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As the elevator doors opened to reveal the twenty-third-floor offices, JT Hartley's heart uncharacteristically lurched against his ribs.
She was there.
A mere ten feet away, standing at the reception desk with her back to him, her bright copper hair respectably pinned up. The body made for sin had become even more lush with maturity, her hourglass figure constrained beneath the buttoned-down cappuccino jacket and skirt. The air in his lungs evaporated as the years melted away. The need to grasp her, wrap her in his arms, was overwhelming, but he resisted. It'd been almost fourteen long years since she'd allowed him that right.
His attorney Philip Hendricks cleared his throat and JT glanced over, realizing that Philip was holding the elevator doors open, a question in his eyes. They'd waited in the downtown Manhattan car park for an hour for Pia to arrive before following her up. He'd gleaned the information from one of the receptionists that Pia had been off with a cold but was expected back today.
Now it was time for the next phase in JT's plan to claim the money that was rightfully his. Straightening his spine, he stepped out and crossed the polished tiled floor. He stopped behind her, within touching distance, his pulse thudding in his veins. She was picking up her messages from the receptionist, the husky undertones still there despite the professional voice she used.
This close he could smell her—a perfume that reminded him of fresh mountain water, but through it, her own scent was palpable, and his head swam with its sweetness. A vision flashed in his mind of Pia on the back of his bike, her body pressed against his, the wind whipping past as he rode to their secret place out of town.
"Pia." The word escaped his lips without thought.
A pen clattered to the desk and she swung around to face him, her lips parted in surprise. For an extended moment, no one moved. JT stared into violet-blue eyes more familiar than his own even after the years apart. She gripped a folder to her chest and it rose and fell with her breaths. He almost reached out to soothe the frown lines on her forehead, but reality was, they were virtually strangers now.
Philip's voice came from beside him. "JT Hartley and Philip Hendricks to see Pia Baxter. We don't have an appointment."
Pia blinked slowly, then turned to her receptionist, obviously planning her escape. Since alerting her to his intention to challenge his biological father's will, she'd refused five requests for a meeting. Avoiding him was understandable—the way they'd parted hadn't been pretty—but he was determined to meet with the will's executor, so he'd resorted to this plan of ambushing her when she arrived for work, before she became caught up in the day.
"I'm afraid I have another appointment," she said with a polite smile and guarded eyes, "but if you'd care to make a time with my receptionist—"
He let an assured smile spread across his face. "We won't take much of your time, Ms. Baxter."
She tilted her head in polite sympathy—as if he were nothing more than a damn client. "It's simply not possible at this time."
She thought he'd get this far, then simply turn around and leave? When he'd discovered his biological father was a high-profile billionaire, he'd been furious that he and his mother had lived virtually on the bread line until he was old enough to get a job. JT might have made millions in property development as an adult, and was able to keep his mother comfortably now, but that was hardly the point. His mother had sacrificed too much just to give him a life—the least he could do was ensure she received what she deserved, albeit too late. So, no, he wasn't leaving before he'd had this meeting.
"Pia," he said, voice deep. "I'm asking nicely."
Her eyes seemed to lose focus and her fingers gripping the folder turned white. There was a war going on behind her violet eyes. When they were younger, she'd had trouble refusing him anything…until the end. Would that be enough now to compel her to see him? He held her gaze and willed her to allow this.
She blew out a long breath and nodded. "Two minutes. Follow me."
JT walked behind her down a hall, eyes irresistibly drawn to her swaying hips, the way her calves tapered down to elegant ankles above sensible fawn pumps. And just like that, he was craving her more than he remembered wanting a woman since…well…her.
Philip leaned over and whispered, "You've met her before. Anything else you're keeping from me about you and Ms. Baxter?"
JT frowned. He'd spent almost half his life trying not to think about Pia. At seventeen, he'd tried alcohol, then tried reckless, adrenaline-fueled sports, but ultimately nothing had worked until he'd focused all his willpower on simply refusing to allow images of her to enter his head. So, yeah, there was a whole lot more he was keeping from his attorney, and it would stay that way.
Besides, he wasn't in the habit of confiding anything of importance in another person. The woman swaying her hips in front of him had cured him of that impulse.
He shrugged. "It won't affect this meeting."
Grinning, Philip shook his head. "I should have known. A gorgeous woman and it turns out you have a history with her."
At any other time, JT would have grinned back, but not today. Not about Pia. And history hardly described the complex relationship they'd had as teenagers. History— the way Philip meant the word—covered flings, one-night stands, meaningless entanglements. It didn't come near to describing the only woman he'd let himself love, back when he'd been too young to understand the folly.
Philip leaned closer. "Why do I get the feeling I'm here as a human shield rather than for my expertise?"
JT didn't look at him. "Take your cues from me."
Pia walked through a door into an office decorated in stark minimalism. Chrome and glass, the opposite of what a sensualist like Pia should have. Which made no sense at all, so he stopped to really look at her—Pia as she was now.
Her body had ripened into a sensual woman's figure, but she'd contained it—imprisoned it—within a business jacket and knee-length skirt. Her hair was similarly trapped by a stark bun and her lipstick was muted. Where were the bright colors? The luscious copper waves that had once reminded him of fire cascading to her shoulders? The sumptuous textures?
One other thing stood out. She was scowling at him. He clicked into charm mode and smiled. "Thank you for seeing us."
Pia sat behind her desk and indicated for them to take their seats. "There is no point to this meeting, Mr. Hartley. As I've told Mr. Hendricks each time he's requested one."
JT sat back in his chair and rested an ankle on the opposite knee. "You're the executor of my father's estate. I think there are a few topics we could find to keep us entertained."
"Mr. Hendricks informed me that you're challenging Warner Bramson's will." Pia raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed with his charm. "When your challenge is lodged, it will be handled by the courts."
And when he had his day in court, he'd win. No question. He'd get his fair share of Bramson's billions, but in the meantime, there were a few questions he wanted answered.
He drew in a measured breath, knowing not to push too hard with her. "How are Warner's sons feeling toward the challenge?"
"You'll need to ask the beneficiaries that question," she said, her face blank, giving away nothing. "I'm sure you're aware I can't discuss it with you."
"My newfound brothers are refusing to meet with me." Making it difficult to acquire information he wanted. If they had evidence that their father knew of his existence, he'd lose his standing in court. It would mean his father had deliberately left him out of the will. And if that was on the cards, he wanted to know now.
Her beautiful plump lips compressed into a straight line. "Legally we can't call them 'your brothers' on your say so. We have no evidence you are a son of Mr. Bramson."
She didn't believe him. Years ago, they'd lain in each other's arms, trying to outdo each other with suggestions of who his father could be—a president, a mobster in witness protection, a pirate king. And now he finally knew the truth—she didn't believe him. The knowledge hit his chest with unexpected force, but he merely raised an eyebrow. "My word holds no weight with you, Pia?"
Back when she'd been the town's princess and he'd been a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, she'd been the only one to have faith in him. Time changed everything.
Nothing was permanent—he should never have forgotten that for an instant.
"This has nothing to do with my opinions," she said dispassionately, but a faint blush colored her cheeks. "This is a legal matter."
He planted both feet on the floor and leaned forward in his chair. "Given that my alleged father is dead and my alleged brothers are refusing to provide a DNA sample, then you'd have to admit it's rather difficult for me to prove a family connection."
"This is really a matter for you and Mr. Hendricks to discuss and address when you contest the will. Now if you'll excuse me—" she stood "—I'm late for a scheduled meeting."
He didn't move a muscle. "Answer me one question and I'll leave."
Pia looked from him to Philip and back again. "I think I've said enough," she said, her voice tightly controlled.
"Any other questions, send them in writing and either my assistant or I will respond."
"One question." Still, he didn't stand.
She held his gaze but made no reply—it was the closest he was going to get to assent, so he took it. "I want an assurance you won't bias the people involved against me. Tell me that you won't paint me in an unfair light." Her wealthy socialite parents had called him a gold digger so many times that he wondered if she'd believed it when she broke up with him. And despite his current wealth, a reputation for that kind of personality could affect the way his brothers perceived him. "Tell me you'll give them the chance to consider acknowledging me as a brother without biasing them. Make me a promise, princess."
Her eyes flashed and she stood straighter. "My name is Pia. Actually, no, it's Ms. Baxter to you. And you've used more than the time I had allotted you." She pressed a button on her desk and a bespectacled man appeared at an internal door. "Arthur, please show these gentlemen out."
Then she was gone through the same internal door. JT's body urged him to give chase, but he knew it would be better to give her time. She'd had no warning about his arrival today—it made sense she was as rattled as he was.
He stood and nodded to Arthur. "We know the way." Then he strode from the room, followed by his attorney who would be bursting with questions JT had no intention of answering.
Pia held herself together as she walked through the office of her assistant, Arthur, and down the hall to the women's bathroom. She even managed to smile and exchange pleasantries with a colleague on the way, despite the sound of blood rushing in her ears.
The bathroom was empty. She went to the far cubicle, locked the door and leaned back against the cool laminate. JT Hartley had come looking for her. For close to fourteen years she'd half dreaded, half hoped for this day and now it was here, the timing couldn't be worse. She pressed her hands over her face, trying to stem the emotional tide that was rising. The last thing she needed was a meltdown at work, especially with a potential partnership in the offing. She'd deal with the effects of JT's reappearance later. For now, she needed to see her boss.
At the basin, she splashed cold water over her cheeks, patted them dry with a paper towel and straightened her jacket in front of the mirror. Then she headed for the senior partner's office. She paced his reception room for five minutes while he finished a call before his secretary ushered her in.
"Pia, how can I help you?" Ted Howard asked. He pushed wire-rimmed reading glasses to the top of his salt-and-pepper hair and stretched his arms over his head.
"It's about that matter we discussed a month ago," she said, trying hard to stay focused on the legal implications and not letting her mind stray to how JT's eyes had smoldered. She swallowed. "The new claimant to the Bramson will."
"Ah, the man you once knew."
She laced her fingers and regulated her breathing.
"We decided the issue was far enough in the past and not big enough to warrant your being removed from the case. Have you changed your mind?"
"No, I still want to see this case through." She'd been the one to bring this account to the firm, and Ted had told her at the time that the other partners were impressed enough to put her in the running for a partnership if her work on the case was exemplary. Letting the case go was not an option, no matter what stunt JT pulled. "But you should know he was just here."
Howard's gaze sharpened. "Hartley came to your office?"
"He didn't have an appointment and I saw him for approximately six minutes. There will be no further contact."
"What did he want?" he asked as he pulled his glasses from his head and casually threw them onto his desk.
The same question had been in her mind during their pointless and frustrating meeting. That was, in the moments her mind had been able to operate instead of being stuck in stunned mode. "I think he was hunting for information to help his claim."
Howard arched an eyebrow. "Did he succeed?"
"Of course not," she said, lifting her chin.
He smiled. "Okay, I don't think this changes anything. Just let me know if he makes any further contact."
"I will," Pia said and headed back out the door. Regardless of what JT may think, there would be no further contact to report.