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Eighteen months later
Standing in front of Peterson's Garage was the last place in the world Danica wanted to be. Unfortunately, she didn't have much of a choice. She sighed deeply and rubbed her forehead. Living in a small beachfront town with only one auto body shop, she had limited options unless of course she wanted her car towed to the next town, which was more than thirty miles away.
Danica groaned inwardly and clenched and unclenched her fingers around the strap of her expensive leather handbag. If she had the extra cash, she wouldn't have hesitated in paying the additional charge. Anything to keep her from having to find herself face-to-face with the one man she'd rather avoid.
Jaden Joshua Beaumont.
"Miss, would you like for me to wait?"
She glanced over her shoulder at the cab driver. Her grim expression softened as she swung around to stare into warm brown eyes that reflected kindness and concern. For a moment, she had forgotten he was still there, waiting patiently for instruction. Danica shook her head, then with trembling fingers reached inside her purse and removed a crisp ten-dollar bill. "No, I can walk back," she replied with a hint of despair. After handing him the fare, she stood at the curb and watched the cab leave, trying to prolong the inevitable as long as possible. But the moment of reckoning had finally arrived.
Almost exactly a year ago, Jaden had sold his body shop in California and returned to Sheraton Beach, Delaware, to take over Mr. Peterson's Garage. Since then, Danica had done everything in her power to avoid him. She stopped going to her favorite restaurant on Fridays, grocery shopped at odd hours of the day, and utilizeddrive-through windows, anything not to risk running into Jaden. Danica had been successful at avoiding him for almost twelve months, but her luck had finally run out.
Although she had prepared for this moment from the second AAA informed her that her car had been towed to Peterson's Garage, she still wasn't ready to face Jaden again. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do but get prepared. All her reasons for avoiding Jaden had finally come to an end. With one final breath, Danica turned on the heels of her espadrilles and headed toward the door.
As she stepped into the building, the air-conditioning hit her with a rush she welcomed. She was already perspiring in her dress, but this didn't have anything to do with the seventy degree temperatures outside.
"Hi, can I help you?" the girl behind the desk asked as she ended a phone call.
Danica stared into the face of a young woman whose lips curved into a generous smile. "Umm " Danica began, then paused long enough to clear her throat. "My Mercedes was towed in here about an hour ago."
Her green eyes lit up knowingly. "Oh, yes, the vintage one! She's a beauty! Go on back. He's looking at her right now." She pointed toward the garage behind the floor-to-ceiling glass window.
As Danica moved through the door the knot in her stomach tightened even more. With wobbly legs, she walked across the large garage toward her car, heart pounding in her throat. Any second now and she'd find herself
"Have you ever heard of motor oil?"
The baritone voice startled her. No hello or how are you doing? Just straight and to the point.
"Wh-what did you say?" she stuttered, his smooth, seductive sound still echoing in her ear. Danica moved closer to her Mercedes just as a man rolled the creeper out from beneath the car. And there he was standing before her, the man she had once loved with all her heart.
Suddenly her breath caught, her skin prickled, and every nerve in her body went taut when her gaze collided with his. Streaks of motor oil and grease covered his navy-blue uniform and yet Jaden still managed to look powerful and sleek. He seemed stronger, more potent than before and memories of their explosive relationship began tumbling through her mind.
She took a quick sweep of his tall, athletic body, returning to his milk-chocolate face. Long dark locks rested comfortably at his shoulders. Swallowing, she remembered so many nights of grabbing hold of his hair and holding on while he was buried deep inside her. Those beautiful sable-brown eyes were watching her, and desire tore through Danica when he finally spoke again. This time his voice was deep and slow like that of a sleepy lover.
"When was the last time you had an oil change?"
Snapping out of the trance, Danica shook her head and pressed her lips tightly together as she pondered his question. Since retiring from modeling, she had moved into the house her grandmother Ujema Jacobs had left in her will, and had been working nonstop from sunup to sundown to open her boutique. Buying groceries and changing oil had been the furthest things from her mind. In fact, she was too embarrassed to admit that twice she found herself on the side of the road because she had forgotten to get gas.
"What does that have to do with anything?" she replied, not at all liking the scolding look he was giving her.
"It means your engine has locked up," he replied, the words clattering out in a growl.
Not understanding, Danica simply shrugged. "Okay, so add some oil and fix it. I'm sure "
Jaden cut her off with a shake of his head and a harsh laugh. "It's not quite that simple."
She swallowed once, then licked her lips. "What do you mean?"
Reaching for a rag, Jaden wiped his hands off as he spoke. "It means that you'll need a new engine."
"A new engine?" she repeated with a pang of panic. "You're kidding, right?" But even as she said it Danica knew Jaden would never joke about something that serious.
"No," he replied.
She slammed her eyelids shut and took a deep breath before opening them again. "Okay so how much will it cost to fix it?"
He tossed the towel aside and glanced at her. "About five grand."
"Five grand!" she gasped. "Why so much?"
"Because that's how much it will cost to replace the engine of a classic 1965 Mercedes Pagoda. You want to drive luxury? Well, it doesn't come cheap."
The purse strap slipped from her shoulder, which now drooped with despair. There was no way she could come up with that much money. "I can't afford it."
Jaden's gaze came up, his curiosity drawing his thick brows together. "All the money you've earned modeling why not?"
Under the slash of those arrogant sable eyes, she wanted to cut him down to size, but he was right. After working ten years as a model, she had earned a hefty nest egg. Last year, all she had to do was reach inside her purse and write a check without a blink of the eye. But that was before her accountant extorted funds, stealing thousands of dollars of her money. Even though he was now serving seven to ten years in prison, she would never get her money back. What little she'd had left, Danica had poured into her business, Ujema Swimwear, named after her grandmother. Until she turned a profit, money was going to be tight. "Everything I have is tied into my business."
Jaden stared at her for a long time before he replied with a shrug, "Then you'll probably be better off trading in the Mercedes and buying a cheaper, more affordable car."
"I can't do that! That car belonged to my father. It's all I have left of him." Her voice faltered slightly and she hated that he witnessed a weak moment. Jaden gave her a puzzled look, and she took a deep breath and answered the question burning in his eyes. "My father passed away eight months ago." She suddenly felt like crying. It hadn't been nearly enough time to grieve.
Danica noticed the second the news hit Jaden because his eyes softened. "I'm sorry." She watched as he struggled for something else to say but instead looked at her with mute sympathy. "He was a nice man."
"Thank you." His comment meant a great deal to her. The two had never gotten a chance to meet, yet spoken on the phone on several occasions.
Danica took a deep breath. David Dansforth had meant the world to her, and only days after spending Fourth of July weekend together, the firefighter had died saving an elderly woman and her cat from a burning building. When her father hadn't been putting out fires, he had been at home tinkering with his car. That Mercedes had been his pride and joy.
Just like his baby girl.
There was a long silence. That dark gaze roamed over her face and lowered to her mouth and she felt her lips tingle. Without thinking, she licked her bottom lip. Dammit, Jaden was studying her the way a man studied a woman. Feeling the intensity of his gaze, she struggled to keep her emotions in check. Her nipples tightened, while warmth pooled between her legs. His face was barely an inch from hers and she knew if she leaned the slightest bit toward him, she'd risk her sanity to experience just one more kiss.
This is definitely getting out of hand.
Danica quickly turned her head, not wanting Jaden to see what she was feeling inside.
"I think I could possibly rebuild it for half that price, but it's still going to cost you," she heard him reply after a long silence. Then without bothering to explain the conditions of his statement, Jaden walked away and headed toward a small office at the back of the garage. When it became obvious he wasn't returning, Danica followed his steps and found him standing behind a cluttered desk.
"What's it going to cost me?" she asked impatiently. Reaching up, she pushed away loose strands of hair and wished she had put it in a ponytail.
"I need a receptionist," he finally said.
"Receptionist?" she gasped. "Me?" No way. "What's wrong with the girl at the desk?"
Jaden snorted rudely, then returned his gaze to her. "She's a college student who's been helping me during the school year, but finals are next week. Not to mention she plans to travel around Europe this summer."
Danica looked down at the mess cluttering his desk as she desperately searched for another excuse. "Then why don't you just run an ad in the newspaper and hire someone?"
"I did that but I've been so busy I haven't had a chance to review the résumés or schedule interviews. That's where you would come in."
Uh-uh. The last thing she needed was to be sharing space and air with him for any long periods of time. Memories of their last night together came to mind when they were sharing a lot more than just air. She swallowed hard against the knot of emotions settling at her gut that she hadn't felt in months. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why not?" There was a slight roughness to his voice.
Danica pressed her lips together. That would be too damn close for comfort. The farther away from Jaden she was, the better off they'd both be. "We both know why not," she managed around a breath.
Jaden gave her a pointed look. "Yes, I guess we do. The fiancé you never bothered to tell me about. By the way, how is he doing?" His mouth curved slightly while one thick eyebrow lifted, challenging her.
Danica growned inwardly. She should have known he'd bring up the reason why she had ended their relationship. Or at least the excuse she'd given him. She didn't want to go where he was leading. At this point, there was really no reason to bring up the past. "He's fine."
Jaden's mouth twitched. "Glad to hear it," he said in a tone that took on a hint of bitterness, which irritated her.
What was his problem? she wondered with a frown. If anyone had a right to be angry, it should be her. She was the one who had gotten hurt back then, not him. But instead of a retort, she decided to let the comment slide.
He reached down for a sheet of paper in front of him, then glanced up at her, eyes narrowed, mocking her. "Well, do you want the job or not?" His voice grated her senses. They both knew she was at a disadvantage and not in a position to refuse his offer, yet that didn't stop her from trying.
Inhaling deeply, she tried convincing Jaden why it wasn't a good idea. "I have a boutique to open. There is no way I can be in two places at the same time."
"Mornings will be fine," he replied. With his gaze zeroed in on her face, he moved around the desk and towered over her.
Danica ran her fingers through her hair and cleared her throat, trying to give herself time to organize her thoughts. When she started to decline, Jaden held up a hand and said impatiently, "The clock is ticking, so I'm going to ask you again. You want my help or not?"
While waiting for an answer, Jaden watched Danica nibble nervously on her bottom lip the way he remembered her doing any time she was seriously considering something. While she thought about his offer, he tried to dismiss the sensation prowling over his body as he took in every single luscious curve.
He stared into her beautiful amber eyes that even after more than a year he still couldn't get out of his mind. Danica Dansforth was beautiful and her face was so familiar to him. Not because she once graced the covers of almost every fashion magazine on the stand. Nope. It was because even after eighteen months, he still dreamed about her on nights when his mind gave him no peace. Who could forget those high cheekbones, small protruding nose and long reddish-brown hair? Even now he had to squeeze his hand in a fist to keep from touching her delectable skin that reminded him of sweet cashews. Natural arching eyebrows set off eyes that were taunting and veiled by her sweeping eyelashes. His gaze shifted to her full painted lips. Jaden vividly remembered their first kiss, and her delicious taste as his tongue explored her mouth. A shiver of desire tore through him. He was glad that he was wearing loose-fitting pants, blocking a view of an apparent arousal straining against his boxers. Lust surged inside him, which further frustrated him. He didn't want to want her.
But I'm a man.
And a man knows a beautiful woman when he sees one.