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Jesse King loved women.
And they loved him right back.
Well, all except one.
Jesse walked into Bella's Beachwear and stopped just inside the store. His gaze wandered the well-kept if decrepit building and he shook his head at the stubbornness of women.
Hard to believe that Bella Cruz preferred this ramshackle building to what he was offering. He'd arrived in Morgan Beach, a tiny coastal town in southern California, nine months ago. He'd bought up several of the run-down, eclectic shops on Main Street, rehabbed some, razed others, then built the kind of stores and offices that would actually attract shoppers to the downtown district.
Everyone had been happy to sign on the dotted line. They'd accepted his buyout offers with barely disguised glee and most of them were now renting retail space from him. But not Bella Cruz. Oh, no. This woman had been working against him for months.
She'd spearheaded a sit-in campaign, getting a few of her friends to plant themselves in front of his bulldozers for an afternoon. She'd held a protest march down Main Street that consisted of Bella herself, four women, two kids and a three-legged dog. And finally, she'd resorted to trying to pull off a candlelight vigil in memory of the "historic" buildings of Morgan Beach.
There had been five people standing outside his office holding candles the night the first big summer storm had blown in. Within minutes, they were all drenched, the candle flames drowned out. Bella was the only one left standing in the dark, glaring up at him as he looked at her through his office window.
"Why is she taking this all so personally?" he wondered. It wasn't as if he'd come to town to deliberately ruin her life.
He'd come here for the waves.
When professional surfers stopped riding competitively, they settled in a place where they could always find a good ride year-round. Most ended up in Hawaii, but, as a native Californian, Jesse had decided on Morgan Beach. His whole family still lived in the state and Morgan was close enough that he could keep in touch and far enough away from his three brothers that he wouldn't trip on them with every step. He liked his family. A lot. That didn't mean he wanted to live right on top of them.
So he was building himself a little kingdom here in this small town and the only thing keeping it from being absolutely perfect was Bella Cruz.
"The evil landlord stops by to gloat," a low, female voice said from somewhere nearby.
He turned around and spotted his nemesis, crouched behind the counter, rearranging a display of sunglasses, flip-flops and tote bags. Her dark brown eyes were fixed on him with the steely look of a woman about to spray a roach with Raid.
"You're not armed, are you?" he asked, walking toward her slowly. "Because you look as if you'd like to put me out of my misery."
"Out of my misery is more like it," she answered wryly. Then she stood up and Jesse took in her latest outfit.
Bella stood about five foot eight, which was good, because he liked his women tall enough that he didn't get a crick in his neck when he kissed them. Not that he was thinking about kissing Bella. It was just an observation.
She had wavy black hair that fell to the middle of her back, huge chocolate eyes and a lusciously full mouth he had yet to see curved into a smile. Pretty, he thought. Except for the clothes.
Every time he saw her she looked as if she were about to pose for the cover of Amish Monthly: loose-fitting cotton tops and full, floor-length skirts. Probably just as well, he told himself. He liked his women curvy and by the look of her, she had all the curves of a box. Seemed strange to him, though, that a woman who made her living designing and selling women's swim-wear looked as if she'd never worn one of her own garments.
"What do you want, Mr. King?"
He grinned deliberately. He knew the power of that smile. Enough women over the years had told him just what his dimples did to their knees. Bella's knees appeared to be rock solid. Oh, well. He wasn't interested in seducing her anyway. Or so he kept reminding himself.
"I wanted to tell you that we're going to start rehab-bing this building next month."
"Rehabbing," she repeated and screwed up her face as if even the word itself were distasteful. "You mean knocking down the walls? Tearing up the hardwood floor? Getting rid of the leaded windows? That kind of rehabbing?"
He shook his head. "What is it exactly, that you have against well-insulated buildings and sound roofs?"
She crossed her arms under her breasts and Jesse was distracted for a moment. Apparently, she did have at least one good set of curves.
"My roof doesn't leak," she told him. "Robert Towner was an excellent landlord."
"Yes, so I've heard," he said with a sigh. "Repeatedly."
"You could take lessons from him."
"He didn't even bother to repaint the outside of your shop," Jesse pointed out.
"Why would he do that?" she demanded. "I painted it myself three years ago."
His mind boggled. "You actually chose to paint your business purple? On purpose?"
She inhaled sharply and gave him another glare that should have set his hair on fire. But Jesse was made of sterner stuff. He was a King. And Kings didn't cave for anybody.
"You won't be happy until every building on Main Street is beige with rust-colored trim, will you?" Shaking her head, she gave him a pitying look now, but it was wasted on Jesse. Kings didn't need anyone's pity. "We're all going to be Stepfords. Will we all march in lockstep, do you think? Dress alike?"
"Please God, no," he said, with a glance at her ensemble.
She colored briefly. "My point is, there's no individuality here anymore. Morgan Beach used to have personality."
"And wood rot."
"It was eclectic."
"You're nothing but a corporate robot," she accused.
Jesse was stunned that anyone would describe him that way. He'd never set out to be a corporate anything. Hell, he'd gone out of his way to avoid the trap that all Kings eventually landed in. The business world. In fact, the King name had been a pain in his ass for most of his life.
His father, brothers, cousinsall Kings everywhereseemed to be locked into offices. Didn't matter to Jesse if those offices were luxurious penthouse suites. He'd never wanted anything to do with that world.
He'd watched his three older brothers slide into the family business concerns as if they'd been molded for the task. Even Justice, on his ranch, was a businessman first and foremost. But Jesse had broken away. Become a professional surfer and damn if he hadn't loved the life. While his brothers and cousins were wearing suits and running meetings, he was traveling the world, looking for the perfect ride. He did things his way. Lived his life the way he wanted to. He didn't answer to anyone.
Until his favorite surfboard maker went out of business a few years ago. Jesse had bought up the company because he wanted access to the boards he favored. He'd done the same thing when he'd found the perfect wet suit. And the ideal swim trunks. Pretty soon, he'd actually done what he'd always insisted he wouldn't. Become a businessman. Not just a drone, eitherthe head of King Beach, a giant, diversified company that centered around life on the beach. Ironic that the thing he loved had eventually turned him into what he'd never wanted to be.
"Look," he said quietly, shaking away thoughts that were too troubling to focus on. "We don't have to be enemies."
"Oh, yes, we do."
Damn, she was stubborn. For ten years, he'd been at the top of his sport. He'd won hundreds of competitions, been featured in magazine ads, partied with the most glamorous celebrities and last year had even been named California's Sexiest Bachelor. He had money, charm and all the women he could possibly want. So why was he torturing himself by standing here listening to Bella Cruz harp at him?
Because she intrigued him. Whether it was her obvious enmity for him, or her sheer hardheadedness, he wasn't sure. But there was something about Bella that got to him. Felt somehow
Jesse pulled in a deep breath, leaned both hands on the counter and looked at her. "It's just some walls and windows, Ms. Cruzor can I call you Bella?"
"No, you cannot, and it's not just walls and windows." She held out her arms as if physically trying to hug the ratty old building. "This place has a history. The whole town did. Until you showed up, that is."
She gave him a look that was heat and ice both at the same time. Impressive. She was practically vibrating with banked rage. He'd always found a way around a woman's temper. Until now.
For months, he'd been trying to worm his way into her good graces. It would have made life easier if she'd agreed to an easy working relationship. She had friends in Morgan Beach. She was successfulin her own, cottage-industry kind of way. And dammit, women liked Jesse King.
"The town's history is still here," Jesse told her, "along with buildings that won't collapse at the first sign of a stiff breeze."
"Yeah," she muttered, "you're a real humanitarian."
He laughed. "I'm just trying to run a business," he said and nearly winced at the words. When had he become his brothers? His father?
"No, you're trying to run my business."
"Trust me when I say I have zero interest in your company." Jesse glanced behind her to where one of her custom-designed swimsuits was tacked to the wall.
Jesse's company catered to men. He knew what a guy was looking for in a wet suit, bathing suit or whatever. He had no idea what women were looking for and wouldn't expand until he knew. Though his stockholders and managers were after him to expand to women's gear, Jesse was standing firm against them. He had no idea what to stock for women, yet; he'd rather focus on what he did best. Bella Cruz could have the female share of the market.
"Then why are you here?" she asked, and he heard the toe of her shoe tapping against the floor. "My rent's not due for another three weeks."
"So warm. So welcoming," he said, giving Bella another smile. It bounced off her like bullets off a tank. Woman was determined to hate him. Jesse shoved his hands into the pockets of his khaki slacks and walked off to study the racks.
"I'm very welcoming. To customers," she said.
"Yeah, the store's so packed I can hardly walk."
She huffed out a breath. "Summer's over. Sales slow down a little."
"Funny, everyone else says business is great."
"Worried about your rent?" she asked.
"Should I be?"
"No," Bella said quickly. "I have a small, but loyal clientele."
"You're impossible," he thought he heard her mutter. Jesse smiled to himself. Good to know he was getting to her as thoroughly as she was getting to him.
Beyond the plate-glass window, Morgan Beach was going about its day. It was late morning and the surfers were packing it in for the day. He knew all too well that the best rides were just after dawn, before the water was crowded with kids and moms and wannabes with their little belly boards.
People were wandering the tidy sidewalks, sitting at sidewalk caf s and, in general, enjoying the day. While he was standing in a women's-wear shop talking to a female who practically hissed when she saw him. Jesse stifled a sigh of impatience.
He shifted his gaze to the interior of Bella's place. Pale, cream-colored walls were dotted with handmade swimsuits tacked up beside framed posters of some of the best beaches in the world. And Jesse should know. He'd surfed most of those beaches. For ten years, he'd hardly been out of the water. He'd snatched up trophies, endorsement deals, nice fat checks and plenty of attention from the surf bunnies who followed the circuit.
Sometimes he really missed that life. Like now, for instance.
"So, since I'm your landlord, why don't we play nice?"
"You're only my landlord because Robert Towner's kids sold you the building after he died. He promised me that they wouldn't, you know," she said, regret tingeing her voice. "He promised that I could stay here another five years."
"But that wasn't in his will," Jesse reminded her as he turned around to meet her hard gaze. "His kids decided to sell. Hardly my fault."
"Of course it was your faultyou offered them a small fortune for the building!"
He smiled. "Good business."
Bella smothered a sigh. What good would it do? Facts were facts and the fact was, Jesse King was now the owner of her building, despite Robert's promises.
Robert Towner had been a sweet old man, a surrogate grandfather to Bella. They'd had coffee every morning, dinner at least once a week. She'd seen him far more often than his own children had and she'd hoped to actually buy the building from him one day. Unfortunately, Robert had died in a car accident nearly a year ago. Despite his assurances, he hadn't made any provisions for Bella in his will.
A month or so after Robert's death, his children sold the building to Jesse King and Bella had been worried about her future ever since. Robert had always kept the rent low enough so she could afford this great location. But she knew that Jesse King wouldn't be doing the same.