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The bleak winter landscape was as depressing to Ivy as the past few months had been, but she felt a sense of excitement as she watched the long country road. Ryder was on his way. Guilt wrenched her heart as she gave in to the need to see him, to listen to him, to love him. She'd always loved Ryder, even as she feared him. It was her secret passion for Ryder that had sent her running scared into a tragic marriage that had ended six months ago in the death of her husband. This would be the first time she'd seen Ryder since the funeral, and she was torn between delight and shame.
She'd lost weight, but that only made her more attractive. She was tall and willowy, with long black hair that waved around her shoulders, and a complexion like fresh cream. Her eyes were as black as coal—a legacy from her French grandmother—framed by lashes that were thick and long and seductive. Ryder always said that she looked like a painting he had in his living room—an interpretation of the poem "The Highwayman," depicting Bess with her long black hair. But Ryder was fanciful at times.
Ryder had been at the funeral, down in Clay County, Georgia, near the banks of the wide Chattahoochee River, a good half hour's drive from Ivy's home in southwest Georgia. They'd buried Ben in the cemetery of the little Baptist church he'd attended as a child, under a canopy of huge live oak trees dripping with gray Spanish moss. Ivy had stayed close beside her mother, trying to ignore the tall, commanding presence across from her. Ryder had been at the house as well, and she'd had to pretend not to notice him, to pretend grief for a man who had made her life a living hell.
Ryder couldn't know that his very presence had been like a knife in her heart, reminding her brutally that her secret love for him might actually have led to Ben's death. It had hurt Ben that Ivy couldn't respond to him in bed, and because of that, he drank. The accident that killed him had resulted from one drink too many, and Ivy felt responsible for it.
She thought back to her teenage years, when Ryder had been the whole world and she'd worshiped him. He'd never guessed how she felt. That had been a blessing. She smiled, remembering the tenderness he seemed to reserve especially for her. He wasn't the world's most lovable man; he had a quick, biting temper, but Ivy had never seen it.
"That's the first time I've seen you smile in weeks," Jean McKenzie observed dryly, staring at her daughter from the hall. "It does improve your looks, darling."
"I know I'm a misery," Ivy confessed. She went over and hugged her mother, ruffling the thick salt-and-pepper hair that framed eyes as dark as her own. "But you're a doll, so don't we make the perfect pair?"
"Ha!" Jean scoffed. "Pair, my eye. The very last thing you need is to stay here for the rest of your life." Her voice softened a little, and she frowned at the faint panic in her daughter's eyes. "Listen, baby, it's been almost six months. You have to start looking ahead. You need a change. A job. A new direction. Ben wouldn't want this," she added meaningfully.
Ivy sighed and moved away from the older woman. "Yes, I know. It's getting easier, as time goes by."
"I know that, too. I lost your father when you were only a toddler," Jean reminded her. "In a way, I'm sorry you and Ben couldn't have had a child. It would have made things easier for you, I think. It did for me."
"Yes. It was a shame," Ivy murmured, but without really agreeing. A child would have been a disaster. At first, Ben had been a good friend, but he'd never been a good lover. He'd been always in a hurry, impatient and finally harsh because Ivy couldn't feel the passion for him that he felt for her. She'd cheated him by marrying him, and it was guilt more than any other emotion that had haunted her since his death. She'd never felt passion. She wondered sometimes during the last miserable weeks of her marriage if she was even capable of it. She'd promised Ben that she'd go to a therapist, although she couldn't imagine what one would find. Her childhood had been uneventful, but happy. There were no emotional scars. She simply didn't want Ben physically, because she belonged, heart and soul, to another man—a man who'd always thought of her as his sister's best friend and nothing more. And what could any psychologist have done about that?
Money had been another ever-pressing problem. Ben had spent money recklessly when he was drunk, and when she'd insisted on going to work herself, to help out, there had been terrible arguments. Finally she'd given up trying to offer her help and reconciled herself to living in poverty. The months had gone into years, and Ivy eventually withdrew completely into herself and avoided contact with everyone, especially Ryder. That had been necessary because of Ben's rage at seeing her speaking to him once at her mother's. That had been, she remembered, shivering, the first time he'd struck her.
A month shy of her twenty-fourth birthday, a piece of heavy equipment had fallen on him. A freak accident, they'd called it, but only to spare her feelings. She knew he'd been drunk when he'd gone to work. He'd handled the equipment haphazardly and paid the ultimate price. Just the morning of his death, he'd raged at her about Ryder again. He'd accused her of being unfaithful to him in her mind, of making his life hell. The words had haunted her ever since.
She and her mother were churchgoing people, and it was that bedrock of faith that had helped Ivy get through the agony of guilt that had followed the funeral. It was all that kept her going even now.
"When did Ryder call?" Ivy asked suddenly.
"About an hour ago," Jean said, yawning, because it was early and she'd had only one cup of coffee. It took her at least two to wake up, so she dragged back to the coffeepot and filled a cup for Ivy as well.
"Will he stay long?" she asked, her eyes haunted.
"Now, who knows what Ryder Calaway's plans are, except for the Almighty?" the older woman teased as she retied her loose brown chenille bathrobe before she sat down at the dainty little white kitchen table and creamed her coffee. "For all that we've known him for years, he's still a mystery."
"That's a fact." Ivy sat down, too, her burgundy velour robe exquisitely hugging her figure, highlighting her face. "This is an odd place for such a high-powered businessman, isn't it?" she added gently.
And it was. They lived in a small county in rural southwest Georgia, in a heavily agricultural area near Albany. Neighbors lived far apart, and even in town, the lots were large. Agriculture was big business here, with most of the small family farms a thing of the past, because big farming combines grabbed them up as more and more farmers went bankrupt. In fact, Ivy's parents had been a farm family until her father's death. Jean still lived on the farm, and she still had two enormous chicken houses. She employed a family to pick up eggs and feed the thousands of chicks until they were old enough for market. One of Ryder's contacts bought chickens from her for his chicken processing plant, and Jean made a comfortable living.
After she had graduated from high school, Ivy had gone to work for Ryder's construction company in Albany some years before and had found that her friend Ben Trent was also employed there. They'd been in school together, and as time passed, they began to date. In no time at all they were married. Ivy frowned, remembering Ryder's shock when he'd found out. He'd congratulated her and Ben on their wedding, but he had been reserved and distant, and just afterward he'd gone to Europe for several months to set up some new company.
As Jean had said, Ryder was mysterious. He owned acreage like some women owned shoes, and judging by his clothing and his private jet and the luxury car he drove, he was never short of money. But it wasn't for his money that Ivy loved him. It was because he was Ryder. He was as big as all outdoors, with an indomitable personality, and he conquered things and people with equal ease. She'd adored him since she was in school, palling around with his younger sister. The Calaways had always been well-off, not minding at all that the McKenzies weren't. Ivy was always welcome in the big redbrick house with its exquisite rose garden, just down the road from the McKenzie's house. And Ryder never minded including her when he took his sister to movies or picnicking with whichever girl he was dating at the time.
He'd gone off to college, and then to Albany to take over a small construction company that had gone bankrupt. He'd turned it into a mammoth conglomerate over the years, with offices in Atlanta and New York, and it seemed to keep him busy all the time. After his mother's death, his father had returned to New York to live, and with his sister's marriage to a Caribbean businessman, Ryder was all alone in the big redbrick house. Perhaps he was lonely, Ivy thought, and that was why he traveled so much. She wondered why Ryder had never married. He was thirty-four now, ten years her senior, and women loved him. Surely, with his money and vibrant masculinity, he'd had opportunities.
She stared into her coffee cup as Jean got up to take bacon off the stove and check on hot biscuits in the oven. She wondered what her own life would be like from now on, if she could ever stop blaming herself for failing Ben so tragically. She should never have married him, feeling as she did about Ryder. She lived with the fear that Ben didn't really mind dying. He'd wanted more than she could give him, especially in bed. She was frigid, of course, she reminded herself. Surely that had been part of the problem with their marriage. She'd carry the scars forever, along with her sense of failure. If she'd tried harder, maybe Ben wouldn't have spent so much time with his friends. Perhaps he wouldn't have drunk so much, or spent most of their time together trying to hurt her. He'd gone from a gentle, laughing boy to a vicious drunkard so quickly….
"Isn't that Ryder's car? My eyes are getting old," Jean muttered, pausing with a platter of bacon to peer through the kitchen window.
Ivy got up with a quick heartbeat, following her mother's gaze. "A black Jaguar." She nodded. "Did he say why he was coming?"
"Does he ever? Just to visit between world trips, I guess, as usual." Jean laughed. "He hasn't been home since the funeral."
"Well, I'm glad, whatever the reason," Ivy confessed. "It's been a long time. Ryder has a way of livening people up."
"And one of us needs that," Jean murmured under her breath.
Ivy wandered onto the porch in the concealing burgundy velour robe she wore over her thick flannel gown, her hands unconsciously fiddling with the knot that held it together, her long hair wisping around her patrician features as she watched the tall, dark-haired man untangle himself from the elegant vehicle. As always, her heart leaped at the sight of him, and she went warm all over with excitement. Only Ryder had ever had that effect on her.
He stared up at the porch, big and rough-looking, as formidable as a tank. He looked like a man who owned a construction company, from his craggy face to his huge hands. His face looked as if someone had chiseled it out of concrete. He was all hard angles, except for a body that would have made him a fortune in the movies. He had to be six foot three, and all muscle. He still liked to do construction work himself, frequently spending a Saturday helping his men catch up on jobs when he was in a town where they were working. His eyes were a steely gray color, deep-set and piercing, and his mouth was firm and faintly sensuous. He was wearing a charcoal pinstriped suit, and it clung to his muscular frame like silk.
"Not bad, honey," he drawled as he lifted his arrogant chin to give her a good going-over with his eyes. "But you could use a few pounds between your neck and your knees." He had a voice like dark velvet, smooth and silky.
Ivy felt her blood racing, as it always did when Ryder was around. He generated a wild kind of excitement that she'd felt ever since she'd known him and had never fully understood. Her full lips smiled involuntarily as he joined her on the porch, her black eyes laughing up at him.
"Hello, Ryder," she welcomed.
"Hello, yourself, tidbit," he murmured dryly. It was a long way down, despite her above-average height. He smiled faintly as his eyes made an intent and disturbing survey of her face.
"Don't I even get a kiss?" she asked, trying to call back the easy affection of her youth, so that he wouldn't guess at the depth of her lacerated feelings. "It's been months since I've seen you."
His face seemed to tighten for an instant as he responded to the gentle query. "I'm getting old, honey," he confessed, reaching out to lift her by her waist with careless ease so that her face was on a level with his lean, dark one. "Before long, I'll forget how to kiss girls at all."
"That'll be the day," she said with a smile. She smoothed the shoulders of his jacket as he held her, liking the rich feel of the fabric over all that imposing muscle. He looked different close up. Not the carefree man she remembered at all. He was a stranger these days, darkly observant, intense and very, very male. He smelled of expensive cologne and smoke, and his big fingers felt steely biting into her soft waistline. She felt shaky down to her toes in his grasp. "You look tired," she said softly.
"I am tired." He looked down at her lips. "You have a pretty mouth, did I ever tell you?" he asked with a faint grin. "Come on, come on, I don't have all day."
"Do I have to kiss you?" she asked, eyebrows lifting innocently.
"You'd better," he murmured. "If I kiss you, God knows where it might lead us."
"Promises, promises, you heartless tease," she chided. "Oh, Ryder, it's so good to see you!"
"You've been mooning around, haven't you, pretty girl?" he asked softly. "I'll have to take you in hand."