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Noelle St. James-Maxwell breathed a sigh of contentment. Everything was exquisite. The caterers had laid out a fare fit for royalty. Every imaginable delicacy was there for the taking. She smiled in satisfaction as she regally strolled across the grounds, nodding and waving, greeting the guests, the curious, the envious.
Noelle couldn't call any of them friends, she thought, ruefully, shaking hands with the president of NBC studios. She knew they'd all come to gawk, to pass their comments, stir more rumors and most of all, to see if the young widow of Jordan Maxwell had what it took to run his empire.
They wanted her to fail, she knew, smiling graciously at the arrival of Whitney and her superstar husband. The circle of elite associates that her late husband surrounded himself with were a tight-knit, cliquish group. They turned their noses up at any who were not one of them. Background, education and family trees were more important than personal substance. Noelle couldn't count a friend among them. The group had yet to adjust to the fact that Jordan Maxwell, owner of one of the largest import-export companies in the U.S., a man who could have any woman he chose, had plucked a no-count waitress from the bowels ofthe Louisiana swampland and dropped her in their midst. They were still reeling from that indignity five years later.
Jordan had groomed her for a world that she had never fully adjusted to and was never accepted in. Liaisons was her first real attempt at anything independent of Jordan. The thought of failure terrified her, and failure would solidify every negative comment ever said about her. For that reason, she'd never let them see the loneliness or the fear that lived in her soul, visible only through her eyes. For now, the darkness would hide her secret.
But tonight was her success, she thought, shaking off the disturbing thoughts. Liaisons was the culmination of her dreams, a tribute to Jordan, and no one was going to ruin it. Not even Trent Dixon.
She turned in the direction of the familiar voice, the smile she displayed being genuine for the first time in hours.
The two women embraced warmly, then quickly stepped back to assess the other.
"That dress is fabulous, girl," Tempest enthused, admiring the silk sheath of champagne gold that seductively stroked Noelle's notorious curves, reaching just above her slender ankles. The daring side split gave a teasing view of a perfect copper leg from ankle to hip.
Her soft creole accent floated through the air. "Merci. But of course you have outdone yourself, chère amie. Red was always your color."
Tempest smiled at the compliment. With a wicked grin she asked, "What do you wear under something like that?"
Noelle smiled slyly, "Absolutely nothing."
The two women laughed in unison, drawing the attention of one who stood apart from the growing crowd.
Quietly he watched the two beautiful women, but his attention was riveted on Noelle. He'd instantly recognized her. She was more magnificent than any newspaper clipping or photograph, he realized with a jolt that shot straight to his loins.
Her skin brought to mind the tangy taste of cinnamon. The silky head of chestnut hair, begged him to run his fingers through it. Her statuesque form screamed sensuality. Yet she had a presence that demanded respect. She was a woman who could make a man want to keep her in bed and never let her out. By just looking at her, the stirrings of arousal swept through him. He began to imagine what she would feel like moving beneath him.
Damn, man, what the hell are you doing? Fantasizing about making love to your best friend's widow?
He took a quick sip of champagne. In all of the years that he'd worked with Jordan, he'd never met the woman who'd captured the icon's heart. His years of work in the Sudan had kept him out of the States. Now he could see exactly why Jordan had remained so faithful even when he was away from home for months at a time.
Being home again was going to take some getting used to. Especially since he knew he was not welcome here. But he had a job to do. He'd taken an unbreakable oath and he would fulfill Jordan Maxwell's wishes. His beautiful widow would just have to accept that.
As if reading his thoughts, Noelle slowly turned her gaze in his direction. The contact was electrifying. She felt hot and cold at once. His unwavering deep stare seemed to see right through her. The dark eyes were unreadable and she felt naked and vulnerable under their appraisal.
What he saw in her eyes shook him to the marrow of his bones. There in the depths of the nut brown eyes was a haunting loneliness, a well of vulnerability and a compelling pain that made him want to pull her into his arms and make her know that he would make everything right with her world.
Then, as quickly as the force had taken hold of them, the contact was broken when Noelle's attention was diverted by Tempest.
"Noelle? Are you all right? You look like you've been hit by lightning," Tempest said.
Noelle shook her head. "I'm fine." She passed off a weak smile at Tempest, whose eyes turned in the direction of Noelle's gaze.
"Who-is-that?" Tempest asked, admiring the man who defined tall, dark and handsome and made her wish her own gorgeous husband was there to wrap herself around.
"I'm not sure," Noelle answered slowly, noticing that her pulse was racing.
"Well, with the vibes that the two of you are giving off, I suggest you find out. Don't you?"
"Maybe later," Noelle answered absently, not trusting the rush of emotions that swirled within her. She expelled a breath. "Where's Braxton?" she asked, needing to change the subject, while forcing calm into her voice.
"I was just thinking the same thing." Tempest checked her watch. Briefly she scanned the blooming crowd, while noticing that the handsome stranger had not taken his eyes off Noelle.
Braxton was not in sight. Tempest frowned. Over the past few months, Braxton's absences and late arrivals had become a bone of contention between them. "He should have been here by now. His flight was scheduled to arrive nearly an hour ago."
"You know how those flights from Morocco can be, chère. They're always delayed."
"Hmm. You're probably right. But in the meantime," she added, lowering her gaze to the ground as she spoke, "cutie pie is coming this way."
Noelle angled her head to see him coming toward them. For some inexplicable reason her heart thundered so forcefully she momentarily felt breathless. The closer he came the quicker her pulse galloped.
He didn't just walk, Noelle realized with growing alarm. His every move sizzled, tossing electric sparks in his wake.
Raw was the word that leaped into her brain. Raw, animal sexuality poured from him like sweat after hours of erotic loving. She felt dizzy.
"Good evening ladies." His mellow voice warmed Noelle like brandy in winter. Politely he inclined his head toward Tempest, who smiled knowingly.
"Listen, Noelle, I'm going inside to call the airport. Please excuse me," she said to both. Without another glance she walked up the small incline toward the main entrance.
"I hope it wasn't anything I said," he quipped, flashing a smile that made Noelle's insides quiver.
Smoothly she returned his smile. "I'm sure it wasn't. She's expecting her husband. It seems his plane has been delayed."
"In that case, I feel better." His smile stroked her. "At least about it not being my fault." He made a small show of looking over the grounds, if only to take his mind temporarily off of the face and body that was making him lose his sense of perspective.
In profile, Noelle stole the chance to observe him up close. He had to be over 6'3", she noted, as he stood head and shoulders above her 5'8" height plus heels. His hard muscular body told her that he took care of himself. He had a strong chiseled face of smooth sienna, a well-tended beard that outlined his rugged chin. His eyes were wide and dark, shadowed by thick black lashes and thicker brows. His full, sensuous lips promised unmeasurable pleasure.
He had a real GQ look. Even in semicasual attire he gave the impression of power and confidence. He wore a suit of navy linen, that hung loosely on his body, as was the fashion. He chose to wear a V-neck T-shirt of white silk. The low collar entreated her to run her fingers across his chest. She curled them into a fist to quell the urge.
He returned his attention back to her and her flesh warmed under his gaze, shooting flashes of liquid desire to her center. She felt the tips of her breasts ripen under his open perusal, which made her even more self-conscious.
She feels it, too, he realized, her ardor boldly evident through the revealing dress, even as he fought to control the turbulence of passion that raged within him.
He forced his mind to clear. "This is a beautiful place you have. You've done wonders with it."
Noelle's tapered eyebrows arched. "You're familiar with the villa, monsieur?"
"Actually," he replied in a confidential tone, "I was with Jordan when he purchased it almost ten years ago. He always had intentions of working on it, but " His sentence drifted off. "I'm glad to see that his very beautiful wife decided to take it over."
His dark eyes held hers a moment too long and Noelle felt lightheaded. It must be the champagne.
She cleared her throat. "It seems that you know a great deal about me, monsieur ?"
Noelle turned around to see Braxton and Tempest coming toward her. Her face lit up when she saw Braxton approach. It had been months since she'd last seen him. After the completion of the interior architecture and the landscaping, he'd had to fly off to Morocco.
Now that both of the honored guests were present the official opening of Liaisons could commence.
Braxton embraced her in a warm hug. "It's good to see you again, Noelle. I'm sorry to be so late, but my plane " He gave her that smile that had imprisoned Tempest's heart for life.
Noelle looked at her relieved girlfriend. "I told you," Noelle admonished. She took Braxton's arm and turned back to make introductions.
He was gone. All that remained was his erotic scent that seemed to have seeped into Noelle's pores.
"Oh " she muttered, a bit confused and somewhat embarrassed, looking over the heads of her guests.
"Is something wrong?" Braxton asked.
"No I was just talking with " She expelled a breath. "Never mind." She smiled brightly. "Now that you're here, I can make the announcement to open the house for the tour. That's what's important."
For the next hour, Noelle, Tempest and Braxton were bombarded with congratulations and enthusiastic approval of the three-story villa.
Noelle's jaws began to ache from the continual smile that she had carved on her mouth. But her thoughts were elsewhere. In every free moment, she subtly tried to locate the man whose image she couldn't get off of her mind. He seemed to have vanished, and she didn't even know his name.
"You're completely distracted," Tempest said, surprising Noelle with her nearness.
She laughed, embarrassed. "Is it that obvious?"
"Very." Tempest followed Noelle's gaze. "You're looking for him aren't you?"
Noelle's shoulders slumped. "I am transparent, aren't I?"
"Only to those that know you. So—who is he?"
Noelle turned her palms upward. "I still don't know."
"Excuse me? You mean that the two of you were practically undressing each other on the lawn and you don't know who he is? You're losing your touch."
An underlying sadness scored her voice. "I've had no reason to be interested in a man in a very long time."
"Yes, I know," Tempest said softly, placing a comforting hand on Noelle's bare shoulder, "but you're a healthy, vibrant, beautiful woman. You can't stay in hibernation forever. And you can't use Liaisons to shield yourself from the world."
Noelle's voice quivered. "He's only been gone a year. I I just couldn't He was my life, my world. He "
"He was just a man, Noelle," Tempest said gently. "Just a man. Not the god that everyone, including you, made him out to be. I can't believe that Jordan would want you to remain alone for the rest of your life. He groomed you to be a part of the world, not just the world that he created."
Noelle lowered her eyes, struggling to fight back the tears that burned her eyes and seared her throat.
Her life had changed irrevocably. It was due to Jordan. Everything that she had, what she was, what she thought, was because of Jordan. He'd rescued her, brought new meaning to her life, gave her reason to want to get up everyday.
He'd turned her life around and now he was gone. He'd left her to deal with this evil, hungry world alone. To face his enemies that would just as soon help her as stab her in the back.
Five years ago, sweating in her aunt Chantal's tiny café, darting the grubby hands of the male customers she would have never imagined that her life could have ever been any different. Not until the moment that Jordan Maxwell walked into her life. Since that day nothing in her life had ever been the same.
Forever would she recall the way he looked at her when he walked through those doors.
Excerpted from Temptation by Donna Hill
Copyright © 2008 by Donna Hill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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