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Most people didn't ignore a powerful tycoon like Jeremiah Barron.
But one lady in particular had dared, and here she was, standing by herself in front of the open French windows of a spacious marble lounge in a country mansion near Austin.
The sheer curtains billowed around her in the breeze, her shiny platinum hair rolled back in a chignon, her lithe figure dressed in a cool, white late-summer sheath. Outside, the sound of children's laughter floated from the sunset-lit hedges in the garden maze, and she had a look of such yearning on her face that Jeremiah couldn't take his eyes off of her.
Allison Gale, philanthropist and socialite.
An heiress who'd fallen on misfortune.
The woman Jeremiah hadn't been able to shake from his mind ever since she'd oh-so-politely put him in his place over a month ago.
As he visually drank her in, his heart fell straight down until it crashed into his gut. But it was only intrigued admiration, really, and it was all Jeremiah was capable of.
Allythat's what he'd overheard her friends call hermust have sensed that she wasn't by herself anymore, and as she glanced at him, she didn't have quite enough time to erase the longing from her expression.
As if she'd been exposed in some way, Ally abandoned the window, folding her hands in front of her, the epitome of the elegant cohostess for the annual Help for Children fund-raising weekend.
"I didn't hear you come in, Mr. Barron," she said, smiling. "Welcome to the Howard ranch."
"So formal," he said as he dropped the hand holding his Stetson over his heart to his side. "I've asked you before to use my given name. And I'd think that a visit to the country would call for some casualness."
As she strolled away from the window, the children kept laughing outside, and she held on to a wisp of a smile before she gestured toward the sounds.
"Dinner's still being served on the patio," she said. "The Howards' kids are having ice cream for dessert, but we can still bring you something more substantial."
"I'm solid as can be."
She walked right by him, making no comment, leaving a trail of cherry-blossom scent that made his head light, his belly clench.
Maybe she was remembering the Red Cross event about a month ago, when he'd seen her in the crowd.
He'd been drawn by her classic blond beauty, making his way over to her, grinning at her, just as he did whenever he wanted to talk someone into something.
Rumor had it that Ally Gale's bank account had taken a hit lately, and although you couldn't tell from her polished style, Jeremiah had wondered if she missed fine wine and dining. If she'd want a man who could promise some of that to her.
She'd stopped him before he'd gotten much further.
Mr. Barron, she'd said with a note of amusement, along with a tone that told him she was well aware of his reputation. I think you've got a roomful of women who're just waiting for you to ask them for a dance.
And she'd left him standing there, as stranded as a castaway on a deserted island.
But what Ally Gale hadn't known was that she'd presented a challenge to a man who thrived on them, both as copresident of his family's corporation and in a personal life that had allowed him to forget more and more lately about the Barron Group.
Especially since the scandal had hit a few months ago.
"I'm surprised you even cameand so early, before everyone else," she said as he sauntered behind her out of the lounge and into the foyer, where a grand, curved staircase waited.
They stopped at the foot of it, Jeremiah lingering near her. She drew in a short breath, but otherwise she kept that polite smile on her face.
"I didn't see any reason for waiting to come here," he said, his voice low.
Ally seemed to realize that he was talking about more than just attending a charity function, and she took a step away.
"Well, we appreciate your donation and participation this weekend. I'll check to see that the butler has taken your bags to your room."
Was she already dismissing him?
His hackles rose. He'd been dismissed by his father all his life, and that was what had taught him to fight. The instinct was too ingrained for him to ignore it now.
Still, his tone was nonchalant.
"Signing up for a long weekend here in the country is just what the doctor ordered. A lungful of fresh air to be gotten while contributing to a good cause."
"So says the corporate mogul," she said. "I know you're also here to wheel and deal with a few other businessmen, too. It's the perfect opportunity, with so many of you staying on the premises."
Okay, so the event was driven by donors who'd paid to reside in the luxurious French-style country house on a massive ranch for an extended weekend of Texas barbecuing, an auction and a fancy cowboy ball. There would be a lot of opportunity at hand. In particular, Jeremiah had been sweet-talking the cohosts and owners of this ranch, the Howards, because they had a few properties that had caught his eye as a developer.
But Ally was the real organizer of this partyand when he'd found out that she was the cohostess, it had been icing on the cake.
It stung Jeremiah's pride that she was subtly dancing around any flirtation, but it also pushed him on. Better to be engaged in a chase like this than to think about what was going on back home at his family's ranch. Better to lose himself in the arms of another woman who could make him forgeta woman like Ally. If she would just give in to him now, rather than later.
"All right, business is on the agenda," he said. "As a matter of fact, you still hold a property that I'd like to chat aboutyour abandoned hotel near Galveston. It's got a prime location, and it'd be just right for another one of our golf resorts."
"No business for me this weekend, thank you."
Jeremiah walked toward her, his boot steps heavy on the marble floor, echoing off the tall, crown-molded ceilings.
Her eyes widenedblue-green eyes that would put most seas to shame.
Jeremiah's belly swirled with need, just at thinking of what it would feel like to undo her light hair, feel it tumble out of that fancy chignon and over his hands as he brushed his fingertips against the back of her neck .
Before the fantasy could continue, she pulled him out of it.
"I wish your family could've attended, too. It's a shame. I know your father enjoyed it last year when he came."
Awkwardness slammed into the room, and judging by her expression, Ally seemed to realize she'd strayed into dangerous territory.
"My dad's resting," he said, because it sounded much better than the truththat Eli Barron was reeling from what he'd done to his family, drinking too much. Hell, when he'd announced to the public that he'd fathered a son, Chet, with his sister-in-law, there'd been a huge scandal. It had been contained by a PR firm, of course, though the fallout had rocked all the Barrons, especially after the recent death of Uncle Abe, the cuckolded husband.
Jeremiah glanced away, steeling himself against the pain of his uncle's passing, plus the entire scandal itself. But when he looked back at Ally, one glimpse of this woman, with such pale skin, pink lips and mermaid eyes, sent him to a place where none of his problems existed.
The distractions always worked. At least for a time.
Putting this particular discussion behind them, he took a chance, rising from his carefree stance against the stair rail to be nearer to Ally. Her dress was sleeveless, so he could just about sense the warmth from her bare arms. He could smell her cherry-blossom scent again, too.
Cherries and heat, he thought. Moonlight and blond hair fanned over the sheets of his bed .
His voice was low. "My family's fine now, Ally. We've moved on."
She raised her face in order to meet his gaze. He could tell that she wanted to snap their visual connection, back away from him, but she wasn't doing it.
A brutal thrill sawed at his chest, then traveled lower, ripping and opening a hole that needed to be filled.
There was another need that he couldn't identify, but it didn't matter now. She was the one who'd politely rejected him, sparking a feeling in him that he couldn't seem to access anymore. And when she eventually changed her mind about him, she would get him through that night and on to the next, where he would find someone else to pull him out of this "descent," or whatever his brother Tyler kept calling it.
Leave it to Ty, the golden boy, to know better.
Slowly, so as not to break the moment, Jeremiah brushed Ally's arm with his fingertips. Goosebumps came in the wake of his touch.
He did do something to her, and she couldn't deny it.
But she tried, and he didn't expect anything less.
"I should really check on your room," she said, circumventing him and taking the stairs.
This time, Jeremiah didn't follow her.
Like every deal he embarked upon, Ally Gale would close, and it was only a matter of time before she realized it.
Thank goodness there would be no other guests arriving until tomorrow morning, long before the big barbecue, because Ally was in no state to greet them now.
She stood in front of the air conditioner in the guest room she'd been assigned for the weekend, hoping it would cool her off.
No such luck.
Darn itshe was acting like a silly teenager with a crush, just because Jeremiah Barron had whisked his fingers over her arm. What was nextan entire meltdown if he should happen to put his hand on the small of her back during a dance at the ball?
But, even as she chided herself, the memory of that brush against her arm torched away at her, starting in her tummy then trickling outward in wiggles of heat that settled low and deep within her.
She blew out a breath. Maybe she was just lonely. It had been that way ever since she and Marco Terelli had gone their separate ways early this year. He was an international businessman who constantly traveled, but she'd been optimistic about their chances. She'd even thought that he actually had intentions, plans with her, but the longer he'd put them off, the more certain she'd become that he was in their relationship for nothing more than occasional companionship.
Heck, thoughshe'd done fine on her own ever since the breakup. There'd been a few dates for her, yet nothing that had really stoked her interest.
At least not until Jeremiah Barron had shown up at that Red Cross event, a cowboy magnate with a subtle swagger. Every woman on the lawn of the cocktail party had been watching himincluding Ally, although it had just been a few seconds before she'd turned away from the notorious playboy.
She had too much dignity for one-night stands, and that probably was all Jeremiah Barron would offer. That was what she'd told herself, anyway.
Then he'd approached her, and it had been like a jolt to her system, a twist to her straight-arrow nature. She'd gently nipped in the bud any ideas he might've had about her, of course, and she'd thought that would be that.
Why would he want her, anyway? She wasn't his usual flash-and-dash type of woman. Everyone knew that Allison Gale actually was rather quiet, a homebody, even before her financial situation had changed, making her cut back on everything from the money she often donated to her favorite causes to vacations that she'd decided she didn't really need after all.
But, just minutes ago, when she'd been alone with Jeremiah Barron, she'd felt the same adrenalized rush from that night. Then, today, she'd made that blunderbringing up his family scandaland, in spite of herself, she'd tried to make up for it, but only because it was in her nature to comfort people.
It was just that when she'd seen him looking so sad, his eyes a faraway blue, it had tugged at her. Jeremiah Barron, the whip-smart billionaire of the Barron Groupa man who was so in control that he had his pick of any woman he wanted, in Texas and beyondhad been just as vulnerable as any other person at that moment.
But then he'd seemed to realize that he was revealing too much, and the playboy in him had returned.
Ally turned her back to the air conditioner, allowing the coolness to bathe the back of her neck. There was good reason she couldn't give in to a temptation like him. A very good one.
Her gaze strayed to the mahogany Chippendale night-stand near her spacious, white-coverlet-draped bed. On top of the table, next to an old-fashioned Tiffany lamp, a portfolio of copied pages waited. Ally had been going through it every night, praying, hoping.
A knock brought her away from the air conditioner and to the side of the bed, where she'd slipped off her strappy high-heeled sandals. She slid them back on just before she opened the door.
At the sight of Aunt Jess, with her tanned skin, sun-streaked brunette hair and purple-wildflower wraparound dress, Ally gave a little cry and hugged her.
"You weren't supposed to be here until tomorrow!" Ally said.
"I caught an earlier flight."
Jess squeezed her until Ally thought she would die of lost breath. Then her aunt, who'd just turned forty this year and didn't look a bit of it, held Ally away from her.
"Aren't you something to behold," Jess said, just before she hugged Ally one last time and stepped inside the room. She was carrying a brightly woven straw bag, and she spilled the contents onto the bed. "I was thinking of you while I was in Maui."
Ally picked up one of ten boxes of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. "Aunt Jess, you're out to make me gain weight."
"You could eat fifty boxes and never put on an ounce. You make me sick."
"But you thought you'd see if this tactic worked anyway?" Ally began to undo the plastic wrapping. "Let's put that theory to the test."
Jess laughed and pinched Ally's cheek, just as if her niece was still a toddler. Jess was only a decade older, but she'd always wielded those years over Ally.
Then, after roaming to the other side of the bed, she plopped down onto the mattress. "I can't wait for the barbecue tomorrow. Texas beef. I missed it while I was away."