Read an Excerpt
Juliana Cane hadn't spoken to Michael Shaylen in eight years, not since the day she'd realized that if she was going to lose him, she'd rather do it on her terms.
And today, when she opened her front door to the man who'd once taken her to heights never experienced before or since, her brain deserted her. She'd practiced a highly appropriate "hello" and a lovely "nice to see you," both suitable greetings for an ex-boyfriend who calls with no warning.
But obviously his brief and to-the-point "I need to talk to you" had knocked her upside down, and she hadn't reoriented yet because all she managed was "You're not on crutches."
Like the last time she'd seen him. A broken leg did take less than eight years to heal.
"Day's not over."
A familiar, cloud-parting smile broke open across his stubbly jaw, its effect a forceful punch to a feminine place long forgotten.
Unbelievable. After all this time, both her brain and her body still reacted to him without her permission.
"How are you?" he asked. "It's Dr. Cane now, right?"
"Yes." She was a psychologist and thus well equipped to handle this unexpected visit, if the bongo drum in her chest would lay off. "But only my clients call me that. You didn't mention on the phone if you'd be staying long. Do you have time to come in?"
"Sure." He shot a glance toward the long, sleek car idling at the curb.
"Is someone in the car? Everyone is welcome." Even a size-zero supermodel with photo-worthy hair and fourteen thousand dollars' worth of dental work. His usual type, if the media could be believed. "I don't want you to feel awkward about this visit, Michael."
His name stuck in her throat. She'd never called him Michael.
His lips curved into a half grin. "Then stop first-naming me. I'm still Shay."
Shay. His mega-watt personality engulfed the porch, too big to be reined in by skin. That chiseled physique honed by hours of brutally challenging sports hadn't changed. A new scar stood out in sharp relief on his biceps, a long slash interlaced with crosshatches.
Stiches. Messy stitches, which meant he must have been sewn up by a third-world doctor after a zip-line accident in Off-The-Map City. Probably without anesthetic or antibiotics.
Still the same Shay.
She stepped back, refusing to dwell on scarsvisible or otherwiseand nearly tripped over the Persian runner in the foyer. "Come in, please."
With another glance at the idling car, cryptic with its rental tags and tinted windows, he followed her into the house. Where to put him? In the living room or the less formal family room? She decided on formality, at least until she got her feet under her and her brain functional.
How could Shay still wreak such havoc on her senses after eight years?
Maybe because he was still gorgeous and untamed and She didn't like that kind of man anymore, despite certain feminine parts trying to insist otherwise.
She ushered him into the living room and gestured to the plush navy couch. It was supposed to be big enough for two people but Shay's six-foot frame dwarfed it. As he settled onto a cushion, she worried for a fanciful second that the metal webbing beneath the fabric would collapse under the weight of so much man.
Eric was six feet tall. The couch had never seemed small when her ex-husband sat on it. She opted for the armless Queen Anne chair at a right angle to the couch and didn't allow a speck of self-analysis about why she hadn't sat next to Shay.
"I'm sorry about Grant and Donna," she said right away. The deaths of his friends and business partners was no doubt fresh on his mind. "How was the funeral?"
"Long." Grief welled inside his sea-glass-green eyes.
She could still see clear through them, straight into the wrenching agony of having to bury his best friends. Her primal, unchecked reaction to his emotions was frighteningly unchanged as wella strong urge to soothe, to heal. To hold on to him until the pain fled.
Instead of reaching for him, she clasped her fingers together in a tight weave. They were virtually strangers now, no matter how abnormal it seemed. No matter how convinced she'd been that time would surely have dimmed the shimmering, irrational dynamic between them.
It hadn't. But she'd pretend it had.
Once, she'd been so drawn to his lust for life, to his powerful personality and his passion for everythingespecially herthat he'd engulfed her, until she couldn't see the surface anymore. It was too much. He was too much. She'd never been enough for him.
So why was he here? Instead of jumping right into it, she went with a safer subject. "Tell me about the funeral."
"We did both services together. Better that way, to get it all over with. Closed casket. It was easier. I didn't have to see them."
"Of course," she murmured. It wasn't like they'd had a choice.
Grant and Donna Greene had died in the explosion of an experimental ship designed for space tourism. News stations had continually replayed the clip, but Juliana couldn't imagine the couple being inside the craft when it blew. It was too ghastly. Instead, she remembered Shay's friends the way she'd last seen them eight years agostanding on a bungee platform, sun beating down on the four of them as they waited to plunge into the unknown.
One by one, they'd jumped. First Shay, because he never failed to be first in line for whatever new thrill he'd conceived. Then Grant jumped, then Donna. They'd all jumped.
She couldn'tcouldn't even peer over the edge. She'd just backed away with a wordless shake of her head, too overcome to speak. Too overwhelmed by the slippery darkness encroaching on her consciousness.
Shay was fearless. She wasn't. They didn't make sense together, and she'd known he'd eventually realize that, eventually grow bored with her at best, or resentful at worst.
She'd just realized the truth first.
She shook her head now and focused on the breathtaking mountains dominating the view through the floor-to-ceiling glass opposite her chair. She'd moved on, moved to New Mexico from Dallas for a reason. That hadn't been her place, in a relationship with a man who thrived on the indefinite, with whom she couldn't imagine a future. Or children. Or a normal marriage.
In New Mexico, she could find her balance in structure and order, the opposite of what her home life had been while growing up, the opposite of what she'd had with Shay. She could build a safe life firmly planted on the ground.
It just wasn't happening quite like she'd planned.
"How are you coping?" she asked. Her Dr. Cane voice betrayed nothing of the sharp and vivid memories fighting for her attention.
Eric disliked her Dr. Cane voice, disliked it when she answered all his questions with questions. Shay didn't seem at all bothered that she'd retreated behind her degree.
"Taking it day by day right now." Shay coughed and stared at the ceiling for a long time. "Greene, Greene and Shaylen has some good people running the show and that'll continue until I figure out some things."
"I'm so sorry, Shay. Let me get you a drink."
"First I have to tell you why I'm here. The will " He cleared his throat. "Grant and Donna had a son. You probably heard. Their will named me as the guardian."
Her lungs contracted. That poor, motherless baby had been shuttled around with little regard, no doubt, for the potential trauma. Instinctively, she cupped her own barren womb and swallowed. "The news did mention a baby, but I assumed he went to relatives."
"I am a relative," Shay shot back. "Not by blood, but Grant was my brother in every way."
Juliana blinked at the fierceness clamping his mouth into a hard line. "Yes, I didn't mean anything by the term."
Shay backhanded a dark caramel-shot thatch of hair off his forehead. Almost every day of the two years they'd been together, he'd worn a baseball cap to keep that wavy mane out of his face. Had he traded the cap for something else or was he always bareheaded now?
"Sorry," he said. "It's been a hellacious couple of weeks. I'll get to the point. I'm a dad now. I owe Grant's kid the best shot at that I can give him. But I can't do it by myself. I need your help."
"My help? I haven't seen Grant and Donna since college."
Even then, they'd been part of Shay's world, not hers. The three were always together, poring over some complicated schematic. Muttering about accelerants and a myriad of other baffling rocket science terms. Three of the best minds in a generation hashing out improbable solutions for the optimal way to get off the ground. Always in a hurry to leave the earthand Julianabehind.
"You're a kid expert. That's what I need."
He'd been keeping tabs on her. Since she'd kept tabs on him, it shouldn't have come as a shock. Except Michael Shay-len's name graced the headlines every week, especially the past couple of years, once the cascade of government contracts awarded to GGS Aerospace catapulted its three founders onto the short list of billionaires under the age of thirty.
The story of her life was considerably less newsworthy. A dissertation arguing for more traditional child-rearing methods. Marriage to a compatible man. Four failed in vitro attempts. One quiet divorce and a year of floundering. But she was on track now, with a thriving psychology practice and the beginnings of a new parenting book. If she couldn't have a baby, she'd help other parents be the best they could be.
Much better than her own parents had ever been. They didn't know half of what had happened to her and didn't care to know. They'd always been too caught up in moving to the next town one step ahead of creditors to notice their daughter's problems, so she'd stopped telling them how rootless she'd felt. She'd stopped telling anyone.
All her angst, all her longing would be funneled into the book she'd conceptualized a few weeks ago. She'd birth a legacy instead of a baby.
"Yes, I'm a child psychologist. How does that make me what you need?"
"How do I raise him? How do I care for him?" Shay met her gaze and the strength of his plea hummed through the air. The years vanished as her flesh pebbled like it always had when provoked with that searing intensity. "Anyone can show me how to mix formula and change diapers. I'm asking you to teach me to be a father."
With a shiver, she ordered her goose bumps to cease and desist. He wanted her help, as a professional advisor of sorts. Not a smart idea. How could she work with him so closely when he still had such a strong effect on her? "That's a tall order. Hire a nanny."
"I plan to hire a nanny. Help me pick a good one. Help me pick schools, toys. Grant entrusted his son to me and I have to do everything right." The green tide pool of Shay's eyes sucked at her, mesmerizing her, as he pleaded his case.
He meant it.
Never would she have suspected such a sense of responsibility lurked in the heart of the roller coaster ride sprawled on her couch.
Eight years ago, she'd ended their relationship because she'd wanted to have children with a man who would raise them by her side, not one who was likely to wind up in a broken heap at the bottom of a cliff after his rappelling rope failed. Not one who willingly sought to upset the status quo every five seconds.
How ironic that he was the one who had ended up with the baby.
Shay fought the urge to clear his throat again. He hadn't said her name aloud in a long time. Hadn't allowed himself to think about her. For the past eight years, he'd successfully avoided recalling what a mess she'd left behind when she'd walked out on him.
"Will you consider it? If the answer is no, I'll be on my way."
In the past twenty-four hours after making that phone call, he'd done nothing but think about Juliana Cane. The way her lips curled up in a half smile as she drew a bow across her violin. How she threw her head back while in the throes of pleasure. The exact shade of blue of her eyes.
Her still-gorgeous mouth pursed in thought, shifting the lines of her heartbreaker of a face. "What exactly are you proposing? I have clients. A practice. A life."
A life. Well, so did he. Or he used to. These days, life had an aggravating tendency to be one way when he woke up and a whole other way by the time his head hit the pillow that night. If he slept at all.
He hadn't closed his eyes once the night after Grant and Donna died. Too busy counting the if-onlys. Too busy shouldering blame and cursing himself for not double-checking that fuel line personally. Too busy figuring out that yeah, men weren't supposed to cry, but after losing everything that mattered, rules didn't apply.
Shay crossed his arms over the perpetual ache and scooted back against the fluffy, senior-citizen-approved couch cushions. "Sounds like the answer is yes."
She straightened the perfectly symmetrical hem to her grown-up suit and crossed her mile-long legs. "Yes to considering it. Iced tea? It's organic, and I only use stevia as a sweetener."
He hated iced tea and always had. What did it say that she didn't remember? Likely that she'd moved on and rightly so. They'd had no contact for eight years, and without the accident and his resulting parenthood, they would have continued to have no contact. Yeah, he'd followed her career. He couldn't help but wonder if she'd found the boring life she seemed to want.
Shay trailed Juliana into the neat kitchen, eyes on her heels. Nice. Did a lot for her already spectacular legs. Those legs dredged up crystal-clear memories of her smooth limbs wrapped around his waist, her hot torso heaving against his.
Their relationship had bordered on mythical. The sex had been awesome, too. Nearly a decade later, the heat between them was banked. But still there. He could feel it.
The kitchen told him a bunch about this new professional version of Juliana Cane. Canisters lined the immaculate counter, all labeled in precise script. No dishes in the sink, not even on a Saturday. Crayon drawings lined the refrigeratorthe only visual difference between this kitchen and one set up in a pristine home decor showroom.
Seemed like she'd hit the boring jackpot. He'd hoped it would make her happy, but no one as passionate about music as Juliana had been would ever be happy with such a vanilla life. The sad lines around her mouth proved it.
"I'm proposing a job," he said as she retrieved a glass from an overhead cabinet. "In case that wasn't clear. A consulting gig. Name your price."
"Still not much of a negotiator, are you?"
She tucked a lock of pale blond hair behind her ear. A simple gesture, but a familiar one. Back in the day, Juliana's hair had always hung loose and sexy, curling along her shoulders, begging for a man's fingers to sweep it back.
His fingertips strained to reach for those pale locks but that wasn't the purpose of his visit. Mikey needed him. Juliana didn't.
"Negotiation is for people who can afford to walk away if the terms aren't agreeable. I'm not trying to bargain. If I had another choice, I'd take it. You're the last person I expected to be asking for help."
The iced tea she'd been pouring splattered on the counter, missing the glass by six inches.
Rattled. Good. He barely recognized the woman she'd grown into. She looked the same, made some of the same gestures, but her reserve bothered him. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it wasn't this polite stranger.