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Some women are impossible to forget no matter how a man tries.
Logan Claiborne was frowning, and not because the sun was in his eyes as he sped down the narrow, twisting road that led to the antebellum mansion where he'd grown up.
He should be concentrating on Mitchell Butler and the merger of Butler Shipyards and Claiborne Energy, or on how he was going to deal compassionately with Grandpère once he arrived at Belle Rose.
Instead, his grip tightened on the steering wheel as he remembered the open, trusting, dark eyes of the voluptuously proportioned swamp brat he'd seduced and then jilted nine years ago to save his twin brother, Jake.
Until this morning, Logan had told himself that his grandfather had been right, that Cici Bellefleur didn't belong in their world; that he'd had to save Jake from the same sort of disastrous marriage their father had made to a poor girl, their mother, whose extravagant dreams of grandeur as well as her need to impress had nearly wrecked the family fortune. He'd continued to tell himself that he'd been right to do what he'd done even after he'd secured the family empire, even after Cici had made a name for herself with her camera and had proved herself a woman of talent and worth.
Then his grandfather had called him this morning and had stunned him by acting as thrilled as an infatuated kid when he'd mentioned Cici had come home again and they were giving tours of the house together.
Why had she, a famous photographer and writer, really come home? What did she want?
"Nine years ago you were dead set against her because of her uncle," Logan had reminded him. Grand-père had always distrusted Cici's uncle.
"In a long life, a man makes a few mistakes. Remember that. I made more than a few. Someday you may have a stroke that leaves you with too much time to dwell on the past. You may regret some of the things you've done. Well, I regret blaming Cici for her uncle Bos. It wasn't her fault he fought cocks, ran with a wild bunch and operated a bar."
"Do you remember that nine years ago you didn't want her anywhere near Jake or me, especially Jake, who was running pretty wild back then?"
"Well, I'm sorry for that, if I did."
"If you did?" It was still difficult to reconcile the grandfather he had now with the domineering individual who had raised him.
"Okay, I was wrong about her. I was wrong to be so tough on you, too. It's my fault you're so hard."
A pang of guilt had hit Logan as he'd run his hand through his rumpled, chocolate-brown hair.
"I was too hard on Jake, too."
"Maybe you're being too difficult on yourself."
"I'd like to see Jake again before I die."
"You're not going to die… not anytime soon."
"Cici says the same thing. She thinks I'm getting better every day. She thinks maybe I could stay here instead of…" His voice trailed away.
The mention of Cici and the hope in his grandfather's voice had convinced Logan he had to check on his grandfather at once. Since his stroke, his grandfather had gone from being a strong, commanding man to a clingy, depressed person Logan barely knew. This was why Logan had decided his grandfather couldn't live independently at Belle Rose any longer and needed to be moved to New Orleans near him. The old man needed looking after.
Unfortunately, the dense forest with its vines and wild vegetation was so thick beneath the brooding sky, Logan was almost past the familiar turn to his childhood home before he saw the gatepost. At the last moment, he spun the wheel of his Lexus to the right too fast and skidded. No sooner had he righted the car than he saw the pillared mansion at the end of the oak alley. As always, the ancient home with its graceful columns and galleries aglow in the slanting sunlight seemed to him the most beautiful of houses, claiming his heart as no other place could.
How could he blame Grandpère, who'd become more childlike and emotional since his debilitating illness, for wanting to stay here? Logan remembered the first time he had mentioned the possibility of moving him to the city. Grandpère had given him a scare by disappearing for several hours.
Cici has no business convincing the old man he's getting better so he'll think he doesn't have to move.
But was that really her motivation?
The mere thought of his grandfather's worsening condition was upsetting. Logan, not Cici, had Grand-père's best interests at heart. The last thing he needed was Cici meddling and making him feel guilty about a decision he'd been forced to make. He didn't want to make Grandpère unhappy, but he couldn't run Clai-borne Energy and be down here with his grandfather at the same time.
His thoughts in a snarl, Logan braked too sharply. His tires spun in the damp gravel as he stopped in the deep shade beneath the wide alley of the spreading oaks some anonymous Frenchman had planted a hundred years before the antebellum house had even been dreamed of. Beyond the house, fields stretched to a line of brooding cypress trees draped with moss that edged the wilderness of the swamp.
Logan flung the gleaming door of his late-model Lexus hybrid open and stepped out of the luxury sedan. After having his tall frame jammed behind the wheel for the two hour drive over bad roads from New Orleans, it felt good to stand up and stretch.
Despite the huge live oak trees, the heat was unbearably steamy for this early in March. He inhaled the thick, syrupy air, which to him smelled of home.
Little green frogs croaked. Bees hummed in azalea blossoms. Wood ducks made music. Did he only imagine lusty bull alligators roaring for their mates?
He smiled. How Cici used to love the dark, moss-hung wilderness that bordered the plantation when she'd been a kid. Whenever he'd been home and had put a foot outside, she'd followed him everywhere as eagerly as a devoted puppy. Their relationship had been so simple then. She'd been eight years younger than he and Jake, so Logan hadn't taken her crush on his brother seriously until the summer he'd returned home from law school and discovered that his grandfather was right about Cici not being a child any longer.
Shutting his mind against those pleasant memories that included Cici, he began to regret he was out of the air-conditioned car.
Maybe because he dreaded seeing Cici so much, Logan took the time to rip his tie off and unbutton his collar. Shedding his custom-made suit jacket, he opened the door and tossed his jacket and tie onto his plush, leather seat.
He wished Alicia Butler, his girlfriend of the past four months, had been able to come with him. Maybe then he wouldn't feel so haunted by the past. Or so tempted to remember Cici.
Unlike Cici, Alicia was sleek and elegant. He'd met her because they'd been thrown together due to his ambition to merge his company with her father's. A brunette, her shoulder-length, straight hair made her slim face seem even more regal. She knew how to dress, how to carry herself. Heads turned at fundraisers whenever she was at his side, and not only because of her beauty and stylish attire, but because of her fortune.
Other men, ambitious men, envied him. Not that that was the only reason he felt such a sense of pride that she would soon be his.
Poised, she approached life deliberately, as he did. She was civilized, polished and, therefore, as appropriate for him as his wife, Noelle, had been before her untimely death.
Alicia spoke French and Italian. She set a beautiful table. She never ate too much or drank too much or wore an inappropriate outfit.
Not even when she was angry did she raise her voice. She was equally controlled in bed, too.
As Cici had not been, sprang the wayward thought. For an instant his blood pounded as he remembered Cici wild with pleasure, writhing beneath him.
But Alicia would warm up after they were married. He would be patient. He understood not trusting enough to ever let go. Together he and Alicia would build a life together as he and Noelle, his recently departed wife, had, a life that everyone would envy. They wouldn't quarrel horribly and tear each other to pieces because their passions got in the way.
Briefly he remembered Noelle's sad eyes in that last week before she'd died. Then, quickly as always, he ruthlessly checked the forbidden image. He would make Alicia happy. History would not repeat itself.
"I'm sorry I can't come with you and meet your grandfather, darling," Alicia had said when he'd called her this morning. "But Daddy needs me at the office."
"Okay. I understand."
Mitchell Butler, Alicia's father, was a domineering shark, at least in business, but since Logan and he had this huge merger between their businesses pending, Logan didn't want to cross him over something as minor as a personal issue. He would see Alicia tonight.
"Darling, I'm sure you'll know exactly what to say and do to make your grandfather understand why he may not be able to stay at Belle Rose," Alicia had said. "After all, it's your family. He's your grandfather. You love him and want only the best for him."
If she only knew what a mess he'd made of things, Logan thought grimly. He'd made everybody unhappy. His family remained divided, as a result.
He didn't want to dwell on his mistakes, especially not on his brutal handling of Cici the first time around or his nine-year estrangement from his twin. His thoughts on damage control and what was best for his grandfather, Logan had rushed down here today despite his heavy schedule. He was determined to deal with Cici before she got creative and made his grandfather believe he could have the impossible.
He remembered how small and lost Cici had looked standing on the dock after he'd told her he didn't love her. He'd lied to protect her and him. Strangely, his lie had made him feel equally sad.
Don't think about the past. Or how you felt. Just deal with Cici now.
Despite his best intentions not to revisit the past, he remembered young, vivacious Cici trying to pretend she was strong and tough and as good as the rich and powerful Claibornes. He'd hurt her. Hurt Jake. Hurt everybody, including himself. And told himself it was collateral damage because the family was richer and stronger than ever.
After locking the car, Logan turned and strode up the gravel drive toward the softly glowing house. But at the base of the stairs that led to the lower gallery and massive front door, he paused.
Slowly his gaze drifted over the mansion and lawn. A newly built wooden wheelchair ramp that avoided the stairs snaked back and forth from the ground to the front door.
Logan's eyes roved over the familiar grounds, out to the garçonnière where he and Jake had lived as teenagers before their quarrel over Cici, and he wondered who owned the two-seater Miata parked at such a jaunty angle beside the building.
Frowning, he made for the stairs, but just as he was about to turn the knob and push at the front door, it was opened by someone inside the house.
"Why, hello there, Mister Logan," said the soft, familiar, French-accented voice of his childhood nanny.
Noonoon, his grandfather's housekeeper now, stood just inside the big door. At the sight of him, her dark face lit up as brightly as a birthday cake.
An answering warmth filled him. This generous-hearted woman had always loved him, loved Jake, too. Ever since their mother's death, she'd practically run Belle Rose single-handedly.
"Lordy, it shore is a hot day."
He nodded, gave her a quick hug, then released her.
"Come on in out of the heat before you melt. If it's this hot now, what'll it be like in August?"
"Don't get me started about August." Because of the gulf heating up in the summer, August was a prime month for hurricanes.
"Can I fix you something? A drink maybe? Iced tea with a sprig of mint?"
He shook his head. "I'm fine."
"You shore are. At thirty-five, you're as tall and handsome as ever."
"Why do you remind me of my age every chance you get?"
"Maybe because it's time you stopped grieving so hard for your pretty Miss Noelle."
She stopped, realizing he wasn't the sort to encourage sympathy. "Life is short," she said.
"I have someone new in my life." He stepped into the welcoming cool of the wide central hall. "Her name's Alicia Butler. You'll meet her soon. She's a real lady. Someone the family will be proud of."
Noonoon shut the door behind him. "I'm real glad. So, what brings you all the way down here from New Orleans?"
"My grandfather. He's so deaf he's hard to talk to over the phone. I thought we had things settled, but this morning he was saying he was better and wanted to stay here on his own." Deliberately Logan refrained from mentioning Cici.
"Mr. Pierre, he be napping upstairs. But he'll be mighty pleased, he will…that you're here…since we don't see much of you these days, you bein' such a busy, important man and all and living in New Orleans."
"Napping? Where is she, then?" Logan asked.
"Miss Cici?" Noonoon inquired a little too innocently.
Logan nodded. "Who else?"