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Annalise Wolff regarded Sam Ely much like she did the IRS. She was forced to deal with him occasionally, but the experience inevitably gave her a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach thus making her voluntary presence in his office today all the more incomprehensible. She leaned back in her chair, crossed one slim leg over the other and admired the sheen on her soft ebony leather boots. They were Prada, as was her voluminous purse.
Suffering the indignity of face-to-face contact with the ridiculously handsome architect required full body armor. Her crimson cashmere sweater and narrow black wool skirt were designed to show him she was all grown up.
Unfortunately, Sam didn't seem all that impressed.
He lounged against the window frame, his gaze absently focused on the wintry day outside. "Yes or no, Annalise," he said, a faint but unmistakable bite in his voice despite his honeyed drawl. "I'm giving you the courtesy of first refusal, but there are dozens of interior designers who would jump at this opportunity."
He was right, damn his scurvy, sexy, Southern hide. The Shenandoah Valley home and dairy farm that belonged to his grandparents dated back to the time of Thomas Jefferson. The house was listed on the national register. Experts in historic renovation were handling the extensive changes Sam had drawn in detail via the plans rolled out on a nearby table. The project was an interior designer's dream. She stalled, telling herself she could walk away. "And the magazine spread afterward is a done deal?"
"My college roommate's mom is the managing editor of Architectural Design. She's salivating at the opportunity to put Sycamore Farm in the earliest possible issue. The only holdup at the moment is you."
He returned to his desk and sat down on the edge of it, his long, muscular legs dangerously close to hers. The position put him above her, and she knew he did it deliberately. She'd known this man for most of her life. His father had done the architectural design for much of Wolff Castle, and Sam and his dad had been frequent visitors to the Wolff home over the years. For an adolescent girl locked away like Rapunzel in her tower, Annalise's interactions with the much older Sam had been her first and only exposure to hormonal-driven, adolescent passion.
"When would I start?" she hedged. "If I agree."
He glanced down at the calendar beside him. "I'm sure you have a few things to wrap up. How about a week from Friday? Gram and Pops want you to live onsite, given the remoteness of the farm. Too much time commuting would eat into the schedule."
She felt her face heat. "Where will you be?"
He put his hands on his thighs, drawing her attention to their size and firmness and the shape of his masculinity nestled where they met. "Don't worry," he muttered, irritation etching a scowl between his eyebrows as he glared at her. "Gram wants me to spend a couple of days at the beginning to orient you to the project, but afterward, I'll return here to my office, far, far, away. That should put your mind at rest." He ran a hand through his hair. "For God's sake, I'm not making you a prisoner. Go home whenever you need to, but I want you to give this job a hundred and ten percent. Or nothing."
He sat up, back straight, arms folded, eyes glittering with challenge. "Do I make you nervous, Annalise?"
"Of course not." Her reply was commendably quick, but lamentably false. "I'm just not sure if I have the time to fit you into my schedule." Annalise didn't need the money. But the cachet of having her name on this massive undertaking would take her business and reputation to a whole new level. She was ambitious, damn it. Sam might not think of her as anything more than a family friend, but professionally he had her pegged.
He took her hand and drew her to her feet, cradling her loosely in the vee of his legs. "Make time, Annalise," he said, his gaze locking onto hers like a charlatan preparing to hypnotize an unwary victim. "You know you want to."
Sam was overplaying his hand. Sexual nuance was not his normal mode of doing business. But the God's honest truth was, Annalise made him nervous. He'd hurt her badly seven years ago when she'd had a big crush on him, and though he'd like to believe that was water under the bridge, the wariness in her sooty-lashed, pale blue eyes was unmistakable. The adoration she'd showered him with so long ago had changed into fury the instant he'd rejected her, and she had never forgiven him.
The reluctant attraction he battled even now had simmered back then. He'd never been able to forget what happened, and though he'd tried on several occasions to apologize over the years, Annalise shut him down time and again until he finally gave up and avoided her as much as possible. She did likewise.
But like a stubborn splinter beneath the skin, he couldn't seem to extract her from his life and his thoughts. So when his grandparents insisted he offer the job to Annalise, he'd relished the opportunity to get her alone, to invite her to his office, to see her face-to-face.
The color of her irises was unusual for a woman with hair so dark and glossy. But then again, most everything about Annalise Wolff was extraordinary. Tall and slim and infinitely confident, her striking looks could have made her a runway model or a film star. She carried herself with a boldness that did nothing to minimize her intense femininity.
For a split second, Sam allowed himself to imagine all that boundless energy and subtle sexual aggression in his bed. His sex hardened to the point of pain. This was why he normally kept a healthy distance. He didn't want to think of her that way. Cursing his own stupidity, he set her aside and put the desk between them. "I can't give you long to make up your mind. Gram wanted you because of the work you did on the president's home at UVA. She and my grandfather attended the reception that showcased the renovations there and they were both very impressed with your work. But if you don't have the time, just say so."
Annalise folded her arms beneath her breasts. The soft red sweater she wore delineated her modest curves and her narrow waist. Sam had big hands, and it was not a far stretch to imagine himself lifting her and spreading her legs and
She tilted her chin upward, nose in the air. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? But sorry, Sam Ely, I guess you're stuck with me. If your grandmother wants me to do this project, I'm in."
The jolt ofjoy that stabbed through his chest was a surprise. Did he really want an excuse to spend time with the prickly, stubborn Annalise Wolff? Apparently, according to his unreasonable but insistent erection, he did.
Sam cleared his throat, making a show of turning the calendar around and jotting a note. "I'll get my attorney to draw up a contract. Do you have any questions?"
Ten days later, Annalise steered her Miata along a narrow paved road that led up to the entrance of Sycamore Farm. In the dead of winter, the property was not all that impressive. Fallow fields crusted with frost flanked both sides of the road. Excessive freezing and thawing had played havoc with the asphalt, leaving the occasional pothole.
Sam's grandparents had been gone for several weeks, searching out warmer climes. But Annalise had been assured that the fridge and pantry were stocked and at least one bedroom outfitted for a long-term guest.
Remembering her last encounter with Sam, she muttered an expletive. Growing up in an all-male household had done unfortunate damage to a ladylike vocabulary. On New Year's Eve she'd made a resolution to give up cursing, but so far, her progress hadn't been stellar.
Sam's last words still rang in her ears. Do you have any questions?
Hell, yes, she had questions, one in particular. Was I so repulsive seven years ago that you couldn't bring yourself to have sex with me when I threw myself at you and acted like a fool?
The remembered humiliation churned bile in her stomach. Steering with one hand, she rummaged in her purse for an antacid. The intervening days and months had done nothing to blunt the sharpness of the memory .
"Hi, Sam." She was breathless from running downstairs to intercept him before he got in his car. She 'd kept a vigil at her bedroom window for the last half hour. Sam and his father had driven separately, because the older man was lingering to play poker with her father and Uncle Victor.
Sam paused, one hand on the top of the car, the other holding a set of keys. "What's up? I thought you weren't feeling well." His slow drawl and lazy hazel-eyed smile took her breath away.
She bit her lip, legs trembling. She'd feigned a headache to get out of dinner. Sitting across the table from Sam would have been torture, because she dared not let her daddy see how much in love she was. Vincent Wolff was very protective of his baby daughter. She lifted her chin, reaching for calm. "Actually, I had some work to do. I'm graduating from college in a few weeks. And I'll start my master's program. Interior design," she added, hoping he would be impressed. She felt like an adult for the first time in her life, with a level playing field, and the resultant adrenaline gave her confidence.
Sam jingled his keys. "Oh." The look on his face wasn't encouraging. If anything he was eager to get on his way. At almost thirty, Sam Ely was in his prime, and just about the hottest thing Annalise had ever seen.
She moved three steps closer. "I thought you might like to take me out to dinner sometime," she said.
The look on his faceas if he 'd been poleaxedwas not flattering.
Desperation lent wings to her feet. She moved forward with determination, went up on tiptoe to wrap her arms around his neck and kissed him square on the mouth. His arms went around her reflexively, but his entire body stiffened. "Um, Annalise "
She scattered kisses from his nose to his chin to his tanned neck revealed by an open-collared dress shirt. "I know you've been waiting for me to grow up," she whispered. "Please tell me you want me. I know you do."
His burgeoning erection gave truth to her words. But at twenty-one, more naive than most, she didn't fully grasp the difference between male reflex and a more romantic motive.
After one heartfelt moment when it seemed as if Sam might return her kiss, he set her away firmly, holding out a hand when she would have embraced him again. "No, Annalise. I think of you as a sister."
Confusion brought her up short. His body had responded unmistakably. "I think I'm in love with you, Sam," she cried.
He winced. He actually winced. And her heart turned to ashes.
The kindness in his gaze scorched her with humiliation. "You 're barely an adult, honey. And I'm years too old for you. I'm flattered. You're an amazing young woman. But both of our dads would string me up if I tried anything with you. And besides."
He had said enough. Annalise didn't want to hear any more. She was mute with misery.
"Besides," he said slowly, "most guys like to do the chasing. You might want to think about that. I know you've grown up without a mother to teach you these things, but men like gentle, feminine women. Soft, self-effacing. I guess it's the whole caveman thing." He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. "You're beautiful, Annalise. You don't need to try so hard . "
The front of the car hit a larger-than-normal pothole, and Annalise was jerked back to the present, clutching the steering wheel as she slowed to a crawl. Please, God, let Sam Ely's visit be short. She would listen politely, take notes and bid him a civil goodbye. Then she could get to work.
If she ignored the debacle from the past, surely he would have the decency to do so as well.
As she rounded one last bend in the road and came in sight of the cluster of buildings that comprised Sycamore Farm, she saw a lone, immediately recognizable figure standing on the front porch despite the frigid temperatures. Her heart beat a sluggish rhythm as she put the car in Park and got out.
She was a grown woman, well-traveled. Sophisticated. Sexually experienced to some degree. She had done everything in her power to forget her first love, to deny how much Sam's rejection had wounded her tender heart. Sam Ely was just a man like any other. For thirty-six hours, forty-eight at the most, she would impress him with her calm competence and her utter lack of interest in his sexy smile and masculine charms. By the time he left, all he would remember about Annalise Wolff was that she was damned good at her job.
He lifted a hand in greeting, the habitual smile nowhere in evidence.
Annalise opened her mouth to say hello. But in an instant that felt like the most dreadful slow-motion replay, disaster struck. Her heel hit a patch of ice in the driveway, her feet flew out from under her and she fell flat on her back. Hard.
When she opened her eyes with a groan, Sam Ely's big body crouched over hers as his hands ran lightly over her limbs checking for damage. Gently he lifted her head and felt for a knot.
Annalise shivered inside her warm down coat, but it had nothing to do with the snow flurries swirling around them. All he had to do was touch her and she was that young, desperate woman again.
He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. "Are you hurt?"
Sam winnowed his fingers through silky black hair that clung to his fingers with static from the cold air. "Say something, damn it. Are you okay?"
Annalise's glare could have melted a snowman at ten paces. She struggled to sit up. "I'm fine," she said shortly. "Quit pawing me."
Though her words were clipped and showed her annoyance, beneath his touch she was warm and soft and womanly. Resisting the urge to touch the curve of her breast, Sam scooped her into his arms and stood, mentally counting to ten. He'd promised himself he wouldn't let her push his buttons. But she was so aggravating, his blood pressure went up immediately whenever they got within sight of each other. Not that such a reaction was anything new. As a friend of the Wolff family, he inevitably ran into her from time to time. Neither of them ever managed more than bare civility.
The animosity was his fault, no doubt. But it wouldn't hurt her to let go of something that happened over half a dozen years ago. Thankfully, she didn't squirm too much. She was a tall woman, and if he slipped on the ice, they'd both go down.