By Lora Leigh
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Lora Leigh
All rights reserved.
Sometimes life just came full circle, whether a woman wanted it to or not. It was inevitable. And life had definitely come full circle for Jaci Wright.
The party was different. The stilted, gossipy political crowd was nothing like the raucous booze-laden crowd that had inhabited the last party where one of the Falladay twins had waylaid her.
She wasn't a woman-child now. She was a mature woman with more hang-ups than a closet and just as many reasons for running as hard and as fast from them now as she'd had seven years ago.
But this time, she knew she wouldn't run.
"It's definitely a party your mother would approve of." Chase Falladay stepped up to her. She had always been able to tell the Falladay brothers apart. Chase was dressed in an evening suit, his thick black hair brushed back from his strong features, his light green eyes watching her with a hint of laughter as a smile tugged at his sensual, sexy lips.
Sun-darkened flesh was stretched tighter over his face, it seemed, than it had been seven years ago. There were laugh lines at the corners of his eyes, but those eyes — such a light green they were mesmerizing — seemed more shadowed now. Haunted. And he still looked much too much like Cameron — the one man that haunted her dreams and her thoughts, even when he shouldn't have.
"Yes, Mom would approve of this party," she murmured, staring around for a second before her gaze was drawn back to him.
He was just as handsome as he ever had been. Just as bold as Cam and just as much out of her league. As she stared at him, she felt the past wash over her. The face that stared at her was the right one, but the man wasn't.
"Fancy meeting you here." She let a smile curve at her lips before raising her champagne glass and sipping at the sparkling liquid. She should have felt uncomfortable, hesitant, but she didn't. She was more intrigued than she should be.
"Hmm. Providence perhaps?" He lifted a dark brow and leaned against the wall beside her, one hand pushing into the pockets of his dress slacks while the other held his champagne glass negligently. "Should I rescue you from this one, as Cam did the last one?"
The mention of that last party, the cool autumn night, the hot male body, and everything she had walked away from when she walked away from him and Cam, flashed through her. Heat whispered over her skin but it wasn't embarrassment.
"Courtney might kill us both," she whispered as though they dare not let their hostess hear those words. "I had to promise her I'd mingle, under the threat of dire consequences."
Courtney was her dearest friend. She, along with Sebastian De Lorents, had saved Jaci's life on a dark street in England, years before, when a mugger decided to get ugly.
Courtney and Sebastian were both here now, in Squire Point, Virginia. Courtney had married an American businessman, and Sebastian was working for him. Just as Jaci would be doing soon.
"I'm sure Courtney would understand," he offered suggestively. "And if she doesn't, then I'll have Ian explain it to her. He seems to have some small measure of control over her."
There was a hint of laughter in his voice. Sexy, certain of himself. Confident.
"Chase Falladay." She shook her head, still bemused to be standing there, talking to him as though the years had never separated them. "What are you doing here?"
He leaned forward several inches. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
He was close now. So close that all it would take was the smallest movement from her to touch him.
She shook her head, forcing herself to smile as she stared out over the crowd once more.
Fate was definitely being fickle at the moment. Not only were her two biggest headaches at this party, but also the identical twin of her greatest torment. Now, how was that for her life? She dreamed of Cam, but here was Chase. And perhaps, as he suggested, it was providence — a sign, Fate laughing its silly ass off and showing Jaci how fickle its favor could be.
"I don't know," she finally answered as she turned back to him. "I've been known to be pretty gullible at times. Tell me your tale, and then I'll decide if I believe it."
She liked to believe she was much less gullible than she had once been. She had seen the world; at times, she had seen more of it than she wanted to. And she had learned lessons she never imagined she would be faced with.
His eyes gleamed with laughter. "I wouldn't want to make you blush. I hear it's impolite."
Sexy, charming. He was devilishly amusing, and the laughter was just as hard to contain as it had been seven years ago.
Chase had always been the joker, Cam the more serious one. Cam's dark wit and almost dangerous sexuality had drawn women to him like flies to honey, just as it had drawn Jaci.
"As though that would stop you." She had to force back the laughter, but it was hard. Chase had always had a way of making her laugh. "You delighted in it once. You made everyone laugh, while Cam made certain he made everyone angry." She looked around again, her heart thumping hard in anticipation. "Where is Cam?"
Shockingly, she felt the remembered heat of that night so long ago. Cam's kiss stealing her mind, and then later, his voice breaking her heart with the knowledge that he wouldn't be her lover alone.
For so many years she had wondered if she had made a mistake in running from him that night. If she had stayed, so many things would have changed. And perhaps she wouldn't have spent seven years wondering.
"Cam's around." His voice softened, the dark cadence gentling as she turned back to him. "He'll enjoy seeing you again. It's been a long time."
It had been. It had been too long. And yet, not long enough. Because she still felt that warmth low in her stomach as it threatened to turn into a burn. A reaction only Cam, or the thought of Cam, could cause to build inside her.
And regret. There was always regret.
Bolder than brass, strong, muscled, larger than life. That was what Cam had always been to her. Until the night she realized exactly how bold he could be.
Chase had been her friend, though. Even later, during her odd visits home, he had been there. Flirtatious, yet knowing. He had teased her and laughed at her when they met up; but that spark, that hidden flame had never been the same with Chase.
"It has been a long time," she nodded.
She felt uncertain now. She could feel the nervous tension rising inside her.
Cam was here, and so was Chase. And so much had changed, and yet so much hadn't. But she remembered Cam's warning clearly. He would kill over her. He wasn't a man that made false declarations. And he never forgot a promise. That was a dangerous thing for a woman who knew her past was about to catch up with her.
Now she was going to have to find a way to hold her own fantasies, as well as the men, at arm's length, because the promise Cam made her still had the power to terrify her. God help her, the Robertses, and Cam, if he ever learned what truly happened that night. Blood would spill, and the mere thought of that gave her nightmares. He had sworn he would kill any man that hurt her, and he kept his promises.
It had kept her from contacting Cam, from running to him, for years. The knowledge that she knew he would kill because of her, the look in his eyes that night, the primal intensity, the dark power, assured her he wasn't joking.
She had known him and Chase for too many years even before that night. She knew they were both men that other men knew to be wary of.
She swallowed nervously and felt the flutter of panic in her stomach as her gaze moved around the room. She hid in the shadows of the room throughout the evening, hoping to avoid the Robertses. Now she knew she was going to have to get the hell out of there.
"I can't believe you're this nervous around me, Jaci." Chase's head tilted a fraction as he stared back at her knowingly.
"Who says I'm nervous?" She was. She accepted it. But not because of the past.
Those sexy lips quirked again. "Courtney has an exceptional garden outside." He extended his hand toward the doors that opened out between the two sprawling wings of the house. "Would you like to walk out with me?"
"Courtney will miss me." She gave him a polite smile as she tried to plan the best route out of the ballroom to where she could call a cab and return to her hotel. "She threatened me, Chase. I'm to mingle."
"She'll survive, and so will you."
She inhaled roughly as he caught her free hand and tugged her from the side of the ballroom toward those open doors.
Ian Sinclair and his wife, Courtney, had an exceptional home. The main mansion, built over a hundred years ago, was huge. Later additions included the two wings that sloped back to each side of the main house, creating a hidden, private garden inside.
Dusk was falling as Chase drew her outside, where the music was more muted, more romantic. The haunting strains of the piano whispered through the air as Chase drew her farther into the shadowed, dimly lit garden.
She hadn't expected to see him here. She knew he and Cameron lived in Alexandria, of which Squire Point was a suburb, but she hadn't thought she would see him here, at the Sinclairs'.
She had thought she could take this job, do the work it entailed, and maybe, before she left, she would give an old friend a call.
Her lips quirked at the thought. She was lying to herself then and she was lying to herself now. She was dying to see Cam again. Dying for one more chance to taste his kiss, to feel his touch. To see if anything had changed, if he had grown possessive, if perhaps he had grown out of that need to share with his twin. And if he hadn't, she wondered if perhaps she had grown out of her fear of it. Because the fantasies that had haunted her over the years had nearly driven her insane. Dark dreams and wicked desires had been instilled in her that night. Escaping them wasn't an option.
Knowing she was going to have to avoid the Falladay twins until the job was over, and that the Robertses would surely interfere in any relationship she developed, was quickly changing her plans. If Cam and Chase were close friends with the Sinclairs, then the potential for disaster had just grown exponentially.
She would kill Courtney for not warning her they would be so close.
As they moved onto the wide, flagstone path that weaved and branched off into hidden grottos, Chase drew her alongside him, his hand settling against the small of her back as they walked deeper into the shadows.
The other guests hadn't wandered this far yet. There was a faint tinkle of a fountain nearby. Night birds sang their songs and crickets chirped happily. If she closed her eyes she could almost feel that hot summer night seven years earlier, and she could almost pretend Chase was Cam.
"Are you bringing me out to the gardens in an attempt to seduce me, Chase?" she drawled with a smile, the seriousness of her question hidden beneath the subtle laughter in her tone.
She had forgotten how much fun it could be to flirt with and tease Chase, what it felt like to be with a man that a part of her instinctively trusted, rather than distrusted.
She had learned over the years not to trust anyone, especially good-looking men. And that, she often thought, was an incredible shame. A woman her age should have had more adventures than she'd had so far.
His chuckle stroked her senses.
"I want to catch up with an old friend, nothing more," he promised her. "Damn, Jaci, when did you become so suspicious?"
"When it comes to you and your brother? Seven years ago." She glanced up at him, amused at the accusation. "You're not old enough to have forgotten, surely?"
She hadn't forgotten a moment of it, and she knew Chase — he would never let her hide from it if he thought for a minute that she was trying to. Better to get it out in the open now. And she couldn't resist it anyway. Seeing him, knowing Cam was close, the needs were rising inside her with all the dark promise of the dreams that had haunted her.
"Now you're just being mean." He gave her a mock glare before pulling her to a vine-covered swing that sat beneath a wide arbor. "Here we go. We can just sit here and visit."
Jaci sat down, carefully smoothing the material of her black evening gown down her thighs as Chase sat down beside her.
The gown, which had felt so alluring when she put it on, now seemed too sexy, too revealing. It made her feel too feminine. The thin straps held the draped bodice over her breasts. Maybe she should have worn a bra. The side slit ran to her thigh. It showed an indecent amount of leg.
Chase chuckled again.
She lifted her gaze and felt the grin that tugged at her lips, as he watched her knowingly.
"You and Cam always made me too nervous," she admitted with a soft laugh. "Sometimes I've missed that."
She had missed the twins after she left town within weeks of the night of the party. She had snapped up an offer to attend a design school in California and headed out as fast as she could. And every day she planned the trip, she'd had to fight herself to keep from going to Cam, to keep from accepting an offer she knew she couldn't handle. Just to be in his arms. To feel his kiss again. To see what she was missing.
"We've missed you." His arm stretched behind her, his fingers playing with the strands of hair that escaped the decorative clip that held it in the back.
We've missed you. Not I. Jaci caught that one quickly.
She ducked her head, hoping to hide her response to that statement as she inhaled with a slow, deep breath.
"You ran out on us, Jaci."
Jaci swallowed tightly, her head jerking up as his tone hardened.
"There was nothing to run out on." She kept her voice firm, steady.
The shadowed landscape lighting gave his expression a darker, more dangerous cast. His eyes gleamed in the low light, piercing into hers.
His fingers paused at the nape of her neck where they had been playing with the hair that drifted down from the clip. His expression became intent, determined.
He nodded slowly. "I guess you're right. There was nothing to run out on." His lips quirked humorlessly. "We still missed you like hell, though. Life wasn't the same without your laughter."
It hadn't been the same without them, either. She had been their friend, when other women were no more than novelties — she knew that. Until one night destroyed that friendship. She had never looked at Chase the same after that, and she had never seen Cam again.
The thought of Cam had her insides burning, rioting with fear and with need. She kept checking the shadows for him, kept expecting him to step into view. And the hunger to see him was growing within her in burning waves.
"I need to get back inside." She rose to her feet, her fingers tightening on the small purse that hung from her shoulder. "It's almost the witching hour for me. I have to get up early in the morning."
She needed to get away from him, to think. It had been too damned long since she had seen Chase or Cam, too long since she had allowed herself to think about the Falladay twins, either separately or apart.
"Let me take you back to your hotel, or are you staying here?" He nodded to the mansion.
"I'm at a hotel. But I'll be fine."
"We could talk — just talk, Jaci, I promise." He smiled. The charm and sensuality that was so much a part of him wrapped around her, encouraged her to join in, to let herself be seduced.
"I don't know."
"Just the two of us."
He said it so easily, with just a hint of amusement, a promise of sensuality. There was a shade of mockery in his tone, an acknowledgement of her hesitancy and the reasons why.
Jaci looked around the thick foliage of the grotto, the scent of summer, of sultry heat wrapping around her, the scent of the man sinking into her. And she weakened. He wasn't Cam, but he knew her. He wouldn't betray her or deliberately hurt her. And she was tired — tired of being alone and wishing for things she couldn't have. Tired of dreaming of one man and regretting one night.
Finally, she nodded. A slow, hesitant movement, a part of her holding back, the other part reaching out for him.
His smile was slow, confident, and for a moment Jaci wondered if she had somehow just stepped into something she didn't have a chance of handling.
"You can't change your mind." He caught her hand and drew her back along the path.
Rather than heading back into the ballroom, he drew her instead to a glass door that opened into the private wing of the house.
"I need to let Courtney know I'm leaving," she said as they moved through the short hall and into the kitchen and formal dining room, before turning into the foyer.
"Matthew will let her know." He drew her to the front door where the butler stepped from the small room that connected to the private wing as well as the main mansion.
"Mr. Falladay. Miss Wright." Matthew nodded his head politely.
"Matthew, please let Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair know we've left. Tell Ian I'll contact him tomorrow about those files."
"Of course, Mr. Falladay," Matthew acknowledged impassively. "I'll inform them immediately." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wicked Pleasure by Lora Leigh. Copyright © 2008 Lora Leigh. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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