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The doorbell echoed through the two-story foyer, stopping Tara Anthony in the process of kicking off her shoes. An ivory sandal dangled from her toe.
Tightening her grip on the newel post, she debated ignoring her visitor and then groaned, stabbed her foot back into her shoe and rolled her tense shoulders. Whoever was out there had very likely watched her walk inside thirty seconds ago and knew she was here. As if to prove her point, the bell chimed twice more in quick succession.
No doubt she'd find another developer on the other side of the door, one who wanted to buy her lot, demolish her old house and build a minimansion in its place as had happened with so many of the neighborhood properties. This section of Miami had become an increasingly desirable location lately. But she couldn't sell. She'd promised her mother she'd hold on to the house. Just in case.
Tara pushed back her hair and sighed. She wanted this rotten day to end, and she wasn't up for a pushy sales pitch tonight. But apparently, her hot bath and the pint of Ben & Jerry's she'd planned to have for dinner would have to wait.
Not for long.
Tomorrow she'd buy a bigger No Soliciting sign.
Resolved to deal with her uninvited guest as quickly as possible, she crossed the foyer and yanked open the door. She reeled back in shock at the sight of the tall, broad-shouldered man filling the opening.
"Rand," his name poured from her in a lung-deflating whisper.
An evening breeze ruffled short, straight hair the color of dark chocolate, and his narrowed hazel eyes raked her from head to toe and back.
Emotions tumbled over her like raging river rapids. Shame. Pain. Anger. But something warm and welcomingspurted through her, too. Love? Could there be a lingering trace of that misplaced sentiment in her veins?
Surely you aren't still stuck on a man you haven't seen or spoken to in five years?
"May I come in?"
So polite, that deep, rich, goose-bump-raising voice. He hadn't been polite the last time she'd seen him. That day his tone had been cold, cutting and cruel.
You didn't waste any time, did you? You couldn't hook me so you went after deeper pockets. But the joke's on dear ol'dad. He wants you because he thinks I do. But I've already had you, Tara. And finished with you. He's welcome to my leftovers.
The chill that had seeped into her bones that night at Kincaid Manor returned. Wrapping her arms around her chest, she crammed the memories back into their dark closet and focused on the man in front of her. "What do you want, Rand?"
He looked stiff and perturbed in his perfectly tailored dove-gray suit, white shirt and burgundy raw silk tie, as if he didn't want to be here any more than she wanted him on her front porch. "To discuss my father's final demands."
Everett Kincaid. One of the low points in Tara's life. "I heard he'd passed away. I'm sorry for your loss."
Rand didn't look mournful. "His will involves you."
Everett always had been kind to her, but why would her former boss leave her a bequest? Especially after the way they'd parted. "He left me something?"
Rand's lips flattened into a thin line and his square jaw shifted to an antagonistic angle. "No, but unless you agree to his terms we'll lose everything."
Talk about dramatic. She barely managed not to roll her eyes. And then, puzzled, she frowned. Rand had never been the over-the-top kind. He'd been very straightforward about what he wanted. And what he didn't.
She tucked a curl behind her ear and wondered if he noticed she'd cut her hair or that she'd lost weight since they'd been an item. Or had he slept with so many women that the features blurred together into a homogeneous female form? Had she even left a mark in his memory?
His lousy relationship track record hadn't kept her from falling in love with him five years ago, but back then she'd been young, shy and an impossibly naive twenty-four. She wasn't any of those things anymore. Watching her mother die slowly and painfully had aged Tara what felt like decades.
She should boot Rand and the memories associated with their brief affair right off her property, but curiosity got the better of her. She opened the door farther. "Come in."
His brisk stride carried him past her and straight into the den. The same cologne he used to wear encircled her like a long-lost friend. A friend who'd stabbed her in the back.
No, that wasn't right. Rand had told her before their first date that he wasn't interested in forever. She was the one who'd broken the rules by getting emotionally involved. But how could she help herself when he'd been everything she'd ever dreamed of in a man? Fun, sexy, intelligent, attentive, gentle, good in bed. Correction. Amazing in bed.
She couldn't help wondering if she could have changed his mind about their future had she kept her mouth shut and let the love and trust sneak up on him. But she'd never know because three months into their affair she'd slipped up after making love and blathered out her feelings for him and her dreams for their future like the besotted twit she'd been.
Her ill-timed words had launched the next Ice Age and the fastest dumping in history. Rand had left her apartment so fast it's a wonder he hadn't burned tracks in her carpet. And then he'd left the country.
A frown line formed between his eyebrows as he examined the room's furnishings. "This looks nothing like your old place."
So he did remember. Her stupid heart skipped erratically. She scanned the room. The traditional furnishings were not the light-and-airy wicker and chintz she'd had in her apartment. "It's my mother's house and it was my grandparents' before it became hers."
His gaze sharpened and shot to the archway leading to the kitchen. "Is your mother at home?"
Tara's heart squeezed with pain and guilt that seemed like they would never end. "She's dead."
She gave him points for trying to be civil, but she didn't want to discuss her mother with him. The wound was still too raw. "A year ago. But that's not why you're here. Could you get to the point, please? I have plans tonight."
Sad, solo plans, but that was the story of her life these days. Other than a few regrettable exceptions in those lonely months immediately after her mother's death when Tara had needed someone to hold her, someone to keep the loneliness at bay, men had been a nonissue for her since Rand had dumped her. She'd never found the passion or the connection she'd experienced with Rand with another man, nor had she found the solace she'd been seeking on those lonely, regrettable nights. The physical acts with near-strangers had left her feeling emptier and more alone than before, so she'd quit looking.
Tension crackled in the air between them. Rand didn't sit. Neither did she. "Everett's will requires me to return to KCL as CEO"
"Return? You left Kincaid Cruise Lines? When? Why? The company is your life, your legacy."
"Yes. I left." His expression turned even more formidable. The lines bracketing his mouth carved paths through his five o'clock shadow. She used to love to feel that stubble beneath her fingertips and on her breasts. The memories made her pulse quicken and her skin flush.
"My father insists you come back as my PA for one year."
Rand's shocking revelation made her willing to overlook the fact that he hadn't answered all of her questions. "Me? Why? And why would I want to?"
"If you don't, then Mitch and Nadia will lose their home, their jobs and everything else."
Regret settled heavily in Tara's chest. For three years Nadia had been her friend, probably the closest one Tara had ever had. But a fissure had formed between them when Rand abruptly ended his and Tara's affair, and then Everett's proposition had finished what was left of the relationship. Tara had been so filled with shame and self-loathing she hadn't been able to face Nadiaor any of the Kincaids for that matteragain.
"I don't understand. Why would Everett insist on me returning to my old job? And why now?"
"Who knows what was going through his twisted mind? He has each of us jumping through hoops. He's harassing us from the grave." Bitterness and fury vibrated in Rand's voice.
What had happened to drive the men apart? Rand and his father had always been competitive, but she didn't remember Rand hating Everett. It sounded as if he did now.
"Can't you do something about the will?"
He shook his head. "I had a team of top-notch lawyers go over every word. The will's airtight. I'll pay you ten thousand a month, plus benefits."
Her mouth dropped open. "You're joking."
That was double what she'd made when she last worked at KCL and more than three times her current salary.
It had taken Tara four months after she'd left Kincaid to find a job. It hadn't been easy without a reference, but she hadn't dared ask for one after the way she'd left without giving notice, without even returning to empty her desk. Her replacement had done that and shipped Tara's belongings to her.
By the time Tara had finally found a position, she'd wiped out her savings, given up her apartment and moved in with her mother. The new job had paid less, but Tara had taken it because of the flexible hours and the opportunity for telecommuting gave her the time she'd needed to care for her mother during the grueling courses of chemotherapy.
Tara definitely planned to leave her current job. Her newly promoted boss was an arrogant, condescending jerk who had decided Tara's "flexible hours" meant she was at his beck and call 24/7. She just hadn't worked up the energy to start looking for a new position yet.
But working with Rand again Too risky given that tiny flicker of joy she'd experienced earlier. The man had already broken her heart once. She'd have to be a fool to return for a second helping of that kind of agony. She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm not interested."
"Fifteen grand a month," he offered without hesitation.
Tara caught her breath at the obscene amount and her knees nearly buckled. Carol Anthony's job as a hairstylist hadn't provided health or life insurance, and Tara had inherited her mother's debts along with her home and possessions. With that kind of money she could pay off the exorbitant medical bills her mother had left behind and stop the increasingly threatening collection notices.
She was more than a little tempted. But why, oh, why did it have to be Rand Kincaid making this offer? "It's not about the money, Rand."
He punched his fists to his hips, shoving his suit coat away from the flat plane of his stomacha stomach she'd once been free to touch and taste. "Look, we both know you don't give a damn about me. But do it for Nadia and Mitch. They don't deserve to have the rug ripped out from under them. Name your price, Tara."
Tara wavered. Common sense said refuse. But a minuscule, insistent part of her reminded her how good she and Rand had been together. When she'd been with him she'd felt special and important, as if happily-ever-after might actually be possible.
She'd never had time to come to terms with his abrupt ending of their relationship. Before she could sort out her chaotic emotions her mother's persistent cough had been diagnosed as stage-three lung cancer. From that moment through the next few years Tara's life had careened out of control on a roller coaster of hope and despair. Every waking thought had centered on her mother's survival. There had been too many difficult decisions to make and so many fears to face. There hadn't been time to think about her own wants and needs, her broken heart, disappointed dreams or the man who hadn't wanted her.
And then after battling four long, torturous years, her mother had died. Grief and guilt had consumed Tara. Since the funeral she'd been too numb to do anything but go through the motions of daily living. Work. Home. Paying bills.
She'd clung to the status quo like a sailor hung on to a capsized boat, afraid to let go, afraid another crisis would drag her under. Inertia wasn't something she enjoyed, but even one more change seemed like one more than she could handle. That was the only reason Tara could think of to explain why she'd stayed at a job she hated and why she couldn't face boxing up and donating her mother's things or even moving the bedroom furniture her mother had used out of the dining room. She couldn't even open the dining room door.
She chewed the inside of her bottom lip and studied the man in front of her. Was Rand's reappearance in her life a wake-up call? An opportunity to get her life back on track? Hugging herself she stared at the picture of her mother on the mantel.
Live your life without regrets, Tara. Promise me . Her mother's final words echoed in her head.
Tara had learned two very important lessons as she watched her mother bravely fight and eventually succumb to the disease that had ravaged her body. One was that life shouldn't be filled with regrets for the things you hadn't done. The second was that some things are worth fighting for.
Tara had failed on both accounts.
She hadn't been courageous or unselfish enough to buy her mother more time and maybe even save her lifea fact that would haunt her for eternity.
Second, she'd let Rand walk away. She hadn't fought for himfor them. She'd allowed his fear of commitment and his unwillingness to listen to her reasons for turning to his father destroy any chance they might have had for a future together.
Rand watched her silently now with no trace of emotion on his hard-set face, but she was absolutely certain he had felt something for her back then even though he'd denied any emotions deeper than lust. If he hadn't cared, he wouldn't have treated her so well, and she didn't think she'd imagined the quickly masked flash of pain and shock in his eyes that last morning. If his feelings for her hadn't gone deeper than lust, he wouldn't have been hurt by what had appeared to be a betrayal on her part.
Unable to concentrate with his intense stare nailing her in place and compelling her to accept, she turned away. She'd never expected to see Rand Kincaid again, and she could have survived without him in her life. But here he stood in her home. It seemed as if fate were offering her a second chance to make this rightto make them right.
Did she dare try?
It would be a huge gamble. She might fail and get her heart shattered all over again, but at least she'd have the satisfaction of knowing she'd given it her best effort.
But how? How could she reach a commitment-phobic man who'd walked away once already? How could she prove to him that good relationships could and did happen?
She peeked at his reflection in the mirror that hung behind the sofa and caught his gaze raking her body. Heat flared in his eyes and kicked her pulse into a faster beat. And then he realized he was under scrutiny and masked his desire. He held her gaze dispassionately, but the raw hunger she'd glimpsed gave her the answer she needed.
She'd start with the one thing that had always been good between themthe sexand build from there.And this time she wouldn't blurt out her feelings prematurely and scare him away.
Her skin flushed and her heart pounded at the possibility of sleeping with Rand again. She would, ironically, be offering him almost the same deal his father had offered her. Move in, be her partner in every way, and she would help him with his problem.
Would Rand have the courage to accept where Tara had failed?
Blinking to break the connection, she wiped her damp hands on her dress, exhaled slowlyshakilyand faced him. "I'll come back to Kincaid on two conditions."
"One, I want a glowing recommendation from you in writing. In advance." If this gamble didn't work out, she didn't want to be forced into another low-paying, dead-end job. She had bills to pay and an obligation to keep this house.
"If I give you the letter now, what's to keep you from walking before the year's up?"
He hesitated, his square jaw shifting. "Done. What else?"
Chaos clamored inside her. She licked her dry lips and smoothed her damp hands on her hips again. "You. I want you, Rand. In my life. In my home. In my bed. Exclusively. For that year."
Rand recoiled as if she'd slapped him. "That offer is not on the table."
She fought to conceal her pain.
Did you expect him to be thrilled?
Maybe not thrilled, but something less than appalled would have been nice.