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"Hunter," Nathan Barrister muttered as he stared at the mammoth wood-and-stone mansion on the shores of Lake Tahoe, "if you were here right now, I'd kill you for this."
Of course, Hunter Palmer wasn't there and Nathan couldn't kill the man who had once been his firstand bestfriend, because he was already dead.
The ice around Nathan's heart thickened a little at the thought, but he used his long years of practice to ignore that tightening twinge. Regrets were a waste of time.
"As big a waste as the next month is going to be." He climbed out of his rental car and stepped into a mound of slush he hadn't even noticed.
With a disgusted sigh, he kicked the dirty snow off the polished toe of his shoe and told himself he should have listened to the clerk at the rental agency. She had tried to tell him that renting a four-wheel-drive car would make more sense than the sports car he preferred.
But who the hell expected snow in March for God's sake?
A wry grin curved his mouth briefly. He should have expected it. He'd grown up back east and should have remembered that snow could hit anytime, anywhere. Especially this high up in the mountains. But he'd spent so much time trying to forget his past, was it really surprising that even the weather had the ability to sneak up on him?
The air was cold and clean, and the sky was so blue it made his eyes ache.A sharp wind whipped through the surrounding pine trees, rustling the needles and sending patches of snow falling to the ground with muffled plops.
Nathan shivered and shrugged deeper into his brown leather jacket. He didn't want to be here at all, let alone for a solid month. He never stayed anywhere for more than a few days at a stretch. And being here made him think about things he hadn't allowed himself to remember in years.
Reluctantly, he headed for the front of the house, leaving his bags in the car for the moment. The crunch of his shoes on the ground was the only sound, as if the world were holding its breath. Great. Fifteen minutes here and his brain was already going off on tangents.
He shouldn't be here. He should still be in Tahiti at his family's hotel, going over the books, settling disputes, looking into expansion. And next month, he'd be in Barbados for a week and then Jamaica. Nathan moved fast, never giving himself a chance to settle. Never risking more than a few days in any one place.
And if there had been any way at all of getting out of this, Nathan would have taken it. God knows, he'd tried to find a loophole in his friend's will. Something that would have allowed him to keep both his own sense of duty in place and his sanity intact. But even the Barrister family lawyers had assured him that the will was sealed nice and tight. Hunter Palmer had made sure that his friends would have no choice but to honor his wishes.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Nathan whis-pered to his long-dead friend. And when the wind rattled the pine trees, damned if it didn't sound like laughter.
"Fine. I'm here. And I'll try to make the whole month," he muttered. Once he'd completed Hunter's last request, he hoped to hell his old friend would stop haunting his nightmares.
A long white envelope with his name scrawled across it was stuck to the heavy wood front door. Nathan took the short flight of snow-dusted wooden steps, stopped on the porch and tore the taped envelope free. Opening it, he found a key dangling from an ornate keychain and a single sheet of paper.
Hi, I'm your housekeeper, Meri. I'm very busy, so I'm not here at the moment, and chances are you won't be seeing me during your stay. But here's the key to the house. The kitchen is stocked and the town of Hunter's Landing is only twenty minutes away if you need anything else. I hope you and the others to follow enjoy your time here.
Without thinking, he crumpled the short note in his right hand and squeezed it hard.
In a flash of memory, Nathan went back ten years. Back to a time when he and his friends had called them-selves the Seven Samurai. Foolish. But then, they'd been seniors at Harvard. They'd done four hard years together and come out the other side closer than brothers. They'd had their lives laying out in front of them like golden roads to success. He remembered the raucous evening with just a few too many beers when they'd vowed to build a house together and reunite in ten years. They'd each spend a month there and then gather in the seventh month to toast their inevitable achievements.
Yes, it was all supposed to work out that way. And then,
Nathan shook his head and let the past slide away. Jamming the key into the lock, he opened the door, stepped inside and stopped just inside the foyer. From there, he could see into a great room, with gleaming wood walls, a huge stone fireplace with a fire already ablaze in the hearth and lots of plush, comfortable-looking furniture.
As jail cells went, it was better than most, he supposed. He thought of the housekeeper and the nearby town and hoped to hell he wouldn't be bothered by a lot of people. Bad enough he was stuck here. He didn't need company on top of it.
He wasn't here to make friends. He was here to honor a friend he'd lost long ago.
An hour later, Keira Sanders grabbed the oversized basket off the passenger seat, leaped down from the driver's seat of her truck and slammed the door. Her boots slid around on the slushy ground but she dug in her heels and steadied herself. All she needed was to meet the first of Hunter Palmer's houseguests with dirty snow on her butt.
"Great first impression that would make," she murmured as she looked the house over.
It shone like a jewel in the gathering night. Light spilled from the tall windows to fall on the ground in golden spears. Smoke lifted from the stone chimney and twisted in the icy wind coming off the lake. Snow hugged the slanted roof and clung to the pines and aspens crowding the front yard. Winter tended to stick around this high up on the mountain, and she wouldn't have had it any other way.
There was something about the cold and the quiet hush of snow that had always felt, magical to Keira. In fact, at the moment, she'd like to be back in her cozy place in Hunter's Landing, sitting beside her own fire, with a glass of white wine and a good book.
Instead, she was here to greet the first of six men who would be spending thirty days each in the lakeside mansion. Nerves jumped in the pit of her stomach but Keira fought them down. This was too importantto the town of Hunter's Landing and to her, personally.
Just two weeks ago, she'd received a very legal letter from the estate of a man named Hunter Palmer. In the letter, the late Mr. Palmer's attorney had explained the unusual bequest.
Over the next six months, six different men would be arriving in the town of Hunter's Landing, to spend thirty days in this gorgeous mansion. If each of the men stayed for the entire month, at the end of the six-month period twenty million dollars would be donated to charitya large chunk of which would belong to Hunter's Landingand the house itself would be donated to the town as a vacation home for recovering cancer patients.
Keira took another deep breath to settle the last of her nerves. As the mayor of Hunter's Landing, it was her job to make sure each of the six men held to the stipu-lations of Hunter Palmer's will. She couldn't afford for her small town to miss out on a windfall that would allow them to have a spanking-new clinic and a new jail and courthouse and,
Her head was spinning as she smiled to herself. She tightened her grip on the basket and checked to make sure the lid was latched down. Tugging at the lapels of her black jacket, she straightened her shoulders, plastered a smile on her face and prepared to meet the first of the men who could mean so much to Hunter's Landing.
She was good with people. Always had been. And now, with so much riding on the next six months, she was more determined than ever that everything go right. Not only would she ensure that each of the six men would stay his entire thirty days at the lakeside lodge, she was going to make sure they knew how much this all meant to her hometown.
With that thought firmly in mind, she gulped a deep breath of frosty air and headed for the front door. Her boots crunched in the snow but, when she hit a patch of ice, her feet slid wildly. "Oh, no."
Eyes wide, she held tightly to the basket and swung her arms in a desperate attempt to regain her balance. But her feet couldn't find purchase and as she tipped and swayed, she knew she was going to lose both her balance and her dignity.
"Ow!" she shouted when she hit the ground, landing so hard on her butt that her teeth rattled. The basket tipped to one side and she groaned, hoping that the contents were tightly sealed. "Well, isn't this perfect."
The front door flew open and light spilled over her. She blinked up at the man silhouetted in the doorway. Oh, man. This so wasn't how she'd planned to meet Nathan Barrister.
"Who're you?" he demanded, making no move to come down the steps to help her up.
"I'm fine, thanks for your concern," she said, wincing as icy, wet cold seeped through the seat of her jeans. So much for first impressions. Maybe she should crawl back to her truck and start all over.
"If you're thinking of suing, you should know I don't own this property," he said.
"Wow." For a moment, Keira forgot all about getting upforgot all about the fact that this man and five others just like him could mean a windfall for Hunter's Landingand just sat there, staring at him in amaze-ment. "You're really a jerk, aren't you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Did I say that out loud?"
"Sorry." And she was. Sort of. For heaven's sake, none of this was going as planned.
"Are you injured?"
"Only my pride," she admitted, though her behind hurt like hell and the melting ice beneath her wasn't helping the situation any. Still, might as well make the best of the situation. She raised one hand and waved it. "A little help here?"
He muttered something she didn't catch and, consid-ering his attitude so far, she considered that a good thing. But he came down the steps carefully, grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet in one quick motion.
His fingers on hers felt warm and strong and, good. Okay, she hadn't expected that. He dropped her hand as if he'd been burned, and she wondered if he'd felt that small zap of something hot and interesting when they touched.
She brushed off the seat of her pants while she looked up at him. For some reason she'd expected him to be an older man. But he wasn't. Tall and lean, he had broad shoulders, a narrow waist and long legs. Considering how easily he'd plucked her off the ice, he was strong, too. Not that she was heavy or anything, but she cer-tainly wasn't one of those stick-figure types of women that were so popular these days.
Ordinarily, a man like him was more than enough to make her heart go pitty-pat. However, the scowl on his truly gorgeous face was enough to make even Keira rethink her attraction. His black hair was stylishly cut to just above his collar. His blue eyes were narrowed on her suspiciously, and his hard jaw was clenched. And his full mouth was tightened into a grim slash across his face, letting her know without a doubt just how welcome she wasn't.
"Wow. Are you really in a bad mood or is it just me?" He blew out a breath. "Whoever you are," he said, his voice a low rumble that seemed to dip all the way inside her to start up a slow fire, "I didn't invite you here. And I'm not interested in meeting my neighbors." "Good," Keira said, grinning at his obvious irritation,
"because you don't have any. The nearest house on the lake is a couple miles north."
He frowned at her. "Then who are you?" "Keira Sanders," she said, holding out one hand and leaving it there until rudimentary good manners forced him to take it in his.
Again, there was the nice little buzz of connection when his skin met hers. Did he feel it? If so, he wasn't real pleased about it. Keira, on the other hand, was enjoying the sensation. It had been a really long time since she'd felt the slightest attraction for anyone. Pur-posely. "Been there, done that" sort of summed up her feelings about romance.
But she had to admit, it was really nice to feel that sizzle.