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'Whoever he is, he's completely naked,' Jessie Connor said as quietly as possible. Not easy with the heat flaring in her cheeks and her heartbeat pounding like a sledgehammer in her ears.
The most magnificent male specimen she had ever seen stood less than fifteen yards away. Stark naked. Thank goodness, he had his back to her, or her heart would have stopped beating altogether.
Dark tangles of wet hair flowed down to touch broad shoulders. Roped with muscle, his bronzed skin glistened in the afternoon sunlight as water dripped off his powerful physique and onto the white stone tiles of the pool patio. Oh, my.
Jessie edged back. She could feel the warm, weathered wood of her sister Ali's Long Island home through the thin cotton of her blue sundress, but it was nothing compared to the heat throbbing low in her belly.
'Who is he? Do you recognise him?'Ali hissed next to her ear. Jessie stared at her sister, huddled beside her behind the house. She took in Ali's worried frown and her round figure, distended in pregnancy. 'Well, I can't be absolutely positive from this angle, but I don't think I know him.'
'Move over, I'm taking a look.' Elbowing Jessie aside, Ali peered round the corner. After getting what Jessie considered more than a necessary eyeful for a married woman, Ali shuffled back. Her face had turned a vivid shade of scarlet. 'Wow, that bum's almost as gorgeous as Linc's.'
Jessie decided to ignore Ali's extremely inappropriate comment about her husband. 'Yes, but did you recognise it?'
'Of course not, I'm a married woman.'
'Now she remembers,' Jessie muttered. 'We've got to get out of here and call Linc.'
'Don't be daft. We can tackle him ourselves.'
Ali's eyebrows shot up. 'We most certainly cannot. I'm nearly eight months pregnant and he's enormous. Did you see those shoulders?'
'Yes, I did. Among other things.'
'You can't go out there. This is America. He could have a gun.'
'I'd like to know where he's got that hidden,' Jessie replied, her indignation rising. 'He's trespassing and I intend to tell him so. How dare he just come in and use the pool as if he owned the place?' Jessie glanced down at her sister's rounded belly. 'You better stay here.' She looked at her watch. 'Linc's due back with Emmy any minute.'
'What if he attacks you?' Ali's furious whisper sounded desperate.
'Don't worry, I've got a plan.' Ali's brows set in a grim line. 'I don't think I want to hear this.'
'It worked a treat for Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.'
'Oh, for goodness' sake!'
'Shh.' Jessie pressed a finger to her lips. 'He may be built but he's probably not deaf.' Taking a steadying breath, she leaned back around the corner and took another peek at their trespasser.
Jessie's teeth tugged on her bottom lip. Ali was probably right. They shouldn't approach him. But ever since they had returned from her sister's hospital appointment and spotted the powerful black motorcycle sitting in the driveway, the sizzle of adrenaline had been surging through Jessie's veins.
Impulsiveness was her worse trait. Hadn't Toby, her stuffy ex-fiancé, told her as much the whole two years they'd been going out? 'If only you were as reckless in bed as you are out of it,' he'd shouted at her during their final titanic row six months ago.
Jessie squinted as the sun sparkled off the surface of the pool. She watched as the stranger towelled himself dry with an old T-shirt. The familiar anger at Toby's insults flashed through her. Well, Toby could take his opinion and shove it in a place where the sun didn't shine. She wasn't recklessor frigid, for that matterit had just taken her a while to realise that Toby Collins wasn't the Mr Right she'd spent her whole life looking for. He hadn't needed her the way she'd thought he had. While she'd been dreaming of making a home, having children, building a family together, Toby had been fantasising about having a wildcat in bed and a mouse out of it. It still infuriated her that it had taken her two long years to figure it out.
The trespasser pulled a pair of jeans over his long legs. Jessie ignored the quick stab of disappointment as his beautiful bum disappeared behind faded denim.
Men! Jessie clenched her teeth. She simply was not going to let this arrogant stranger get away with his outrageous behaviour.
She toed off her sandals, her mind made up. 'Right, I'm off,' she whispered to Ali. 'You better go back to the car and call Linc.'
Neatly sidestepping her sister's grabbing fingers, Jessie crept out from behind the safety of the building. Time to teach their trespasser a lesson.
Monroe Latimer fastened the threadbare jeans and stuck his hands into the pockets to straighten them. The tips of his fingers touched the old letter he'd been carrying around for over a year. He pulled out the heavily creased envelope. A drop of water slapped onto the paper, smudging the Key West address of his old parole officer, Jerry Myers. He raked the dripping hair off his forehead. Sighing, he wondered for about the hundredth time what had made him keep the damn thing for so long. And what had possessed him to take that exit off the interstate when he'd spotted the sign to the Hamptons this morning.
Curiosity. Monroe shook his headjust the sort of impulse he was usually smart enough to avoid. He pulled the letter out of its envelope and scanned the contents, though he knew them by heart.
You don't know me, but my name's Alison Latimer and I'm your sister-in-law. I'm married to your older brother Lincoln. Linc's been trying to track you down for a long time now. I'm sending this letter to Jerry Myers, in the hope he will pass it on to you.
Linc and I have been married for five years. We're based in London, but we spend July to September every year in our summer house on Oceanside Drive, East Hampton, Long Island.
Please, Monroe, come and visit us. Linc and I would love you to stay for a while. From what Jerry tells me, Linc's the only family you have left. I know you haven't seen Linc in over twenty years, but he never stopped looking for you.
Family is important, Monroe. Please come.
Good thing the first line of the return address had been rubbed off the back of the letter months ago. He might have been dumb enough to go knocking on his brother's door, if he'd had the right house number. Of course, the minute he got to Oceanside Drive, he knew he shouldn't have come. Guys like him only came to neighbourhoods like this one if they were doing yard work.
Monroe crumpled up the letter, shoved it back in his pocket. At least now he could throw it away. He'd seen the way his brother and sister-in-law lived. No way was he ever going to follow up on their invitation. He didn't belong here. He had his Harley, his battered box of oil paints, spare clothes and a bedroll, and he had himself. That was all he needed; that was all he was ever going to need.
Alison Latimer was wrong. Family wasn't important. Not to him. He'd been free to do what he pleased, when he pleased, for the last fourteen years and that was the way he intended to keep it. Family was just another kind of prison and he'd had enough of that to last him a lifetime.
He pushed away the familiar bitterness. He could hear the rustle of a sea breeze through the flowerbed by the pool. Angling his head, he caught the fresh perfume of sweet summer blooms mixed with the chemical scent of chlorineand grinned. Well, hell, at least he'd gotten a swim in a ritzy pool in one of the most beautiful homes he'd ever seen.
He'd been turning the Harley around, ready to head back to the interstate, when his artist's eye had spotted the wood and glass structure rising out of the sand dunes. Situated on its own at the end of the chunk of land that jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean, the modern structure had seemed to beckon him. Like all the other houses in the area, the grounds were surrounded by deer fencing and a high privet hedge, but Monroe had spotted the edge of the pool, winking at him in the sunlight as the bike had purred over the rise and down into the driveway. He'd been grimy and dog-tired, had been on the bike since daybreak in Maryland and he still had another few hours to go until he hit New York. The place was hidden from the road. He'd pressed the door buzzer to make sure no one was home and a quick check of the security system had told him it wasn't armed. So he'd boosted himself over the main gate and enjoyed the luxury of an afternoon swim. The thrill he recalled so well from his childhood of doing something forbidden on a lazy summer afternoon had been a nice fringe benefit.
Better hit the road now, though. The owners could return any minute and call the cops. With his record, it wouldn't go easy on him if he got caught trespassing. Time to move on.
Keeping her breathing slow and steady, Jessie tiptoed across the patio. She stopped dead when her trespasser shoved whatever it was he'd been staring at back into his pocket. When he didn't turn around, but reached for his T-shirt, she let go of the breath caught in her throat.
Humming some tuneless melody, he sat down on the sun-drenched tiles, rubbed his feet with the T-shirt and picked up a sock.
Sticking her two fingers out, Jessie shoved the points between his shoulder blades and shouted out in her most authoritative voice, 'Don't move. I have a gun.'
He stopped humming, his back went rigid and he dropped his sock.
'Okay, don't get excited.' His voice was gruff and tight with annoyance. He sounded American, but there was something else about his accent she couldn't quite place.
'Put your hands up, but don't turn around.'
His skin felt warm, but the muscles beneath were hard as rock, flexing under her fingers as he raised his arms. Up close, he looked a lot more dangerous. Jessie spotted a faded tattoo across his left bicep. Ridged white scar lines criss-crossed the tanned skin of his back. But then she noticed something else. Despite the impressive muscles across his shoulders and upper arms, he didn't have an ounce of fat on him. He was so lean, she could make out his ribs. A Goliath who didn't eat properly? How odd.
'Listen, put the gun down and I'll get out of here. No harm, no foul.'
He started to turn. She prodded her fingers harder into his spine. 'Don't turn around, I said.'
'Easy.' He didn't sound scared, just really pissed off. Maybe this hadn't been such a great idea after all. 'I'm putting my hands down,' he ground out. 'I've been on the bike all day and I'm beat.' He lowered his arms.
The seconds ticked by interminably. 'So what do we do now?' he asked.
Jessie's heart hammered against her rib-cage and sweat pooled between her breasts. Hell, she hadn't thought this far ahead. Where was Linc? Her fingers were starting to hurt.
'Where you from? You sound English?' he said. 'I think where you're from is probably a more pertinent question,' Jessie shot back. No arrogant trespasser was going to charm her.
He leaned forward. Jessie's heart jolted in her chest. 'What are you doing?'
'Grabbing my socks. Any objections?' The response was measured, calm and condescending.
Jessie bristled. 'Fine, but next time ask permission.' Just as she issued the order her tightly clamped fingers twitched.
The trespasser's back tensed and his head swung round. Oops! 'Damn it!'
Jessie jumped back, yelping, as her prey shot up and grabbed her in one quick, furious movement.
'Let me go,' she shrieked, struggling to pull her arms free as his large hands clamped on them like manacles.
'The finger routine. I got to hand it to you, I never thought I'd fall for that one.'
Striking blue eyes stared daggers at her out of a face that would have done Michelangelo proud. The man was quite simply beautiful. Jessie gulped, momentarily transfixed, taking in the high, slashing cheekbones, the rakish stubble on his chin and the dare-devil scar across his left eyebrow. Adonis or not, his face was as hard as granite. He looked ready to murder someone and, from the way his fingers dug into her arms, she knew exactly who it was.
Her heart rate shot up to warp speed. Don't pass out, you silly cow. This is no time to panic. Twisting, Jessie kicked out with her bare foot and connected with his shin.
'Ow! Stop that, you little
' he yelled, yanking her towards him and wrapping his arms around her.
'Let me go.Youyou trespasser.'With her face pressed against the soft, curling hair on his chest, the demand came out on a muffled squeak. The smell of fresh, wet male was overpowering. She lifted her knee, intending to stamp on his foot, but before she could make contact he tensed and shot backwards.
His hands let go. Jessie turned, poised to bolt for freedom, but he grabbed her from behind. Strong arms banded under her breasts, he lifted her off the ground as if she weighed nothing at all. She kicked, frantically, but he was holding her so close, so tight, she couldn't get any leverage.
Okay, now was the perfect time to panic. 'My sister's in the house with a shotgun,' she squealed. 'Yeah, right.' His arms tightened, cutting off more of her air supply. 'You're a danger to society, you know that?'
The buzzing in Jessie's ears became deafening. She was going to faint. His whole body was wrapped around her. His size, his strength, overwhelmed her. Why hadn't she listened to Ali? How the hell did she always get into these situations? And how was she going to get out of this one?
The whisper of his breathing against her ear made her shudder. What would Bruce do now? Think, woman, think. 'I'm warning you,' she said, through gritted teeth. 'If you don't let me go, I'll hurt you, a lot.'
Monroe's lips twitched. Having gotten over the humiliation of falling for his captive's harebrained stunt, he had to admire her gall. The threat was ridiculous. She was close to a foot shorter than him and slender, too, despite the impressive curves he could feel pressed against his forearms. 'You're a real firecracker, aren't you?'
She must have heard the admiration in his voice, because she went very still. He loosened his arms a little. He should probably let her go and get the hell out of here, but she felt good in his arms, round and soft in all the right places. He wasn't going to hurt her, but he figured she deserved a little payback. After all, she'd scared the hell out of him.
'So how exactly are you going to hurt me?' He purred the words in her ear.
'You don't frighten me, you complete sod.'
'Sod, huh?' He grinned; her clipped, precise accent made her sound like the lady of the manor addressing one of her peasants. It made him think of all those summers he'd spent in London as a kid with his English grandmother. It was one of the very few good memories from his childhood. He grinned. 'You are English, I'd know that accent anywhere. Hell, I'm half English myself. Kind of.'
'Isn't that flipping lovely for you?'
Funny, but she didn't remind him of prim and proper Granny Lacey one bit.
'Tut-tut.' He inhaled the heady scent from her wildly curling hair. 'And my sweet little granny always used to say English manners were the best in the world.'
'I'll give you manners,' she snarled, wriggling some more. He laughed, really starting to enjoy himself. She was rigid in his arms, but he could feel her chest heaving with fury. He could imagine that pretty face of hers, glowing with temper. High cheekbones, smooth peach-toned skin, the sprinkle of freckles across her pert little nose, and those large, expressive sea-green eyes. He'd only glimpsed her face for a moment, but it had made a hell of an impression. She struggled again, and the firm swell of her butt pressed against his naked belly through the clingy little dress she had on.
The strong surge of arousal surprised him. He tightened his arms. She smelled good, too. 'You know, you're cute.' He smiled, nuzzling her hair. 'When you're not trying to kill me.'
'You are so going to die,' she snapped back. 'Get your hands off her!'
Monroe's head jerked up.
A man with a savage scowl on his face marched across the patio towards them. The little girl skipping along beside him didn't make him look any less threatening. Monroe registered the heavily pregnant woman behind them, but kept his gaze focused on the big guy.
The situation didn't seem quite so funny any more. 'Damn it.' Monroe let go of Miss Firecracker. She turned, glared at him, her green eyes sparking with fury, and then dashed over to the pregnant lady.
'Who are you and what the hell are you doing on my property?' the man bellowed.
Monroe held up his hands and tried to think fast. The guy was maybe an inch over his own six feet two and well built, but the tailored pants and pricey designer polo shirt he wore made him look rich and cultured. Monroe figured he could take him. But he couldn't swing at the guy when he had a kid beside him. And he didn't want to add assault to a trespassing charge if the cops arrived. Which left diplomacy as his only option.
'I just took a swim in your pool. I thought the place was empty.'
'Well, it's not.' The big guy ground the words out, his ice-blue eyes blazing with temper. 'Stay with Jessie, Emmy,' he said as he pushed the little girl behind him.
Monroe spotted Miss Firecracker take hold of the child's hand. The redhead was still glaring at himand starting to look very self-satisfied.
The guy pushed the sleeves of his polo shirt up forearms that were ridged with muscle. 'I'm going to teach this idiot a lesson.'
A sick feeling in his gut, Monroe realised he'd have to take the punch. He closed his eyes, braced for the pain.
Then the pregnant lady shouted, 'Stop, Linc, stop!'
When nothing happened, Monroe risked opening one eye. The woman had a hold of the man's arm but she was staring right at him. 'Who are you?' she asked softly.
'Nobody, ma'am. All I took was a swim.' If only he could just deck the guy and get out of here.
'You're Monroe.'She said the words so quietly, Monroe wasn't sure he'd heard her right.
'What the hell is going on?' Mr Furious shouted back, still busting to take a swing at him.
'Linc, he's your brother. Can't you see the resemblance?'
Oh, hell. It hit Monroe just who these people were. He tried to swallow past the boulder in his throat, but his mouth had gone bone. All he'd wanted was a quick swim and now look what he'd done.
'Monroe?' The big guy looked as if he'd taken a punch to the gut. Monroe knew how he felt.
He hadn't seen that face since he was ten years old, but now that he looked at it properly, Monroe recognised it all right. The guy had the same clear blue eyes as he did. And that mouth, that chindidn't he see virtually the same ones in the mirror every time he remembered to shave?
'I should split,' Monroe mumbled. Every one of themhis brother, the pregnant lady, who he must be his brother's wife, even the little girl and the with the flaming hairwas staring at him as if he'd two heads. 'I never thought I'd see you again.' His brother's voice was thready, his eyes shadowed.
'It's no big deal. It's a mistake. I shouldn't have used your pool.' Boy, was that the truth.
'I don't give a damn about the pool,' his brother said weakly.
'I need to go.'Monroe glanced at Miss Firecracker. She wasn't looking smug any more. Her face had gone stoplight-red to match that rioting hair.
His brother's wife stepped forward. 'You can't go, Monroe.' Her deep green eyes were steady on his. 'You and Linc have a lot of catching up to do. We want you to stay for a while. That's why we invited you.'
She seemed as if she meant it. Monroe felt honour-bound to set her straight. He didn't belong here; couldn't she see that? 'Look, ma'am, it's nice of you to ask me'he huffed out a breath 'but I'm going to get on my way.'
He heard his brother curse, but his wife just shook her head, sadly. 'You're Linc's brother. You're family, Monroe. We want little Emily here to get to know you. You're her uncle.'
Monroe's gaze flicked to the little girl who was whispering furiously to Miss Firecracker and gazing at him in that penetrating way only kids could pull off.
He wasn't her uncle. He wasn't anyone's family.