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"Don't be alarmed."
Suzanne Rand spun around with a gasp of surprise. Not because of the words, but because of the voice. His voice. She knew it far more intimately than she wanted to. His voice had a deep rumbling tone that made her think of bourbon and jazz and hot summer nights. She stared at the man standing in front of her dressed in worn jeans, a faded shirt and sneakers. In the distance, the sun set, lengthening the shadows of the trees and the large stately white house behind her while the distant cry of a skein of Canada geese flew overhead.
She was all alone with him, one thing she'd never imagined happening again.
"Rick Gordon," she whispered as though if she spoke too loud he'd disappear.
"It's been a long time," he said, his seductive voice washing over her and causing her skin to tingle. Suzanne knew his dark gaze could produce the same effect and much more. She couldn't imagine what he thought of her. She no longer wore her hair in microbraids down her back; instead, her thick black hair was pulled into a French braid. She wore a blue chiffon top, offset with a pair of fitted white linen pants, which showed off her new slimmer figure, and her lips sported bright red lipstick instead of the subdued pink she'd always been known for.
Suzanne folded her arms, suddenly feeling vulnerable under his assessing gaze, wishing for a cool spring breeze or some other reason to go back inside. Yes, it had been a long time, but not long enough and she'd hoped never to see him again. She'd planned to slip in and out of town before having to deal with her past. Stares and whispers had been part of her life when she'd left the small town of Anadale, North Carolina, five years ago. Those stares and whispers had greeted her again, since she'd been forced to return. Meeting Rick Gordon would only make those whispers grow.
"I'm surprised you remember me," he said, his steady gaze piercing into hers.
Suzanne shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, although inside she was shaking. "You shouldn't be. Everybody remembers you."
A slow grin spread on his face and his eyes brightened with mischief, making his handsome face more appealing. "Especially you?" It was a statement rather than a question, but she refused to respond to it even though he was right.
Rick Gordon was an unforgettable character. She remembered that he was always in trouble or causing trouble for someone else. He was unlike anyone else in town—reckless, rebellious, wild and one of the poorest residents of Anadale. The police knew him, but he never got into serious trouble and had never seen the inside of a courtroom. "He's mine, if he ever comes in front of me," Suzanne's father, Gerald Rand, used to say, keenly aware of his power as a judge. "The courtroom's my kingdom."
That might have been true, but Anadale was Rick's kingdom. He could draw people in with a smile or a look and he had a charisma that was undeniable. Handsome wasn't the first thought that came to mind when one looked at him. Stunning suited him more. From his sharp, confident profile to his magnetic brown eyes. He was coarse, bold and sexy and that hadn't changed. People used to say he could walk into a room and make the temperature rise because he was living with the devil. "You stay away from him," her father had warned. And she had, except for one summer during her senior year. But Suzanne didn't want to remember that now.
There had been so many things she'd wanted to forget about Anadale, but she hadn't forgotten him. Even after he'd left town ten years ago, he'd stayed in her memory. And as his profile grew from trade school dropout to owner of one of the largest energy-saving electronic companies on the east coast, the gossips of Anadale made sure that she remembered him. His success astounded them. No one had expected him to amount to anything. Only a few people knew that as a teenager he created energy-saving devices in his spare time to help heat and light the old dilapidated box house he and his family lived in. Later he developed a business around his creations and continued to use his knowledge to help poor and low-income families use solar and wind energy to save money.
"You look well," he said.
Although his tone was polite, it set Suzanne on edge. What was he doing here? What did he want? "Thank you," she said, using the same formal tone.
He glanced at the camera in her hand. "What are you doing?"
Suzanne blinked at the object in her hand for a moment as though she didn't know how it got there. "Oh, yes." She turned to the house. "I was taking pictures."
"For your scrapbook?"
"No," she said, surprised that he remembered her old hobby. "I don't do that anymore. These are for the new brochure to help sell the house."
"I thought the Realtor was supposed to do that."
"Yes, she did," Suzanne said cautiously. "But we need to create another one."
"Because the first one was crap."
"No," she said, defensive. "that's not it."
Rick pulled out a worn brochure from inside his jacket. "I've got it right here."
"Oh," Suzanne said with a tinge of chagrin. He was right. The brochure was crap. Everything about her return to Anadale seemed to follow suit. Three weeks earlier she'd expected to come back, arrange her father's funeral, settle his affairs then go back to her life. But upon her arrival Suzanne had come to discover that her father had become a stranger. The man who'd once been a prominent judge and upright citizen of the town had turned into a debt ridden, bitter old man who'd lived as a hermit for the past year.
He'd kept this from her. Any time she'd phoned, his voice had sounded upbeat and he told her he was well. Although her mother had died three years ago, Suzanne never worried about her father being lonely. He was a sociable man and always had company. It was only at his funeral that she'd discovered that her father had dismissed his housekeeper and gardener three months before his death without explanation. That he'd stayed holed up in his house for months and hadn't paid his bills and had let all of his investments tank.
Instead of the beautiful home she'd remembered as a child and young woman, she found a dusty tomb that needed to be sold—fast. So she hired Della because she was a Fulford (which meant a lot in Anadale), and came from a proud and established family. Della's mother had been a top-selling Realtor and owned Fulford Realtors, one of, if not the most, successful Realtors in town. So it was inevitable and/or expected that Suzanne would work with them. Unfortunately, Suzanne soon realized that Della had only inherited the "name" but not the skills.
Suzanne soon discovered that Della had created a totally ineffective brochure that was glossy and full of color (and very expensive), but showed three images of the living room and only one other picture of the backyard. In addition, she hadn't listed the house in the proper venues and had twice missed appointments. However, Suzanne knew she couldn't fire her without the whole town thinking that Suzanne considered herself above them and had become too "New York." So instead she decided to take some new pictures of the house and get them to the printers so that a new brochure could be made and distributed.
"What are you doing with that?" Suzanne asked, looking at the crumbled brochure in his hand.
"I wanted to see what the house looked like," Rick said in a low tone.
She blinked. "Why?"
"The same reason as anyone else."
She furrowed her brow. "I don't understand."
Rick folded his arms with a look of impatience. "Why would someone look at a house?" When she didn't reply he said, "I plan to buy it."
Suzanne schooled her features, determined to hide her surprise and doubt. "Oh. Of course."
The corner of his mouth kicked up in amusement. "You don't believe me?"
"No, it's not that," she said quickly. "I'm sorry, Della, I mean Ms. Fulford, didn't tell me she had someone coming by."
He shrugged, unconcerned, a casual gesture that made it clear that the problem wasn't his. "She told me to come by."
"Right." Suzanne fumbled for her cell phone, desperate to have a reason not to look at him. Did he mean it? He wanted to buy her house? Why? What was he up to? It was at moments like these that she wished she still had Neena the housekeeper. Neena would always help her deal with situations she didn't want to. She dialed Della's number. After four rings Della picked up and Suzanne heard noise in the background—like that of a blow-dryer. "Della, did you forget that you had an appointment today?"
"What?" Della shouted into the phone.
Suzanne glanced up at the sky for patience. "Did you have an appointment today?"
"I don't think so."
"A Mr. Rick Gordon?"
"Rick!" Della squeaked. "I forgot about him. I'm so sorry. I scheduled my hair appointment late and I needed to get my roots done. You must think I'm a dingbat to forget such a delicious specimen of a man. I know he's a Gordon and totally off-limits to women like us, but he's still a danger to any woman who wants to keep her reputation clean, if you know what I mean. Have you seen him lately?"
Suzanne sent Rick a quick glance hoping he couldn't hear what Della was saying over the phone, but from the look he sent her she knew he'd heard every word. She lowered her voice. "I'm looking at him right now."
Suzanne reluctantly raised her tone. "I said I'm seeing him right now."
"You mean he's there?"
"Alone with you?"
"I'm almost done. I'll be right over. Say in fifteen minutes. Can he wait?"
Suzanne gripped the phone. Wait? Della wanted him to wait? What was she supposed to do with him? She turned to him and lifted an eyebrow in question. "Do you mind waiting?"
He shook his head.
"I'm not sure how long she'll be," Suzanne lied, hoping to discourage him.
She silently groaned then returned to Della. "Yes, he'll wait."
"Great. I'll be right over. Don't let him get away. Toodles."
Suzanne closed the phone, determined not to repeat Della's signature sign-off. "Let's wait inside," she said, then headed for the house before he could disagree.
He didn't move. "Not that way."
She turned to him, surprised. "What way?"
He glanced at the side door. "Don't you think I deserve front door treatment? Or am I not good enough yet?"
"I always go through the side door."
"But you don't take guests that way."
Suzanne gritted her teeth at his smug tone and implication that she was being a snob. Unfortunately, he was right. She never took guests through the side entrance.
She took a deep calming breath then changed her direction and went around to the front, where the house sported a grand entrance with four large pillars and a solid oak door with stained glass. She opened the door then made an exaggerated display of welcoming him inside.
Rick ignored her mockery and stepped into the large foyer. He slowly turned in a circle as he looked around.
As he studied the interior of the house, Suzanne studied him. She couldn't help herself. He was a man who commanded attention without effort. His large, solid form had not been diminished by the years, but enhanced. His massive shoulders stretched the fabric of his shirt and his muscular legs could put tree trunks to shame. That coarse air about him had been slightly tamed, however, because although his clothes looked worn, she could detect that they were of a fine quality.
"Wow, never imagined it would look like this," Rick said in awe. Without invitation, or wiping his shoes on the welcome rug, he walked directly into the living room and sat down on a large green sofa. One thing was clear—Rick was here to stay.
Suzanne stood in the hallway wishing Della would come soon. She resisted the urge to look at her watch because she knew that would only make her more anxious. What was she supposed to say? Do? Was he really interested in the house? Why? He didn't seem the type to want to settle down. What did he really want? She watched him sitting on the couch looking the complete opposite of the moneyed businessmen who'd visited before.
He looked like a handyman who'd lost his way and didn't care. She noticed something glitter on his wrist and saw his watch. It wasn't a gold plated imitation, but the genuine thing. At that moment, Suzanne decided to hone in her thoughts. She had to remember that what he looked like didn't matter.