stab at innocent denial. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm fine."
Kate waved that aside with a sweep of her hand. "That won't wash with me, and you know it. Something's wrong and—" She broke off, her gaze arrowing across the room. "Okay, that explains it. I wondered when you two would finally bump into each other, and today must have been the day."
Rebecca didn't need to look to know precisely who Kate was talking about. Alex had returned to the club with a file in hand. He must have been on his way to his car to retrieve it when they'd run into each other. She could feel his presence like a low-level buzz of electricity. "Would it surprise you to hear that it didn't go well?"
"No," she retorted crisply. "The man is incredibly difficult. If Lance had his way, Montoya never would have been invited to join the club."
Kate smiled thinly. "Well, he has plenty of that, doesn't he? Amazing, considering he used to be the groundskeeper here. I just hope the rumors aren't true."
Rebecca eyed her friend in concern. "What rumors?"
Kate hesitated. "You must know he has ties to El Gato."
"Paulo Rodriguez, sure. They're childhood friends." Understanding dawned and she inhaled sharply. "People think Alex made his money from drug trafficking?" She dismissed the suggestion out of hand. "No way. Not a chance. Not Alex."
"Not trafficking," Kate replied. "Shall we say…investing in some of El Gato's activities."
Rebecca shook her head, adamant. "Sorry, I don't believe it. I can say a lot about Alex—plenty of it bad— but not that. Never that."
Richie arrived just then with Kate's coffee. Apparently, the crisp November weather had been the deciding factor on the choice of beverage. Based on Kate's appreciative grin, he'd chosen right. "You ladies ready to order? Our special today is the mahi-mahi with our homemade zesty dill pesto. It's really good."
"I'm sold," Kate announced.
"Make that two," Rebecca agreed.
"Coming right up." Richie jotted down a quick note and then gave a soft whistle. "Now there's a sight I never thought I'd live to see. Alex Montoya and Lance Brody shaking hands. Even weirder, the earth hasn't stopped spinning."
Startled, Rebecca glanced over her shoulder and saw that Alex had been joined by Kate's husband, Lance, his brother Mitch, and fellow frat brother, Kevin Novak. The three men were indeed shaking hands, though she could see the coolness and tension in their body language. As she watched, Justin Dupree and Darius Franklin joined the group, bringing all six of the newest, hottest TCC members together.
Rebecca couldn't contain her curiosity. "Okay, what's all that about?"
Kate frowned. Checking to confirm that Richie had moved out of earshot, she explained, "Some hush-hush meeting about the recent arson fires. Lance is there because the first fire was at Brody Oil and Gas. Since the other was at El Diablo, Alex needed to be present for the meeting, as well."
Rebecca stiffened. Of course, she'd heard about the fires. She wasn't that far out of the loop. And she knew that arson had been suspected. "It's been confirmed? They're certain both fires were arson?"
"That's my understanding. Why?"
Rebecca shot her friend an apologetic look, knowing how rough recent events had been on Kate's husband and his family. "Dad insists the fires were accidental, particularly the Montoya blaze."
"No offense, Becca, but how would your father know?" Kate asked. "Unless he's in on the investigation—and last I heard he didn't work for Darius's security firm—he wouldn't have anything to base his opinion on, other than secondhand information or gossip."
"Fair enough," Rebecca conceded, taking a cooling sip of her iced tea.
"Plus, they think they have a suspect."
Startled, she returned her glass to the table. "Who?"
Kate grimaced. "I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Lance told me the name." Her brow wrinkled as she struggled to remember. "Cantry?"
Rebecca froze. "Could it have been Gentry?"
Kate shrugged. "That's possible. Why?" She leaned forward and asked urgently, "Do you know this man, Becca?"
"I don't know anyone named Cantry," she temporized.
"But you do know a Gentry." It wasn't a question.
Rebecca nodded. "My father hired a new foreman a couple of years ago named Cornelius Gentry. But I'm sure it couldn't be the same man."
Kate's concern deepened. "Maybe we should make certain." She came to a decision and shoved back her chair. "Let me run over and ask Lance. If it is the same man, you and your father could be in danger."
Rebecca caught Kate's arm before she could put action to words. "Wait."
Everything inside Rebecca cringed at the notion of confronting Alex again. He and her father had a history. A very volatile history. If Gentry were the man they were after, Alex would find a way to draw her father into the scandal, something she'd do almost anything to avoid.
She leaned across the table and spoke in a low hush. "Kate, what if they want to question me about Gentry? What am I supposed to say to them? I don't have any information about the man other than he's been my father's foreman for the past two years." That, and he gave her the creeps. "Let's wait and get our facts straight. Then we can decide what to do about it. But I'd rather not interrupt them if it isn't Gentry."
Before Kate could respond, Richie arrived with their lunch. Rebecca stared at the beautifully plated food, but found she'd lost her appetite. She could only pray it wasn't her father's foreman. Maybe the name really was Cantry and her imagination was working overtime. That didn't change how she felt about the man. From the moment she'd returned home a year ago and first met him, she'd struggled against her aversion to his presence, trying to impose rationale and logic in the face of her instinctive reaction whenever he came around.
But just that morning she'd had a run-in with him. He'd blocked her exit as she'd been leaving her father's house for the club, standing too close and refusing to move back. In fact, now that she thought about it, it was identical to what had happened between her and Alex. How interesting that with one man she could have melted into his embrace, but with the other, every ounce of intuition had urged her to put as much distance as possible between them.
And he'd sensed how she'd felt. She'd seen it in the narrowing of his hard, brown eyes and the tightening of the fleshy mouth he'd twisted into a grimacing smile. "Miz Becca," he'd greetedher. His gaze had swept over her and his smile had pulled wider. "Don't you look the picture."
"Thanks, Cornelius." She lifted an eyebrow. "If you'll excuse me?"
He'd kept standing there, a knowing look in his eyes, before he'd fallen back a scant step. "Of course, your ladyship. Didn't mean for the hired help to get in your way. Don't want to lose my job the way the Montoyas did. Though it would be a sweet way to go."
Her uncontrollable outrage had only deepened his amusement. "I'm sure my father will be interested in your opinion," she shot back. "I'll be certain to share it with him."
"Feel free. Won't make a lick of difference."