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"Mrs. Montrose, I know what Derek did was wrong, but you have to give him another chance."
When Arielle Garnier looked up from her computer screen at the sound of the male voice, her heart came to a screeching halt. The man who just stopped inside her office doorway was the last person she ever expected to see again. And if the look on his handsome face was any indication, he was just as surprised to be coming face-to-face with her, as well.
His vivid green eyes pinned her to the chair. He stared at her for several uncomfortable seconds before he finally spoke again. "I need to talk to the preschool's administrator, Mrs. Montrose, about an incident involving Derek Forsythe. Could you please tell me where I could find her?"
"Helen Montrose is no longer in charge here. She sold the school and retired a couple of weeks ago." Arielle tried desperately to keep her voice even in spite of her jangled nerves. "I'm the new owner and administrator of Premier Academy for Preschoolers."
She took a deep breath and reminded herself to remain outwardly calm, even if his reappearance in her life did shake her all the way to the core. This was her territory and he was the one intruding. Besides, she'd rather walk barefoot across hot coals than allow him to think he still had any effect on her.
When he continued to stare at her, she forced herself to ask, "Was there something you needed?"
He finally shook his head. "I don't have time to play games, Arielle. I need to speak with Helen Montrose as soon as possible."
The shock of seeing him again quickly gave way to anger that he didn't believe she was the new owner. "I told you, Mrs. Montrose retired. And if you have business here at the school, you will have to deal with me."
He didn't look at all pleased with the situation, but that was just too bad. She certainly wasn't excited to be seated before the man who, three and a half months earlier, had spent a week loving her like she was the most desirable woman alive, then disappeared without so much as a backward glance. He hadn't even had the decency to call or leave her a note.
"All right," he eventually said. She could tell he wasn't happy, but instead of pressing the issue any further, he took a deep breath. "I suppose this would be a good time to reintroduce myself. My real name is Zach Forsythe."
Arielle's heart felt as if it had fallen to her feet. Among his other transgressions, he'd lied to her about his name? He was really Zachary Forsythe, owner of the Forsythe resort and hotel empire? And if he was here to discuss Derek Forsythe, did that mean he was the little boy's father? Was he married?
Bile rose in her throat and she desperately tried to think if she'd heard or read anything about him recently. But all she could remember for certain was that Zach Forsythe was reputed to prefer a quiet lifestyle out of the spotlight and guarded his privacy as if it were the gold in Fort Knox. Unfortunately, she didn't know anything at all about his marital status.
But the very thought that she might have spent a week in the arms of a married man sent a cold chill slithering down her spine. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but a few months ago I distinctly knew you by the name of Tom Zacharias."
He ran an impatient hand through his thick dark brown hair. "About that"
"Save it," she interrupted, holding up her hand. "I don't particularly care to hear whatever explanation you're about to fabricate. I believe you wanted to talk about Derek Forsythe?" When he nodded, she went on. "And I assume you wish to discuss his pending suspension for biting another little boy?"
His mouth thinned into a grim line before he gave her a short nod. "Yes. You have to give him one more chance."
"I haven't been here long enough to be familiar with his past behavioral patterns, but your son's teacher said he's"
"Nephew." Frowning, he then flashed her the same smile that he'd used to seduce her almost four months earlier. "Derek is my sister's little boy," he corrected. "I'm not now, nor have I ever been, married, Arielle."
She was relieved to hear that she hadn't done the unthinkable. But his devastating smile and the intimate tone he used to say her name made it hard to think.
"You don't have to be married to have a child," she countered, doing her best to regain a bit of her equilibrium.
"I suppose it's a personal choice," he observed, shrugging. "But I, for one, won't have a child outside of marriage."
"Whether you do or not isn't the issue here, Mr. Forsythe."
"Call me Zach."
"I don't think "
Before she could go on, he took a step closer.
"And marriage may not be the issue, but I can't have you thinking"
"What I think is irrelevant." Desperate to change the subject, she tried to concentrate on the matter at hand. "Derek's teacher said this is the third time he's bitten another child in the past week." She glanced at the teacher's recommendation for suspension on top of a stack of papers on her desk. "And the school has a strict three-strikes policy when it comes to this kind of behavior."
"I understand that. But he's only four and a half years old. Can't you make an exception this one time?" he asked, turning up the wattage on his cajoling smile. "If you haven't been told about my sister's accident by some of the other teachers, I won't bore you with the details, but Derek's experienced quite an upset in his life in the past few months and I'm sure that's the reason he's been acting out. Things are getting back to normal now and I'm sure he'll settle down. Believe me, he really is a good kid."
Zach or Tom or whatever he was calling himself these days was putting her in a very awkward position. On one hand, rules were rules and had been put into place to discourage students' undesirable behavior. If she made an exception for one child, she'd have to make it for all of the children. But on the other hand, if she didn't give the little boy another chance, it might appear that she was punishing him for the actions of his nefarious uncle.
"Would it help sway you if I promise to have a long talk with Derek and make him understand that it's unacceptable to bite other children?" he asked. Apparently sensing her indecision, he walked to her desk and, propping his fists on the edge, leaned forward until their faces were only inches apart. "Come on, darlin'. Everyone deserves a second chance."
After the way he'd lied to her about his name, then disappeared without a word of explanation, she would debate that issue. But his close proximity and hearing him call her "darlin'" with his rich Texas drawl caused her to shiver.
"A-all right," she finally replied, forcing herself not to lean away from him, even though it made her extremely nervous being so near.
She was willing to say just about anything to get him to turn off the charm and get out of her office so that she could draw a decent breath. Besides, the longer he stayed the greater the possibility he'd find out why she'd spent several weeks desperately trying to reach him. And at the moment, that was something she just wasn't ready to address, nor was her office the place to do it.
"If you'll explain to Derek that it's wrong to behave that way toward other children, I'll let him off with a warning this time," she decided firmly. "But if it happens again, he will have to serve the suspension."
"Fair enough." He straightened to his full height, then, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his suit pants, rocked back on his heels. "Now that we have that settled, I'll let you get back to whatever it was you were doing." Walking toward the door, he stopped and turned to give her another one of his charming smiles. "By the way, it was a very pleasant surprise running into you again, Arielle."
And jackasses have sprouted wings and learned to fly, she thought, barely resisting the urge to convey her sarcasm aloud. But before she could comment on his obvious lie, he exited her office as quickly as he'd barged in.
Sinking back into the plush leather of her desk chair, Arielle tried to think. What on earth was she going to do now?
She'd given up all attempts to find him months ago when every one of her efforts met with a dead end. Of course, now she knew why. The man she'd been looking for didn't even exist. It had been Zachary Forsythe, hotel and resort magnate, who had held her, made love to her and lied to her. And here he was living in the city she'd recently moved to, with a nephew in her preschool.
"How did my life get so out of control?"
Burying her head in her shaking hands, she did her best to organize her scattered thoughts. She had no idea what to do, if she should do anything. Clearly he'd never expected to see her again, and wasn't overjoyed that he had. And she certainly wasn't thrilled with the situation, either.
Her stomach did a fluttery lurch and, placing a calming hand over it, she tightly closed her eyes as she fought to keep her emotions in check. First and foremost, she'd made a huge mistake falling for his charismatic charm. And second, she'd wasted countless hours trying to find a man who'd just proved he wasn't worth finding.
But she'd foolishly held out hope that he'd have a plausible explanation for leaving her to wake up alone all those months ago. Deep down she'd known she was deluding herself, but it was easier than acknowledging how gullible and utterly foolish she'd been. Now there was no denying that he was every bit the jerk she'd feared him to be.
She swallowed hard and, opening her eyes, reached for a tissue to dab at the moisture threatening to spill down her cheeks. Her move to Dallas was supposed to be a good thinga symbolic gesture of leaving the past behind and making a fresh start. But he'd just ruined that. There was no way she could forget about him and move on with her life if he showed up at the school from time to time.
Sniffling, she reached for another tissue. She hated being so darned weepy all of the time, but then, that was his fault, too.
Her stomach clenched again and she automatically opened her desk drawer, reaching for the bag of crackers she kept for just such occasions. Yes, Zachary Forsythe was to blame for her hormones making her emotional, as well as her other current problems. And the most pressing problem of all was figuring out how and when to tell the biggest jerk in the entire state of Texas that even though he wasn't married as he said he would be, in about five and a half months, he was indeed going to have a child of his own.
Zach entered his executive office at the Forsythe Hotel and Resort Group corporate headquarters still thinking about his unexpected run-in with Arielle Garnier. He'd thought about her a lot since their time together in Aspen, but he'd never expected to see her again. And certainly not at the same preschool where his nephew was enrolled. But thanks to the little boy's latest antics, Zach had been put in the awkward position of pleading Derek's case to the woman he'd, for lack of a better word, dumped a few months ago.
Walking over to his desk, Zach sank into the high-backed chair. Swiveling around, he gazed blindly at the framed aerial photograph of his luxury resort in Aspen. He distinctly recalled Arielle telling him that she was a teacher at some nursery school in San Francisco. So why had she relocated to Texas? And where had she come up with the money to buy the most prestigious preschool in the Dallas area?
He supposed that her older twin brothers might have had something to do with that. If he remembered correctly, she'd told him that one was a highly successful divorce attorney in Los Angeles and the other owned the largest construction and development company in the south. They certainly could have afforded to front her the money to buy the school. In fact, they'd been the ones who'd given her the week's ski trip, complete with deluxe accommodations at the Aspen Forsythe Resort and Spa for her twenty-sixth birthday.
Focusing his attention on the photograph of the luxury mountain resort, Zach couldn't help but grin when he thought about the first time he'd met Arielle. It had been her engaging smile and flawless beauty that had first attracted him. Her silky, dark auburn hair had complimented her porcelain skin to perfection and she had the prettiest hazel eyes he'd ever seen. But as the evening wore on, it had been her sense of humor and obvious intelligence that had him thoroughly captivated. By the following morning, they had become lovers.
As he sat there thinking about what had been the most exciting, memorable week of his life, his office door opened. His sister slowly walked across the room to lower herself into the chair in front of his desk.
"Did you speak with Mrs. Montrose about Derek?" she asked, propping her cane against the edge of his desk. "She's always been extremely fair and since the accident, she's been very understanding about his uncharacteristic behavior."
Zach shook his head. "Helen Montrose is no longer in charge at Premier Academy, Lana."