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"To Flame, with all my love. D."
Ellie Weston studied the elegant sprawling handwriting across the bottom of a framed picture on the wall in her aunt's bedroom.
She lifted a brow. Aunt Mable had probably purchased the painting at one of those garage sales she'd enjoyed getting up on Saturday mornings to drive forty miles into Knoxville to attend. In fact, Ellie had noticed several new paintings in all of the bedrooms, as well as the living room. However, this particular one caught Ellie's eye because it wasn't one she would have expected her unmarried seventy-year-old aunt to be attracted to.
Ellie studied the painting some more. It was a colorful piece of art that showed a faceless but very naked couple in a risqué embrace. So much in fact, that upon closer study it appeared they were having sex.
She felt a heated blush stain her face as she stepped back and glanced around. It seemed that rather recently her aunt had gotten a new bedroom suite—a king-size Queen Anne four-poster bed in beautiful cherry mahogany. The bedroom suite had a romantic flair that Ellie liked. And there was a matching desk in one section of the room with, of all things, a computer. When had her aunt entered the computer age? Ellie hadn't been aware she'd owned one. If she'd known, they could have been staying in contact by e-mail.
To Ellie, her aunt's two-story house had always seemed too large for one person. It had a spacious layout that included a huge living room, a bathroom, dining room and eat-in kitchen downstairs, and four bedrooms and three bathrooms upstairs. The wood paneling had been removed and the walls had been painted an oyster white. The bright color actually made the entire interior appear larger, roomier.
Had it been five years since she had last visited her aunt here? Although she had stopped coming to the lake house when she'd turned twenty-one, she and her aunt still got together every year when she could convince Aunt Mable to come visit her in Boston, where she had moved after college. It had worked well for the both of them. It gave her aunt a chance to leave the lake and visit someplace else, and it gave Ellie a chance to not dwell on the most embarrassing memory of all her visits here.
She had stopped speaking to her best friend Darcy for an entire month after that kissing incident with Uriel Lassiter, regardless of the number of times Darcy had told her how sorry she was for getting carried away with her excitement. In the end, Ellie had accepted full responsibility for ever accepting Darcy's dare in the first place.
And it was her fault that Uriel had kept his word and had made sure their paths never crossed at Cavanaugh Lake again.
She had not seen him in ten years. He had been out of the country, unable to attend her aunt's funeral last month, but her parents had mentioned getting a nice floral arrangement from him.
Ellie shook her head, remembering that Uriel's parents had gotten a divorce two years ago. Who would have thought the Lassiters would ever split? And according to her parents, Carolyn Lassiter was now involved with a much younger man, one only a few years older than her own son.
The last Ellie had heard, according to Aunt Mable before she'd died, was that Anthony and Carolyn Lassiter were in court, battling over who would get ownership of the lake house. As a result of the bitter embroilment, the courts had ruled that the house should be put up for sale and the proceeds split. Aunt Mable had no idea who'd bought the lake house next door and hadn't met her new neighbor before she'd died.
Deciding she needed something to eat before she began unpacking, Ellie left her aunt's bedroom and began walking down the stairs, remembering how her aunt, who hadn't been sick a day in her life, had died peacefully in her sleep. Although Ellie knew she would miss her, she felt it was befitting for her to go that way— without any type of sickness to destroy her mind and body. And from what she could tell, although Aunt Mable had probably been lonely at times living out here at the lake, her aunt was happy. At least she had appeared happy and content the last time Ellie had seen her. And she had left everything she owned to her one and only grandniece. Ellie was overwhelmed by such a grand gesture of love.
She walked into the kitchen and immediately noticed the new cabinets. It seemed her aunt had given the house a face-lift, one that had been beautifully done. There were new marble countertops, stainless steel appliances and polished tile floors.
The drive from Boston had been a long one, and Ellie had stopped by one of those fast-food places to grab a hamburger, fries and a shake before getting off Interstate 95. Then, once she had reached Gatlinburg, she stopped at a market to pick up a few things for dinner, deciding that later in the week she would take an inventory of what she would need for her month-long stay at the lake. It was a beautiful day, the first week in August, and the first thing Ellie intended to do tomorrow was open up the windows to air out the place. The living-room window was huge, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling and provided a lot of sunlight and a beautiful view of Cava-naugh Lake, no matter where you stood or sat.
Crossing the kitchen floor, she opened the pantry and wasn't surprised to find it well stocked. Her aunt was known to prepare for the winter months well in advance. Settling on a can of soup for dinner, she proceeded to warm it on the stove.
Standing at the kitchen sink, she glanced through the trees to look at the house that used to be owned by the Lassiters. She could easily recall how often she would stand in this very spot, hoping for a glimpse of Uriel when he would come outside. But she had discovered long ago that the best view from her aunt's bedroom window was that of the backyard and pier.
A half hour later, Ellie had finished her soup and was placing her bowl in the sink when she glanced out the window and saw that a car was parked in front of the house next door. She lifted a brow, wondering if perhaps the new owners had decided to spend some time at their lake place.
Ellie had parked her car in the garage, so they would not know someone was in residence at her place. Her place. That seemed so strange, when this home had belonged to Aunt Mable for so long.
She was about to turn around and go upstairs to start unpacking when something caught her eye. She drew in a tight breath as she leaned closer toward the window to make sure her eyesight wasn't playing tricks on her.
The man who had come to stand outside on the front porch, while talking on a cell phone, was older-looking now, but was just as handsome as she remembered. She was twenty-six now, which meant he was thirty-one.
She might be mistaken, but it appeared he had gotten taller. She figured his height to be at least six foot three. The T-shirt he was wearing covered broad shoulders and his jeans were molded to firm thighs. Her gaze slid to his face. The color of dark chocolate, his features were and always had been striking, a pleasure to look at.
Ellie scanned his face, from the thick brows that canopied a pair of beautiful dark eyes, to the long, angular nose that sat perfectly in the center of his face and more than highlighted the sensuous shape of his lips, to the perfect lines of his jaw. Strong. Tight. Every feature was totally flawless. Him standing there in his bare feet made her think of a chocolate marshmallow all ready to eat.
The thought of that made her stomach stir, generated a tingling sensation even lower, and it made the nipples of her breasts that were pressing against her blouse feel achy. She quickly moved away from the window, crossed the room and sat down at the table.
Uriel Lassiter had returned to the lake house, and the one thing she knew for certain was that he hadn't made sure she wasn't there.
Uriel threw his head back and laughed. He was still in shock. One of his closest friends from college, who was also one of his investment partners, had called to let him know he was getting married. He just couldn't believe it. Who in their right mind would have thought that there was a woman somewhere capable of winning the heart of Donovan Steele. The Donovan Steele. The man who always claimed he wanted to be buried wearing a condom, because even then he knew he would be hard.
Uriel had the pleasure of meeting Donovan's woman a few weeks ago. With a PhD and a professorship at Princeton, Natalie Ford had just as much brains as she had beauty. And she was a beauty. That was one of the first things Uriel had noticed that night when she had come storming into the Racetrack Café, ready to give Donovan hell about something. Evidently, their disagreement had gotten resolved, since Donovan was now talking about a wedding.
"Hey, Don, we're going to have to get together when I return to Charlotte," he said. "And we'll make it one hell of a celebration. Have the two of you set a date yet?"
"We're having a June wedding," Donovan replied easily. "After we marry, she'll take a sabbatical to write another book and work on several projects with NASA. You can't imagine how happy my family is."
Uriel could just imagine. Donovan, the youngest of the Steele brothers, headed the Product Administration Division of the Steele Corporation, and Uriel was Vice President of Lassiter Industries, the telecommunications company his father, Anthony Lassiter—CEO and president—had founded over thirty-eight years ago.
Although both he and Donovan had major roles at their family-owned businesses, years ago, right out of college, they had partnered in a co-op. They had started out by flipping real estate, and later moved on to small businesses. The co-op had proven to be highly successful, and they had moved on to even larger investments, like the publishing company they had recently purchased.
Two years ago, Uriel's father had taken a leave of absence due to stress and depression brought on when the wife he'd been happily married to for over thirty-five years asked for a divorce. That had forced Uriel to take over the day-to-day operations of Lassiter Industries.
Uriel was glad his dad had finally snapped out of his depression, decided life was too short to drown in self-pity over a woman whom you still loved but didn't want you, and had returned to Lassiter Industries sharper than ever. Uriel had quickly turned things back over to him and decided to take some much needed R and R. The lake house was his first choice. His parents had been forced to sell it, so he decided to be the buyer.
"While you were in Princeton yesterday, I signed my part of the paperwork, so that the consulting firm could proceed with our most recent acquisition," he said of the publishing company they'd just purchased. "Now, you need to make sure you swing by their office on Friday to put your John Hancock on the papers, so they can officially begin going through the books to see what areas we want to keep and those we want to trim.
"I know Bronson has a race next weekend in Michigan, and I promise you' ll be out of Manning's office in no time just in case you're planning to go," he added, mentioning their friend, Bronson Scott, who raced for NASCAR.
"Yes, I'm going and will be taking Natalie with me. I can't wait to introduce her to the world of auto racing. What about you? Will you be there?" Donovan asked.
"Umm, not this time. With Dad back at the helm at Lassiter Industries, I'm staying here at the lake for an entire month, and plan on getting in a lot of fishing. And I did bring some papers with me on the publishing company, to do my own evaluation. I'll let you know what I come up with, and I'll compare it with the recommendations of those consultants."
Less than five minutes later, Uriel was ending the call with Donovan. He slipped his cell phone in the back pocket of his jeans and decided to sit down on the porch swing his father had built for his mom years ago.
Uriel could only shake his head with sadness whenever he thought of her and the pain she had caused his father. The pain she had caused him. When his parents had first told him they were getting a divorce, they'd shocked the hell out of him. All it took was to see the hurt and sadness in his father's eyes to know that a divorce hadn't been Anthony Lassiter's idea.
Neither of his parents had wanted to talk about the reason for the divorce, and had asked that he simply accept their decision. It hadn't taken long for him to find the reason. His mother had been going through a midlife crisis, which had been evident when she'd hooked up with a boy-toy within months of leaving his father. His mother, for God's sake, was openly living with a man only six years older than him.
Carolyn Lassiter, he had to admit, was a beautiful woman at fifty. The first time Uriel had seen her lover with her at a restaurant, Uriel had wanted to smash the dude's face in. No man wanted to think of his mother in the arms of any man other than his father.
Her actions had not only nearly destroyed his father, but had left a bad taste in Uriel's mouth where marriage was concerned. That was the reason he had joined the Guarded Heart Club, a private fraternity he and his five godbrothers had established. Each had his own reasons for wanting to remain a bachelor for life.
He was about to get up from the pier and go inside, when he glanced through the trees at the house next door. He'd been sorry to hear about Ms. Mable's passing and missed her already. Whenever his parents would arrive for their three-month summer stay, the older lady would be there ready to greet them with a cold pitcher of the best lemonade he'd ever drunk and a platter of her mouth-watering peanut butter cookies.