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The Maverick's Red Hot Reunion
By Christine Glover, Kate Fall, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Christine Glover
All rights reserved.
Kennedy Gibson took off her hard hat, tossed it onto the desk in her temporary office, and checked the time. Her business partner was twenty minutes late. Again. "Where's Michael?" she asked her assistant.
"His business manager called," her cousin Caleb said, not looking up from his laptop. "He'll be here in thirty minutes. He had another doctor's appointment."
The fifth in three weeks?
"I hope he gets here soon." Kennedy stared at the calendar on the wall. October third. "I'm not going to make my December deadline." And Michael had been avoiding her calls, texts, and Facebook private messages for over a week. Not a good sign.
Not when her construction company, along with Michael's investment firm, was determined to rebuild the golf and ski resort lodge and restore the local economy by bringing in tourists. But her friend's constant doctor appointments had thrown a wrecking ball into their plans. And in his typically macho way, Michael had shut her out of his health issues with his radio silence. The fact that he didn't want to worry her only increased her fear.
Caleb clasped his hands behind his neck and leaned back in his metal chair. "We're four weeks behind schedule."
She knew to the day how far behind schedule they were, and she'd also gone over budget to meet this week's payroll. Her stomach clenched and panic pinged acid into her throat. To meet the deadline, she needed more money. Otherwise, she'd lose her company.
Kennedy inhaled a deep breath, waited a beat, then exhaled. The tension coiling inside her belly slackened. Everything would be fine as long as Michael had lined up investors for the renovated lodge. "No worries," she said. "Michael will come through for us." And he'd tell her in person about his health. Today. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Caleb closed his laptop. "I'm clocking out."
"Tell the crew to wrap up the east wing, and you're done for the day," she said. "I'll go out with you. Check the site after they stow their gear."
Kennedy waited while Caleb packed up his computer, then they walked outside.
She shielded her eyes. Sun glinted across the North Carolina mountains and flecked the russet autumnal leaves with gold. "Good thing the weather's holding," she said.
"Yeah," Caleb agreed. "But once the winter storms set in, we're screwed if we don't have the exterior work completed."
She hitched her tool belt higher on her hip. "We'll get it done if I have to climb the scaffolding myself."
"Didn't you have enough fun swinging that sledgehammer when you knocked down those interior walls in the lodge's south wing?"
Construction had been in her blood from the time she'd first fisted her hands and bawled. She'd accompanied her father to every site he'd worked from the time she could toddle. Half the buildings in Sweetbriar, North Carolina had her father's company stamp on them.
Now she'd brand them with hers.
"We'll all work overtime on this renovation once the financing is guaranteed," she said.
"Absolutely." Caleb waved to three men hauling pails and debris to the oversized dumpster the county had parked on the property, then turned to Kennedy. "See you at the pub later?"
"I've got too much to cover with Michael." If he arrived with good news, but she suppressed her concern. Kennedy kicked a dry clump of clay and watched it sail across the overgrown weeds and broken pavestones. "Payroll, new hires, ordering supplies."
"We'll toss a cold one back for you."
"Sounds good." Kennedy nodded to her men. "Have a great night."
"Will do," they answered, lifting their hands to say good-bye.
"You heading to your folks' house tonight?" she asked Caleb.
"Not if I can help it," he said.
"What'll be your excuse this time?"
"I'll let them draw their own conclusions."
Her chest felt tight. Caleb had gotten the shit end of the stick where his family was concerned, and no one could figure out why his parents rode him so hard. Sure, he had acted out in high school and lived up to their bad boy expectations. But she'd known that he had a good heart. And she hated waiting for him to return from fighting his battles overseas, worried about him never coming back.
She touched her cousin's forearm. "You're only making it harder to come home for good."
He shrugged, his indigo blue eyes clouding ever so slightly. "I'm a Marine. Home is wherever my combat boots land."
She sighed. "If you say so. When's your next tour?"
He grinned. "Don't worry. You've got me until next July."
"Good to know. I'll get another temp when that happens to fill your spot until you return." She pointed toward the rusty wrought iron gate. "Get out of here and keep the guys in line. I don't need hangovers slowing down our progress."
"Roger that," he said before joining the rest of the men.
She watched Caleb and her crew leave, dust clouds spiraling behind their pickups as they bounced across the rough-hewn gravel road. Once they'd disappeared, she returned to the lodge and showered in one of the hotel rooms she'd taken over for the duration of the project.
After she slipped into fresh clothes and applied a light dusting of makeup, she heard the distinctive sound of Michael's motorcycle rumbling. Moments later, she was outside waving as he drove his black V-rod through the entrance.
The machine had the terrorizing look of a raging stallion, the power of over a hundred thoroughbreds, and the brute force of a thousand warriors. Her stomach clenched.
Why was he driving so aggressively? Too fast. And taking the last turn way too tight.
The motorcycle crunched to a halt in front of her, the driver cut the engine, and took off his helmet.
Zach Tanner stared at her with cold, demanding, espresso-colored eyes. Where once there had been passion, now there was hatred. Hatred she'd earned.
"Didn't expect to see you here," he said.
A fist drove inside her belly, hard and cruel, and a terrifying ache tugged at her heart. Just seeing him again and hearing his frigid tone shell-shocked her.
He'd grown devilishly more attractive during their years apart. Maturity had toughened his finely chiseled features, deepened his brooding brown eyes, carved sexy lines around his sensual full mouth, and slipped a dash of light into his curling chestnut hair.
Hair she'd twisted in her fingers during wicked, steamy, heated nights.
"Where's Michael?" she asked.
"My villa in Italy. Resting. Surrounded by his family." He got off the bike and hooked his helmet on the handlebar. "He got a diagnosis."
Her stomach hollowed. If Michael was in Italy, then the news had to be bad. "Why didn't he tell me himself?"
"He wanted to have all his bases covered first." Zach scrubbed his hand over his face. "Contacted me to ask for help before he filled everyone in."
"Overprotective as usual." Fear iced through her, numbing her lips. Still, she forced the question out. "What's he got?"
A horrible heaviness oozed through her. Dread — the sick feeling of spinning out of control with no power to break the fall — dizzied her. She inhaled deeply, willing herself to remain calm even as her mind reeled with the implications. How would she get along without the friend she'd relied on when her world had fallen apart?
"Lou Gehrig's?" she asked. "He's only thirty-two."
"Shit diseases like this don't have age requirements."
She heard the defeat in Zach's voice. Their mutual friend, the man who'd introduced them when Zach had first come to Sweetbriar Springs to work, had been the one constant companion binding their lives, encouraging their dreams. And there wasn't a damn thing they could do to save him.
A stinging sensation pressed behind her eyes. Grief filled her, wails clogged her throat. She held her breath, releasing the pressure in her lungs slowly.
Kennedy had known grief before. Now she wished she could feel the strength of Zach's arms around her, the heat of his body warming her, and hear his soothing words of comfort. In the past, she'd have depended upon him, indulged in the weakness, but she held today's tears at bay.
Collapsing in front of him was not an option. She'd cry later. Alone.
She swallowed hard, trying to get a grip on her emotions. Michael had always been in great shape. Hell, he'd been a triple gold medalist in the 2004 summer Olympics. She couldn't fathom the impact this debilitating disease would have on her friend. "How much time does he have?"
"Docs can't predict the outcome." He stepped closer. "Where's your dad?"
Zach's words brought her back from the edge of grief. It was a question many had asked since she'd taken over her father's business. "Probably drinking a margarita on his cruise ship's deck with Mom." Ever since her father had retired, her parents had become cruise-a-holics.
She saw the nervous tic in his jaw, heard his quick intake of breath. Zach had no idea about her ascension to CEO of her dad's company. And that made her all kinds of suspicious about Michael's motives for contacting Zach.
"Guess that means you'll be working for me." He quirked his lips into a scornful smile, one that lit a dangerous glint in his dark eyes.
"What are you talking about?" she asked. "Aren't you still in charge of your father's hotel and resort conglomerate?"
"Tanner Enterprises is financing the operation," Zach said. "We own Sweetbriar Springs."
"Great." Not really. The last person she wanted to work for was her ex-fiancé. "I'll be happy to work with whoever you send to oversee the renovation and hiring."
"That person's me."
"But what about your father?" she asked. "Won't he be angry that you've abandoned your duties to his company as CEO?"
"He knows this is personal. And temporary." Zach scrubbed a hand through his tousled hair. "As long as I have the Internet and my laptop, I can easily take care of both situations."
He stepped a smidge closer. "I'm in charge of the construction contract now. You still want it?"
The air between them felt volatile, explosive, charged. All the memories of their last night together stormed in her head, crackled in her temples, fired in her nerves. Five years of trying to forget it disintegrated.
Working for Zach for the next three months, side by side, rebuilding the place that had once brought them together? Not good. Not good at all. Still, a buried longing unfurled and whispered through her body, arousing her.
No. No. No. She'd made her choice then. There was no going back to what they'd once shared. Zach had no stake in her world anymore. She'd pushed him away with good reason — how could she ask him to stay with her when she couldn't give him the one thing that had led him to propose in the first place? She'd lost her chance at having Zach in her life, lost her chance at them becoming a family.
Restoring Sweetbriar Springs couldn't save her friend — or heal her broken spirit — but it could save her town. She'd honor her deal, invest in the future, and guard her tender emotions from the only man she'd ever loved.
All of Zach's power and money couldn't change the past. But it could save her community. Kennedy injected ice into her voice. "The deal I signed with Michael is ironclad. I say we get to work as soon as possible."
* * *
Zach locked eyes with Kennedy's as she pushed a strand of fiery hair behind her ear. The color was a sharp contrast to her fair, freckle-dusted skin. Determination painted a hint of rose on her cheeks.
His chest compressed the air out of his lungs. A fierce pain whipped against his ribcage. Damn her for becoming more beautiful, more alluring, more captivating. Though Kennedy wore denim jeans and a T-shirt, she looked like she should be walking Hollywood's red carpet, not climbing scaffolding and using a forklift.
He thought he'd vanquished the memory of their fierce, passionate romance with years of hard work, until he'd gained his father's stamp of approval and ascended as CEO of Tanner Enterprises. That coupled with countless nights of meaningless sex was supposed to obliterate Kennedy from his system.
Now all he wanted to do was kiss each and every little dot, taste them with his tongue, and rediscover her other interestingly freckled locations.
She put her hands on her hips. "You'll want to check the interior first."
"Absolutely," he said.
"Let's go," she said.
He swallowed hard, then moved aside to let Kennedy sweep by him. "By all means, after you."
She climbed the stairs to the lodge's expansive wraparound porch, her hips swaying in a sexy swagger only she could pull off in steel toe boots. Blood pulsed in his temples and he grew uncomfortably hard. One look, one minute of time, one toe-to-toe meeting with Kennedy and his body responded to her like a divining rod seeking water.
She paused at the entrance and looked over her shoulder. "You here to go over the finances or just gawk at my ass?"
Once she had eyes like a spring meadow, eyes that invited him to enjoy the warmth they offered, eyes that smoldered with dark feminine secrets when he made love to her.
Now her eyes were glittering, sharp emeralds.
Her clipped tone firmed his resolve. She had an icy interior he hadn't known existed until it was too late. A cloud crossed the sun's path, darkening the sky. The breeze gusted into a whirlwind, chilling him.
"Show me your plans," he said.
"They're inside," she said, then turned to go.
Zach bounded up the steps two at a time and followed her. Sunlight glinted off the dust particles floating in the air. Sheets covered old furniture that had been pushed back to the walls. Sawhorses, circular saws, and pallets holding lumber filled the lobby's space.
"You've been busy," he said, keeping his tone even.
"I want the site ready for the next phase. The exterior takes priority."
Zach inhaled Kennedy's familiar aroma of citrus and spice, saw the fluttering pulse in the hollow just below her collarbone. He remembered the feel and the taste of her sensitive, fragrant skin.
He clenched his jaw, sucked in a sharp breath. "Your crew fast?" he asked.
He saw a blush creeping up her throat. Nerves? Something more?
"The best in town." She moved toward a schematic pinned to a wall. "Demo's almost completed. Once we get your cash, we'll move ahead with ordering the necessary supplies and kitchen equipment."
"I want a mix of natural stone, cedar, and river rock throughout the exterior." He glanced at her slim waist. "We're going green, using the land as our inspiration."
She nodded, her glossy hair falling over her shoulders. "I'll apply for the additional building permits tomorrow."
"Are the rooms in good shape?"
"Paint, updated furniture, and new carpet will bring them back to current industry standards," she said.
Her chest rose — the swell of her breasts had once been his to claim during stolen moments. His muscles tensed and heat pulsed through his veins. He turned away and doused the fire burning inside him with the memory of her cruel words five years ago.
She turned to the arched doorway leading to the west wing. "The elevators are functional, passed inspection, but they're outdated."
He toured the rest of the lodge with Kennedy, careful to keep the conversation focused on the property's renovation. When they'd completed inspecting the interior, she walked with him to his motorcycle.
She wouldn't meet his gaze. "Anything else you want to look at?" she asked.
He heard the hesitation in her voice. Something fierce snapped inside him. Old hurts, long suppressed, along with his desire, resurfaced. Damn it all to hell and back. He didn't want to feel anything for Kennedy. But he did. And that scared the shit out of him.
He snagged his helmet off the handlebar. "I want to ride to the springs before the light fades."
She blinked, stepping back. "Why?"
When he'd bought Sweetbriar Springs to salvage Michael's dream, he had believed he would be working with Kennedy's father. He'd also believed he'd moved on, grabbed the life he deserved at the helm of his father's corporation. But he hadn't. "I want them operational by December." And he wanted to get her out of his system once and for all.
"There's not enough time or manpower."
"Michael wants to hold an ALS fundraiser here."
"I'll hire more people."
"I'll take care of it."
"I know how to wield more than a hammer, Tanner." Her nostrils flared and her voice raised a notch. "Got my MBA after you left Sweetbriar. Tanner Enterprises may own Sweetbriar Springs, but I don't need you to take charge of the day-today operations."
"Good to know." Nor did he care to argue the point. But he sure as hell planned to take care of the night shift once Kennedy admitted she still wanted him. He brought out his spare helmet. "Let's ride."
Excerpted from The Maverick's Red Hot Reunion by Christine Glover, Kate Fall, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2014 Christine Glover. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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