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The rented SUV swerved on the dusty, potholed driveway of the Mancini place and Brittany Lloyd bit back a curse.
Her average driving skills had little to do with the state of the road or the unwelcome memories assailing her and everything to do with the naked man bent over a thresher.
Semi-naked, technically, as her gaze riveted to the tantalising expanse of bronze, broad back glistening in the scorching Queensland sun.
The muscles shifted, bunched, slid, as he straightened and thrust hands into back pockets of ripped, faded denim, and as her greedy gaze strayed to his butt she suddenly wished she hadn't stayed away so long.
Ten years in London had been a sane choice, a safe choice considering what she'd been running from, but seeing this hot guy on her first morning home reinforced no place on earth bred guys like Jacaranda.
She should know.
She'd fallen in love with one, had given him her heart, her virginity and her loyalty.
More fool her.
As she righted the car and approached, the guy half turned and this time the SUV sheered straight off the driveway and almost straight into a ditch.
The engine stalled, spluttered, died, as her white-knuckled hands gripped the steering wheel, shock and joy and mind-numbing lust slamming into her, leaving her powerless to do anything but watch him approach.
Not a flicker of emotion crossed Nick Mancini's face as he reached the car, leaned tanned, toned forearms on the open window and gave her a casual nod.
'Hey, Britt. Long time no see.'
A casual greeting, without rancour or bitterness; then again, she'd been the one left to pick up the pieces when he'd ended it.
The greeting and his lack of emotion didn't do justice to what they'd shared, what they'd given up and she'd be damned if she showed him anything other than the same lackadaisical nonchalance despite her jack-hammering heart and clammy hands.
'Ten years, give or take.'
She wanted him to acknowledge the time they'd spent apart, wanted him to ask how she'd been, wanted him to finally explain why he'd opted out.
Instead, he shrugged, her gaze drifting to those bunching muscles of their own volition, all too aware of how he'd filled out in the last ten years.
He'd been lean rather than muscular back then and now… She wrenched her gaze away from his impressive pecs and focused on his face.
Nick the teenager had been good-looking, cocky and a rebel.
Nick the man was drop-dead gorgeous in a rough-around-the-edges way, still cocky and, if she read him right, still out to prove to the world he didn't give a damn.
By the smug grin lifting the corners of an all too kissable mouth, she'd read him just right.
'What brings you by?'
Something solid, tangible and guaranteed to keep errant emotions at bay no matter how much she wanted to ask him 'what the hell happened to us?'
She'd hoped to avoid him, had hoped to do business with his father but she'd been a fool. This place was in Nick's veins, of course he'd be here doing a hard day's work, working longer and tougher and harder than all his employees.
His caramelised-toffee eyes narrowed and she wished he'd stop staring at her as if she had a dirt smudge on her nose. He'd always had the ability to see into her soul and right now that was the last thing she needed.
She needed to stay focused. Her promotion depended on it.
'I've got a proposition for you.'
He straightened, all six feet two of lean, hard muscle, and smiled that bad-boy smile she remembered so well, the smile that had haunted her for months when she'd first arrived in London, pining away for her first love—the same love who had turned down her offer to come with her, to build a life together.
'I just bet you have, Red.'
He opened the car door and she stepped out, wishing she could hide her blush, knowing it would do nothing for her freckles and hating herself for caring so damn much.
'No one's called me that in years,' she muttered, thankful her hair bore more coppery-blonde streaks these days than the fire-engine red she'd grown up with.
'That's a shame.'
He reached out, twisted a stray strand around his finger.
'They obviously don't know you as well as I do.'
She pulled away quickly before she did something stupid, such as stand there and let him twist her around his finger and not just by the hair. 'You don't know me at all.'
Ignoring the glint in his eyes, which seemed a richer, deeper toffee than she remembered, she glanced at her watch, hoping he'd get the hint.
'Is your father here? I need to discuss this with him.'
His eyes clouded, darkened, as pain twisted his mouth. 'Papa died. Guess the news didn't make it all the way to London.'
'I'm sorry,' she said, suddenly ashamed she hadn't kept in touch with news from home.
Not that the thought hadn't crossed her mind on occasion but then, he hadn't been the reason she'd fled Jacaranda.
'Are you really?'
She noticed the angry lines fanning from the corner of his mouth, the indentation between his brows, aging him beyond his twenty-eight years.
He'd never looked at her like this back then. Uh-uh. He might have been a rebel but he'd never been brooding or angry, far from it.
A decade earlier he'd only ever looked at her with adoration and desire, and for a brief moment she wished she could turn back time.
'Of course I'm sorry. Everyone around here loved Papa.'
Swiping a hand across his face, he erased the tenseness. 'Though I'm surprised your old man didn't say something. You can't ride a Harley in this town without people lining the roads for a parade.'
His gaze flicked over her and she clenched her hands to stop from smoothing her Dolce and Gabbana suit. His eyes glowed with appreciation but she didn't miss the slight compression of his lips, as if her favourite designer suit didn't impress him one bit.
'Despite your fancy new clothes, surely you remember how it is around here?'
He was trying to bait her, just as he always did and, damn him, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing exactly how much she remembered, most of her memories centred on him.
'I've been busy the last ten years so forgive me if taking a stroll down memory lane hasn't been high on my list of priorities.'
She expected him to ask about her career, wanted to show him how far she'd come, how far they could've made it as a couple if he'd accompanied her.
Instead, he stood there, a semi-naked god totally at ease with his surroundings, the sheen of sweat and dust adding to his rugged appeal rather than diminishing it.
Clamping down on the mental image to run her hands over that glorious bare chest, she cleared her throat.
'I work twenty-four-seven. Being a senior exec at London's top advertising company takes up most of my time.'
'What, no time for play?'
His teasing smile slammed into her, the familiarity of it making her gasp.
She didn't play, not any more. Her play days had stopped when she'd hightailed it out of this town and never looked back.
Work helped her forget… everything.
Work proved how far she'd come.
Work gave her the hard-fought independence she'd clawed her way to the top for, an independence that guaranteed she'd never have to look back.
Biting back a pithy retort, she ducked into the car and grabbed the Manila folder from the passenger seat.
'What I do in my spare time isn't your concern. I'm here on business.'
'Whatever this business proposition of yours is about, you'll be dealing with me.'
He fixed her with a probing stare, a potent stare that sent a ripple of unease through her.
'And just so you know, I'm nothing like my father. I drive a hard bargain.'
She almost banged her head on the door jamb as his silky voice slid over her. So much for a quick, clean presentation to Papa Mancini. The thought of doing business with Nick, let alone considering whatever bargain he might demand, had her flustered.
And she never got flustered, not any more. Some of the gang at work called her the Ice Princess behind her back and she liked it. Emotions got her nowhere and she'd learned to control her fiery temper along with the rest of her wayward emotions during the long, hard graft in the big city.
As she handed him the folder their fingertips touched and despite the length of time they'd been apart, her heart jack-knifed. Wretched organ. She shouldn't feel anything where Nick was concerned, especially not this strange déjà vu that had her dreaming of stepping closer and running a palm down his bare chest to see if it felt half as good as she remembered.
She took a steadying breath, ignoring the host of unwelcome feelings this man resurrected.
'There's a lot we need to discuss. Why don't we head inside so you can put on some clothes and we can do business?'
She'd made a fatal error in judgement, knew it the second his lips kicked up into a sexy, familiar grin that never failed to take her breath away.
She shouldn't have mentioned his state of undress, shouldn't have drawn attention to it, and as if of their own volition her eyes drifted south, riveted to that muscular expanse of temptation less than two feet away.
He was so bronze, so broad, so breathtaking and when she finally dragged her gaze away her knees shook.
'You sure you want me to get dressed?'
Damn him, he'd called her on her faux pas. A gentleman would've ignored her slip-up. Then again, since when had Nick been a gentleman?
Jacaranda's answer to James Dean had had girls swooning and fathers reaching for shotguns since he'd hit puberty and she was a fool for expecting anything other than bluntness from the guy who'd once rocked her world.
She held up a hand, about as effective as a cockatoo trying to ward off a charging emu.
He stared at her hand as if he wanted to grab it and she quickly let it drop.
'Don't remember the past? Don't admire the gorgeous woman you've become?'
The heat in his eyes scorched her, captivated her, held her spellbound.
'Or don't do something as crazy as this?'
Before she could blink, he hauled her into his arms and kissed her.
The kisses they'd shared as teenagers had been exploratory, tender and achingly poignant. Yet there was nothing remotely sweet or gentle about his mouth crushing hers now.
Their lips clashed in a frantic, hungry union, a fusion of tongues, a meshing of desire that left her reeling.
She should've been immune to him by now. She should've pushed him away and laughed it off as a quick reacquainting peck between friends for old times' sake.
Should've, should've, should've, as she stood on tiptoes, leaned into him and wrapped her arms around his neck, hanging on as if her life depended on it.
As he softened the kiss, plying her with a skilled precision he'd never had as a young man, her resolve to push him away melted, just as it had ten years earlier when she'd acted on all the bottled-up feelings she'd harboured for him for years.
She'd idolised him all through the endless teenage years and he hadn't glanced in her direction until she'd turned eighteen, thrown herself at him and been wonderfully surprised when the bad boy of Jacaranda had returned her interest.
They'd gone steady for exactly six months before things had come to a head at home and she'd been forced to flee.
She hadn't told Nick about her humiliation, wanting him to need her for who she was, not following her out of some warped sense of pity. So she'd tried to convince him to run away with her. And she'd failed. Not just failed, he'd pushed her away with a callousness that had shattered her heart.
So what the heck was she doing, kissing him like this?
As her common sense belatedly kicked in Nick broke the kiss, untangling her hands from behind his neck and setting them firmly at her side before glaring at her, as if she'd been the one to instigate their clinch in the first place.
'Don't expect me to be sorry for that,' he said, running a hand through his dark wavy hair, sending it in all directions.
'I gave up expecting anything from you a long time ago.'
She shrugged, aiming for nonchalant while her insides churned, and ran a finger along her bottom lip, wondering if it looked as bruised as it felt.
He'd kissed her… and she'd liked it!
So much for the Ice Princess. Looked as if her hard-fought emotion-free veneer had melted the minute he'd lip-locked her.
Nick muttered a curse and turned away from Brittany before he made another blunder and hauled her right back into his arms.
She felt good, better than he remembered and he had a damn good memory when it came to this woman.
She'd been the one for him.
And he'd sent her away.
He'd had no choice, but a day hadn't gone by when he hadn't replayed memories of the red-haired hellion who'd captured his heart without trying.
Here she was, just as incredible as he remembered.
And he was drawn to her as uncontrollably as ever. For the spell she'd cast over him had never been simply caused by her blue eyes, porcelain skin and waist-length auburn hair that begged a guy to run his fingers through it. Nor did it have anything to do with her lithe body, with enough curves to turn a guy's head.
No, Brittany Lloyd possessed a more elusive charm, something that drew him surer than spicy tomato meatballs.
Something he'd craved his entire life, something he'd set about gaining the last few years but she'd been born with, and no amount of mixing in the right circles or business success could buy what she had, in spades.
'About this business proposition?' He turned back to face her, surprised by the vulnerability he glimpsed in her eyes. Hell, it was just a damn kiss, no big deal.
'All in there.'
She pointed at the Manila folder in his hands, stared at it as if it were a ticking bomb ready to detonate.
He weighed it in one hand, tapped it against his palm, gauging her reaction.
'Jeez, why don't you just open it?' She exploded, just as she used to in the good old days and he grinned.
'Good to see you've still got that fiery temper beneath all that polish.'
He looked her up and down, admiring the subtle changes to her appearance: the gold streaks in her now shoulder-length hair, the svelte body packed with more curves than a racetrack, the elegant wardrobe. As a teenager she'd been pretty. As a woman, she was stunning.
With a confident toss of that luscious hair, she fixed him with a newly acquired haughty grin.
Actually, you're the only one who seems to bring it out in me. Now, back to business?'