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Ten years since I've been here, Dawson Reynolds thought, and I've done all the changing. Heather Hill was exactly as he remembered.
Every red brick of the grand old estate seemed familiar, every oak, rose bush and blade of grass on the manicured grounds the same as if he'd seen them yesterday. Heather Hill was almost like an old friend, or a childhood home, except that he wasn't foolish enough to think that he had either friends or a home. No. He had nothing other than his ambition and his agenda, both of which required him to finally return.
So he did.
Tonight was another of Arnetta Warner's glittering fundraisers for Alzheimer's research, the perfect cover for his little reconnaissance mission, and he'd finagled an invitation. Which hadn't been hard once the Warner matriarch heard that he had deep pockets courtesy of his real estate fortune.
Too bad the old girl didn't know that Dawson Reynolds wasn't his birth name. She'd've been a smidge less gracious with the warm welcome if she knew who he really was. But she'd find out soon enough.
Not tonight, though.
Tonight was about getting the lay of the land without being spotted, and he'd learned everything he needed to know.
Was the estate still as over-the-top-opulent as it'd ever been, camera-ready in case some network decided to shoot a new series melodrama like, say, DynastyThe Next Generation?
Did the diamonds, champagne, cars and designer clothes still abound here, like trash talk during a pickup game of hoops?
Was Arnetta Warner, the grande dame herself, still shadowed by Franklin Bishop, her sidekick of forty years?
Oh, yeah. That was a big fat check.
Neither of them had spied Dawson; he'd seen to that. In a crowd of several hundred people spread throughout living rooms, music rooms, dining rooms and atriums, spilling out onto terraces and into tents and gazebos, it was easy to cling to the candlelit shadows and blend in.
To watch. To wait. To learn.
He'd discovered that Mrs. Warner, though still beautiful, was entirely white-haired now, her shoulders curved with her eighty-plus years. Franklin Bishop's dark eyes were still sharp, but they looked weary. They'd both slowed down in the last ten years and moved through the crowd with the careful steps of someone afraid of a slip-and-fall.
The bottom line was that they were old.
He'd known it, yeah, but seeing it was a shock.
Get over it, man, he told himself.
Having accomplished everything he came for, it was time to split before someone he knew scoped him out. The real fun started tomorrow.
He'd've liked to hang out here and enjoy the spectacular view. He'd roamed to the far end of one of the many terraces and walkways, the one nearest the greenhouse, and it would've been nice to linger for a minute, listening to the faint notes of jazz coming from the house. The summer night was balmy, the moon high and bright, and his plans were coming together so well he wanted to enjoy life.
More than that, he wanted to meet the woman he'd glimpsed across the dance floor tonight, the beautiful distraction in the electric-blue dress, the one who'd smiled at him and made need contract in his gut. The one who
No. He wouldn't go there. The last thing he needed was a distraction.
Knocking back the last of his red wine, he set the goblet on the stone ledge, reached inside his jacket for his cell phone and thumbed in the number he'd been given earlier. The valet could bring the car around to meet him in front
The unexpected click of high heels on the stones behind him was his only warning. That, and the negligible but mind-numbing swish of silk against gleaming skin. And then she was there, the distraction, the woman who'd snagged his unwilling attention and hadn't yet let it go.
He looked over his shoulder at her and froze, the dialed cell phone hovering near his ear and all his best-laid plans going up in smoke.
"Were you ever going to say hi to me?" she asked.
He stared, surprised on so many levels it seemed unlikely he'd ever get his jaw up off the ground. "Hello?" the valet said in his ear, but Dawson hit End and hung up on him, all his focus irrevocably centered on this female.
There was no coyness about her, no false shyness or calculated hesitation, all of which bored him worse than watching white paint dry. She radiated an open curiosity, as though she honestly needed to solve the mystery of why he hadn't approached her when they'd caught each other's eye earlier. As though understanding him mattered to her, a lot.
She was a tiny little thing, young, but everything about her was pure, one-hundred percent, grade-A woman with a capital W. Her generous curvesyes, there was a Godwere poured into that blue dress, which was slinky like a nightgown and yet not particularly revealing. Her bare arms were toned, her pale brown skin an invitation his twitchy fingers could barely resist. She had a tumble of black curls around her shoulders and a dimple in her chin.
And her eyes.
Jesus. She had the dewy, wide-eyed innocence of a Disney princess, so much so that he felt like the hulking and clumsy Big Bad Wolf next to her.
Only, no Disney princess had ever exuded sex like this.
Her mouth curled with open amusement, as though she knew exactly how she made his blood simmer with lust. "Should I repeat the question?"
Finally, several beats too late, his wits reappeared and scrambled to catch up. "No. I wasn't going to say hi to you."
She frowned and nodded. "That's what I thought. So it's a good thing I took matters into my own hands, isn't it?"
"Remains to be seen."
She laughed and it was, like everything else about her, unassuming, sexy and startling. Her voice was high and sweet, but her laugh was deep and throaty, as earthy as sex with the windows open on a rainy night.
That need strengthened, twisting in his gut.
"Here." She passed him one of the delicate glass bowls she'd been holding and kept one for herself. "Have some dessert with me."
Saying no wasn't an option. You didn't say no when the president tapped you for his cabinet, or when Don Corleone asked for a favor, or when this little walking wet dream wanted to spend time with you. He took it. When the tips of their fingers brushed, he felt a flare of heat spread up his arm and out through the pores of his skin, enough to make him sweat.
The sudden hitch of her breath told him she'd felt it, too, that unholy spark, but she got over it and went back to taking charge. "Sit with me."
She tried to ease her hip onto the ledge and get comfortable. But she was short, and the wall was high, and he hated to think of her scratching her fine skin or snagging her dress.
That, and he really, really wanted to touch her again.
"Wait." Without thought, he put his bowl down, planted his hands on the curve of her hips and lifted her to a seated position.
Bad move, Dawson.
She felt so good, so unspeakably right, that he almost choked on the sensation. The silk slithered over her hot skin, making him desperate to touch the flesh underneath, and he didn'tphysically could notlet her go.
As if that wasn't a challenging enough test of his self-control, something worse happened. From the corner of his eye he saw the bottom of her dress slide away, revealing way more leg than a woman this petite should have, and thighs that he would have killed to sink his teeth into.
All the while, she stared straight into his face with those bright eyes, studying him with unabashed curiosity, and he tried not to feel her breathless stillness between his hands.
Feeling scalded, he let her go, picked up his bowl again and eased onto the ledge beside her, not touching, but much closer than he should have been. This seemed to make her happy, because she smiled that glorious smile and dug into the dessert.
To give himself something to do until she made her next move, he tasted his, too. It was something chocolate and fluffymousse, probably.
"So," she said, enjoying her mousse with a delighted wriggle that made him wonder, with a fierce curiosity, what reactions she had when she had an orgasm, "why didn't you want to speak to me?"
"Didn't seem like a good idea." Sparing her a dark glance, he decided to concentrate on eating. "Still doesn't."
She laughed, taking no offense. "Because I'm younger than you?"
Huh. Younger. His thirty-five suddenly felt like a 150 to her twentyish. "I try to wait until a female's graduated before I approach her, yeah."
Her grin widened. "I'll have you know I just graduated."
"Yale Law. Stanford undergrad, in case you're interested."
Figured. She might be young, but there was no dummy lurking behind those sharp eyes. "Congratulations. So what are you doing with yourself now? Besides studying for the bar and approaching strange men at parties?"
"Relaxing. I need a little time off."
There was a story there. Shadows didn't darken faces for no reason, and some compulsion made him ask, "Rough year?"
She hesitated. "You have no idea."
Her gaze dropped to her bowl and stayed there as a flush crept up her neck and over her cheeks. "Well," she began, "among other things, my brother Antonios was killed in Afghanistan."
"And his twin, Alessandro"
Hold up. "Alessandro?"
"It's Greek for 'defending men.'"
"He was just discharged from the Marines. He was injured in the same attack. He's having a tough time."
"I'm sorry," he said, and he was. But a nagging little twinge of something told him that there was more to her story. Had a man created those shadows in her eyes? And why did that possibility make him want to smash something? "That all? My Spidey-Sense is telling me you had a.bad breakup or something."
"You could say that," she admitted.
But her gaze stayed on that bowl and she clammed up like her tongue had been glued to the roof of her mouth.
O-kay, then. So she wasn't going to spill her guts. He'd live, even if the disappointment needled at him. "Are you staying in Columbus?"
"No. I'm just visiting my aunt for the summer. I'll probably go back to New York. I'm taking the bar exam there in July. That's where I'm from."
The real estate mogul in him kicked in. "Whereabouts?"
She hesitated. "Manhattan. And Long Island."
Oh, she was funny with her vague answers. Clearly he was dealing with a pampered princess who felt guilty that Daddy's pockets had been so deep. "Whereabouts?" he asked again.
This time she glared, but the wry curl of her lips softened the effect. "Park Avenue and Sag Harbor, if you must know."
He tried not to laugh. "Ah. Low-rent districts. That's a shame."
"Moving on," she said firmly. "What do you do?"
What did he do?
Well, after graduating from Duke, he discovered a lifelong betrayal and, as a result, had a major break from his so-called family. This led to a downward spiral, which in turn led to too much partying and trouble with Johnny Law. After being wrongfully accused and betrayed by a man he'd thought was a friend (betrayal was a running theme in his life, no doubt), he spent several years in prison for a crime he didn't commit and finally got freed via the Innocence Program and the mercy of a victim who realized, after years of therapy, that he wasn't the one.
Then, after struggling to get his feet back on the ground, including an inglorious period working at a car wash (yeah, that was fun), he'd won a grant from former Governor Beau Taylor's Phoenix Legacies Foundation and started flipping houses. He'd since parlayed that into an empire that kept growing despite the lousy economy.
But he wasn't about to put that into twenty-five words or less.
"I'm a real estate developer."
"Real estate." She gave an exaggerated shiver. "Ooh. Exciting."
His lips twitched, but he resisted giving her the whole grin. He wasn't sure why, other than it seemed crucial not to allow her an opening to worm her way under his skin any more than she already had.
"Are you from Columbus?" she asked.
"Born here, yeah."
She snorted. "Did anyone ever tell you that getting you to answer questions was like pulling hen's teeth? Where do you live now?"
"So what brings you here? Just the gala?"
Now they were circling a whole big area he didn't want to get anywhere near. So he deflected. "Yeah. And a little, ah, family business. Nosy much?"
"You should talk."
He couldn't deny his keen curiosity about every minute detail of her life, nor could he take his eyes off her. She had a real thing going on there, what with the rapt interest, as though he were the only man in the world who fascinated her, and the vulnerability, as though he could lead her around by the nose if he felt like bothering.
Only, he didn't think it was a thing, and he ought to know. You didn't emerge from the penitentiary intact without being a shrewd judge of character and knowing who you could turn your back on in the shower, and who you couldn't.
If she had half an ounce of sense, she'd stay far away from him.
Hell, if he had a quarter ounce of sense, he'd vacate this terrace now, but sense was apparently thin on the ground tonight, and he didn't want to leave her.
But what was he doing? Where did he think this was going?
Nowhere, that's where.
So he got up even though his limbs felt heavy and resistant, ignored the bright hope shining in her eyes, put his empty dessert bowl on the ledge next to his empty wine goblet and started on his way.
"I need to go," he said. "Have a good night."
Her face fell. "Can't you stay for a minute?"
"Don't you even want to know my name?" He hesitated.
Know her name? Didn't she get it? He wanted to know her name, her favorite color, her date of birth and how she liked her eggs at breakfast. He wanted to unravel all the secrets of her body. Most of all, he wanted to know what she'd seen in him that made her approach him when so many people in his life had written him off.
Yeah, he wanted, and the subtle glow of longing in her face, which was partially hidden behind several windblown curls, damn sure wasn't helping.
"Your name?" he asked stupidly.
"It's Arianna. Smith."
This time, finally, he had to laugh. "Arianna? I should have known. You don't look like a Sue, and with brothers named Antonios and Alessandro"
"It's Greek for 'most holy.'"