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A deafening crack of thunder rumbled through the darkened house. Kate Whitley pressed a hand to her pounding chest. She'd hated storms since she was a little kid. A brilliant flash of lightning sent shards of light slashing across the hallway while rain pelted the window.
Mother Nature certainly had a wicked sense of humor. Actually, it seemed as though life as a whole was mocking Kate. Absolutely nothing was going according to plan, no matter how hard she fought to put things right.
Her fingers pushed against the cold metallic plate on the swinging hall door. Inside the kitchen, the glare from the overhead light caused her to squint. What in the world was going on? She could have sworn she'd turned everything off before going upstairs. Hadn't she?
She sighed and shook her head. Her mind must be playing tricks on her. The long nights of tossing and turning instead of sleeping were finally catching up to her. And it couldn't have happened at a worse time. In a few more hours, she had to be fully alert. There were decisions only she could make-lifesaving decisions.
If only she could get a little shut-eye, she'd be able to think clearly. But first, Mother Nature had to quiet down. No one could rest with all this ruckus.
It didn't ease her nerves being away from home, even if she was staying in a New York City mansion. This place was nothing like her two-bedroom, ranch-style house in Pennsylvania. Though this oversize house contained some of the most breathtaking architecture, there was something missing-the warmth that made a building more than just a place to hang your coat, the co-ziness that made it home.
In a big city where she barely knew anyone, she and this house had a couple of things in common-being lonely and forgotten. Somehow it seemed like fate that she'd ended up in this deserted mansion. A warm, loving home had somehow always eluded her, and just when she thought she'd made one of her own, it too was about to be snatched out from under her.
Sadness weighed heavily on her as her bare feet moved silently across the kitchen tiles. The coldness raced up through her pink painted toes to her bare legs and sent goose bumps cascading down her arms. Spring may have brought warmer days, but the nights were still chilly. She rubbed her palms up and down her arms, willing away her discomfort. Perhaps her long T-shirt wasn't the warmest choice for this soggy night, but with her living out of a suitcase, her choices were quite limited.
She yawned and opened the door of the stainless-steel refrigerator. She hadn't had any appetite until now. With so much riding on this upcoming meeting, she'd ended up with a stress headache for most of the day. But back here ensconced between these quiet, peaceful walls, the pain had loosened its vicelike grip.
Now she needed something to ease her hunger pangs. Other than a few meager groceries she'd placed in there earlier, the glass shelves were bare. The friend who'd let her stay here free of charge said the owner was out of town and wouldn't be back anytime soon. From the empty cabinets to the dust-covered bedrooms, Kate deduced no one had lived here in quite a while.
With an apple in hand, she filled a glass of water. She'd just turned off the faucet when she heard faint but distinct footsteps. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Either this place had some mighty big rats or she wasn't alone.
"Stop right there!" boomed a male voice.
So much for the rat theory.
Her heart lodged in her throat, blocking a terrified scream. Who was this man? And what did he want with her? Her lungs started to burn. Was he a thief, a desperate junkie.or worse?
She struggled to suck air past the enormous lump in her throat. A nervous tremor in her hand caused droplets of water to spill over the rim of the glass. Why had she put herself in such peril by making the rash decision to stay in this deserted house alone? After all, what did she know about her newfound friend? Not much. They'd only met a week ago. The older woman had seemed so nice-so understanding in Kate's time of need.
She wondered if a scream would carry to any of the neighboring houses on the block. Probably not. This house came from an era when structures were built with thick, sturdy walls. She was on her own.
"You shouldn't be here." She fought to keep her voice steady. "This place has a burglar alarm. It won't be long until the police show up. I haven't seen your face. You can escape out the back and I won't tell anyone."
"I don't think so. Turn around."
Not about to let this stranger know how much he frightened her, she placed the glass on the counter, leveled her shoulders and took an unsteady breath. When she went to turn, her feet wouldn't move. They were stuck to the floor as though weighted down in concrete.
A crescendo of thunder reverberated through her body. The house plunged into darkness. Kate bit down on her bottom lip to keep a frightened gasp bottled up.
Don't panic. Stay calm.
Could this really be happening? What had she done to piss off Fate and have it turn on her? Hysterical laughter swelled in her throat. With effort, she choked it down. It wouldn't help anything for this man to think she was losing it.
Drawing on every bit of courage she could muster, she forced her feet to move. Once fully turned around, she squinted into the dark shadows but could only make out the man's vague outline. Who was he? What did he want with her?
Then, as though in answer to her prayer, the power blinked back on. When her vision adjusted, she found herself staring at a bare male chest. What in the world? Her wide-eyed gaze dropped farther past his trim waist but screeched to a halt upon the discovery of this stranger's only article of clothing-navy boxer shorts.
This night was definitely getting stranger by the second.
She couldn't resist a second glance at her sexy intruder. He definitely wasn't a kid, having filled out in all the right places. She'd only ever seen defined muscles like his in the glossy pages of magazines, and this guy would qualify with his washboard abs. He must be around her age, maybe a little older.
When her gaze rose up over his six feet plus of sexiness, she met a hard glint in his blue-gray eyes. He obviously wasn't any happier about discovering her than she was of stumbling across him.
"What are you doing here?" The stranger's deep voice held a note of authority as though he were used to commanding people's attention.
"Wondering why you're standing in my kitchen."
The frown lines on his face etched even deeper. "This is your place?"
Technically no, but she wasn't about to explain her unusual circumstances to Mr. Oh-So-Sexy. She merely nodded, affirming her right to be there.
His brow arched in disbelief.
Who was he to pass judgment? When she pressed her hands to her hips, she realized he wasn't the only one scantily dressed. With the hem of her worn but comfy shirt pinched between her fingers, she pulled it down as far as the material would allow. Instinct told her to run and put on something more modest. But in order to do that, she'd have to cross his path. Not a great idea.
Her gaze strayed back to the doorway. Sooner or later she'd have to make her move. She wanted to believe he wasn't there to hurt her-wanted to accept the notion that there was some crazy explanation for the nearly naked man standing in front of her, but her mind drew a blank. She glanced back at him, taking in his blondish-brown wavy hair tousled as though he'd just woken up. And his lack of apparel left no room for doubt that he was unarmed.
"Don't look so panicked. I have no intention of hurting you." His deep voice was as smooth and rich as hot fudge. "I just want some answers."
She stuck out her chin. "That makes two of us."
"I guess you should start explaining." He looked at her expectantly.
Kate crossed her arms. He wasn't going to boss her around. She had every right to be here. Then an ominous thought came to her: Who was to say Connie hadn't made a similar offer to this man? But wouldn't it have crossed her friend's mind that this would create an awkward situation to have two strangers-a man and a woman-alone in the house?
As she kept a wary eye on him, she noticed something familiar about him. The thought niggled at her. She couldn't put her finger on where she'd seen him before, probably because the only thing keeping her on her feet right now was adrenaline. She needed sleep. Desperately. But how would she get this man to put on some clothes and go away?
"No more stalling." Lucas Carrington's patience was worn razor thin. Tired of talking in circles, he cut to the chase. "Who are you? And what are you doing here?"
Her lush lips pursed as her eyes narrowed. "My name is Kate Whitley and I have every right to be here-"
"Impossible. More likely you're homeless and broke in here seeking shelter from the storm."
Kate's chin tilted up and her unwavering brown gaze met his. "I'm not homeless. In fact, I'm an interior designer and a darned good one, too."
She did have an innocent girl-next-door look about her, but he knew all too well that things were never quite what they seemed. "Are you trying to tell me you broke in here because you had this overwhelming desire to redecorate the place?"
Her thin shoulders drew back into a firm line. Her threadbare cartoon T-shirt pulled snugly across her pert breasts. He swallowed hard. Okay, so maybe his first assessment of her hadn't been quite right. Gorgeous. Sexy. Curvaceous. Those were much more fitting descriptions.
She continued to glare at him, seemingly oblivious to the fact her demeanor was more alluring than intimidating. And like some hormone-fueled teenager, he found himself unable to turn away from her tempting curves.
"There's no need to sound so condescending." Her voice filled with exasperation.
With effort, his gaze lifted to meet hers. "I'm calling the police. They can deal with you." But there was a wrinkle in his plan-his cell phone was in the other room and the landline in the kitchen had been disconnected ages ago.
"Go right ahead."
Her confident tone surprised him. Did she expect her beauty to get her out of this mess? Or was she attempting to pull a con job on him? Not that any of it mattered. He didn't have a problem calling her bluff.
"You seem fairly certain you won't get in trouble-"
Lucas was having a hard time focusing on the conversation given that his unexpected visitor was standing in his kitchen with nothing on but a T-shirt, which clung to her shapely curves and exposed her long, long legs. He was definitely beginning to understand why she might rely on her looks. And if he kept staring, this could get embarrassing for both of them.
He forced his gaze to her face, not that it was any less distracting. Was she wearing makeup? Or was her skin naturally that smooth and creamy?
Even more troubling than how beautiful he found her was the way she reminded him too much of the past-a past that had nearly destroyed him. Not so long ago another beautiful woman had stood in that spot. She'd made him promises but ended up breaking each and every one of them. His jaw tightened. The last thing he needed was this stranger's presence to dredge up memories he'd fought so hard to seal inside. He refused to let it happen.
Refocused and clear about his priorities, his gaze returned to her warm brown eyes. She stared directly at him. Pink stained her cheeks, but she didn't glance away. She stepped forward, using the kitchen island as a shield. It was far too late for modesty. Her sexy form was already emblazoned upon his memory.
Stay focused. Soon she'll be gone. One way or the other.
He cleared his throat. "Okay, you've got my attention. Why won't you get in trouble?"
"I have permission to be here. Temporarily, that is. You know, while the owner is out of town." Kate's eyes narrowed, challenging him. She certainly was confident. He'd give her that. "And now it's your turn to do some explaining. Who are you?"
"My name's Lucas."
"Well, Lucas, I assume you must know Connie, too."
His gaze sought out hers and held it. "Connie? Is that who let you in here?"
Kate nodded as hope sparked in her eyes. "Connie Carrington."
He had liked it better when he thought Kate was a squatter looking for a warm place to sleep. "To be sure, describe Connie."
"Short. Brunette. Sixtyish. Very sweet and generous. She has a friendly smile and volunteers at East Riverview Hospital."
"That's her." It still didn't prove Kate was telling the whole truth, but it was sure looking that way.
"Here's the thing, Connie obviously offered me this place first. And I don't think us sharing the house is going to work."
How dare this woman-this stranger-kick him out of his own house? He opened his mouth to give her a piece of his mind but then closed it. Obviously she didn't recognize him, a small wonder after that ridiculous magazine article earlier in the month had named him Bachelor of the Year. His quiet life hadn't been the same since then.
Kate was a refreshing change from the headline seekers and the husband hunters. Maybe if this were a different time under different circumstances, he'd welcome this beautiful intrusion. But right now all he wanted was to be left alone.
A clap of thunder rattled the windows. Kate jumped. She obviously wasn't as calm as she'd like him to believe. Perhaps they both needed a moment to gather their thoughts. He certainly could use a minute or two to tamp down his unwanted attraction.
"This conversation would be a little less awkward with some more clothes on. I'll be right back." He started out of the room, then as an afterthought he called over his shoulder, "Don't go anywhere."
Lucas strode from the room. His teeth ground together. He didn't want this woman here. He never had company and he preferred it that way. In fact, the less time he spent here, the better he liked it. When he'd asked his aunt to look after the place, he'd never expected her to turn it into a B and B. What in the world had she been thinking?
Maybe his aunt had planned for him to never find out about Kate. After all, he wasn't even supposed to be home for another week. But one untimely setback after another at the future site of Carrington Gems' expansion in San Francisco had ground construction to a halt.