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"What are you doing here?" A commanding voice and a pair of black eyes pierced the evening gloom from inside the tiny cottage.
It was him.
She'd known she'd see Reynaldo De Leon sooner or later—it was his estate, after all—but she'd wanted to be psyched up and dressed for success, not sweaty, disheveled and emotional from a day of sorting through her beloved mother's belongings.
Anna Marcus's fingers tightened around her bag of greasy take-out food.
He stared down at her from his impressive height.A crease appeared between black brows. "Have you come to clean?"
He looked huge in the cramped kitchen, the single dim bulb illuminating his arrogant features, his wide, sensual mouth tilted with disdain. "If you're getting paid by the hour I'll reimburse you for tonight, but you must tell your employer to get in touch with me before any property is removed."
He thinks I'm a cleaner? Did he not recognize her? Suddenly it was all too much to bear. Her gentle mother dead at only forty-eight, with no warning at all, just a late-night phone call about an accident on a Florida interstate—
"Well?" He crossed his arms over his expensive shirt. Tears welled in her eyes. Don't cry now. In the last year she'd survived bankruptcy, divorce and now the loss of the one person in the world she could always count on. She'd made it this far….
The bag in her hand crinkled as she clutched it tighter, biting hard on the inside of her mouth.
"No habla inglés?" He raised a black brow.
"I speak English," she blurted.
"That bag is leaking."
"What?" She followed his gaze to the brown paper bag in her hand. "Oh, it's my dinner."
His hardexpression softened. "Go ahead and eat it." He gestured to the Formica-topped table. "No sense letting food go to waste."
Maybe she could play along until he left? Let him think she really was some minimum-wage cleaner. What did it matter? Neither he nor his high-and-mighty father had bothered to come to her mom's funeral, despite the fact that Letty Marcus lived on the estate and cooked all their meals for more than fifteen years. Working stiffs like her and her mom were nobody to these people.
Yes, she had a college degree, and had briefly owned a successful real estate company, but right now she was flat broke, with no place to call home, so his assessment of her wasn't all that wide of the mark.
As she grabbed a plate off the counter and sat at the table, she could feel his eyes on her. Eyes that had haunted her teenage dreams and driven her into frenzies of pathetic hope that one day he'd…
What a joke. She lifted her big Quarter Pounder with cheese out of the bag and plopped it on the plate.
She sat in the chair and picked up the burger, then realized her stomach had shriveled to the size of a peanut. His imperious gaze made her skin prickle. "Are you going to stand there watching me?"
"Of course. I can't leave a stranger unattended on family property. Surely you understand."
A stranger? She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry or scream.
Just one more insignificant person on a large estate. No one special. He probably hadn't spared a thought for her since the last time they faced each other on the tennis court.
She'd thought about him, though. Far more than she cared to admit.
Dropping the burger on her plate, she rose onto unsteady legs. "I have to go."
Naldo reached into his back pocket and took a twenty-dollar bill from his money clip. "Here. You can come back tomorrow."
After I've found what I'm looking for. "I don't want your money." She kept her head turned away from him. "And I'm not hungry. You can eat it."
Naldo fought a smile at the thought of eating the cleaner's greasy take-out dinner. There was a fresh-boiled lobster waiting for him back at the house.
Not that he had any appetite today.
He looked around for a piece of paper to write his number. If he could put off the cleaner for one more day he'd be fine. He'd find what he was looking for tonight. The cottage was tiny.
The girl hadn't bothered to respond, so he simply scribbled the number on a heart-shaped notepad next to the phone and held it out to her. A bead of sweat balanced like a tiny pearl above her pursed pink mouth.
As she took the pink paper, her soft fingertips brushed his palm, sparking a strange sensation. Her eyes met his, wide and blue, and recognition swept through him like a clap of thunder.
Her chin jerked up.
He stared at her for a moment, not quite able to trust his eyes. How could this skinny, nervous woman be the feisty tomboy he'd once known? "It's been a long time."
"Apparently so." Her pale lips pressed together.
"You look so different." The words flew out before he had time to consider their prudence.
"Time will do that to a person. To some people anyway. You look exactly the same."
"You're so thin."
"It's the fashion." Her eyes narrowed.
"Your hair, it used to be red."
"It still is, until I lighten it."
"You dye your hair?" It seemed inconceivable that the tough and boyish Anna he remembered would do something so unabashedly feminine.
"Don't look so shocked. Most women do."
"You never were like most women."
"Who says I am now?" Her eyes flashed.
The old fire was still there, just in a very different vessel. And it sparked more than curiosity.
"I hear you're a big success." Her mother's pride had kept him well-versed in Anna's accomplishments: magna cum laude graduation from a good college, a job with a top developer, a venture in commercial real estate.
A husband. "It's all relative. Success, that is. I hear the estate has branched out into retail." Her voice was cool, controlled. The voice of a businesswoman. Intriguingly at odds with her disheveled appearance.
"Yes, citrus-based marinades, salad dressings, dipping sauces. They're selling well."
She held his gaze. "I'm sure the De Leon citrus empire will thrive for another four hundred years."
Thank God she'd managed to change the subject. Terror streaked along her nerves when he touched on her "success." Whatever brief success she'd enjoyed lay in dust. Not unlike the dust that clung to her ratty cut-off shorts and faded T-shirt. Why did he have to see her looking her absolute worst? So tired, faded, drawn and scrawny, he didn't even know her. Her heart squeezed with shame.
"We're all devastated by your mother's death." The compassion in his eyes and the sincerity in his velvet voice almost made her forget that he didn't even show for her funeral.
She still couldn't believe her mom was really gone. That she'd never again sink into those soft, loving arms and relax in the warmth of love that was truly unconditional.
"Me, too." Her voice emerged as a whisper.
"My father died this morning." Naldo's deep voice rang with disbelief. "What?" Robert De Leon was a force of nature, as tall, proud, sturdy and indestructible as the orange trees that grew in such profusion on the vast empire he ruled.
"A massive heart attack. He hung on for three days, but the doctors said there wasn't anything they could do for him."
"Oh, Naldo." Her hand flew to her mouth as fresh emotion burned through her.
His proud bearing belied the pain churning in his fierce black eyes. A sudden, violent urge to hug him almost knocked her off her feet.
Don't even think about it.
She'd always wanted Naldo De Leon. Craved his touch, his admiration—his love. She knew by now that she'd never have them. She wouldn't take this painful moment and turn it into an even more devastating one.
"The estate is yours now." She said it calmly, collecting herself.
"The four-hundred-year history of the De Leon plantation is an impressive legacy to continue. I know you'll make your father proud."
Naldo didn't reply. With the arrogance of the conquistadors he was descended from, he simply stared at her.
She groped for something else to say. To slice through the thundercloud of emotion thickening in the air. Don't cry.
She needed to get out of here. It had taken her two days to pluck up the courage to come at all, but apparently she still couldn't hack it.
"I guess you're ready to give the cottage to another employee, so I'll come back tomorrow to finish packing. I'm staying in town. I have to go." She realized she still clutched the heart-shaped piece of pink paper with his home phone number.
She'd never called him on the phone. Their relationship had been more a catch-as-catch-can affair. Hey, wanna play some ball? No planned assignations or formal invitations. They'd been "buddies" but never really friends in the true sense.
She left the number on the counter, picked up her burger and threw it in the black plastic trash bag she hadn't yet managed to bring herself to throw any of her mom's things into, then sucked in a breath and stepped toward the door. "It is okay if I come back tomorrow?"
Naldo's unmoving presence marked the fact that her mother's little cottage was his property. "Of course. Take all the time you need."
She waited for a moment longer, hoping for—what? A conversational foray? An invitation to join him for dinner?
Get over yourself, girl.
His impassive silence suggested he was waiting for her to leave, so she hurried out the door and climbed once more into the ancient battered van that had miraculously survived the drive down from Boston.
Hot tears blurred her view through the scarred wind-shield as she steered the van along the winding access road toward the estate's grand entrance. How many more times would she make this journey? One? Maybe two? Now her mom was gone she had no home and no one was waiting for her. But she was tough and she'd get it together and live a life that would make her mom proud.
Two days later, Anna shivered in the air-conditioned chill of the De Leon's grand living room as an inlaid walnut grandfather clock struck four. Strangers milled about, speaking in hushed tones, waiting for the reading to start. She'd received a phone call at the motel from a lawyer, asking her to attend the reading of Robert De Leon's will. The De Leons followed the old-school custom of providing small legacies for the staff, including her mother.
She had not been invited to the small, private funeral held that morning at the estate.
There was a sharp divide between the household staff, gathered for the occasion in their ordinary clothes, and the elegantly dressed family members also in attendance. Naldo stood among the latter, breathtaking in a fine black suit, his thick, wavy, almost-black hair combed back to reveal his dramatic features. If he'd noticed her, he showed no sign of it. Anna stood alone, off to one side, staring out the French windows at thousands of acres of the finest citrus groves in the world.
Today she was carefully dressed in a good suit and high heels. With earrings, makeup and an upswept hairdo she hoped she looked like the woman her mom had lovingly boasted about to the other staff.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats." A suited young man ushered them toward four rows of Queen Anne chairs she recognized as being filched from the dining room. She knew the house pretty well, at least the public rooms, though she'd spent most of her time hanging out in the kitchen while her mom prepped and cooked the family meals.
The lawyer's authoritative voice descended into a soft drone as he read the long list of bequests. All money, of course. The estate was legendary for never breaking off even the tiniest chunk of land, which was how it had remained intact for centuries. The eldest son—Naldo—got the land and the vast bulk of whatever monstrous holdings in gold and currency and other investments there were. His sister got some kind of stipend. Since she was at least ten years older than him and lived in Europe, Anna had never met her and couldn't even pick her out in the small knot of relatives.
She shifted in her chair, her uncomfortable slingbacks pinching her toes. Two thousand dollars and ten thousand dollars seemed to be the going rate for staff bequests. She suspected her mom would get the latter, due to her long service. Boy would that money be welcome! Her kindhearted mother had left her savings to a shelter for unwed mothers. She had no way of knowing that Anna was almost literally down to her last dime, which was in fact owed to the fleabag motel she was staying in.
"To Leticia Marcus, valued employee and treasured friend—"Anna sat up "—I leave her place of residence and the ground on which it stands, as demarcated on the attached map, and the book of recipes we developed together."
He'd moved on to the next bequest by the time it sank in.
No money at all?
Her heart plummeted.