Get in and get out. That was India Robidoux’s plan for this family visit. But when her brother needs her help with his high-profile political campaign, India has no choice but to stay and face the one man she’s been running from for years—Travis, her sister’s ex-husband. One hot summer night when Travis was still free, they celebrated her birthday with whiskey and an unforgettable kiss. The memory is as strong as ever—and so are the feelings she’s tried so hard to forget.
Travis Strickland owes everything to the Robidoux family. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for them—his divorce could never change that. Still, he has one regret. Impulsive and passionate, India always understood him better than anyone else. And the longer they work together on the campaign, the more torn he is. Coming between her and her sister is out of the question. But how can he let love pass him by a second time?
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A large calla lily bouquet came entirely too close to slapping India Robidoux in the face the moment she entered her family's home for the first time in four years. Only a quick slide to the right saved her from that indignity.
The woman carrying the flowers rushed by with a barely audible "excuse me."
India jumped back to avoid being hit by another bouquet as a different woman with an equally large arrangement hurried by. The ornate oak-and-glass front door swung open behind her. India stutter-stepped to the right to avoid being hit. Maybe she should have taken up dancing instead of the violin. She clearly had the footwork down. The front door opened again, and a man carrying a large box rushed through. "Where do you want these?" he asked her. He shifted and the sound of glasses clinking together came from the box.
India's mouth opened, then closed. She glanced around in the hope he was talking to someone who had some clue what was going on.
The man loudly cleared his throat. "Ma'am?"
Blinking rapidly, India pointed down the hall where more noise came from the back of the house. "Um ... the kitchen?" That had to be where glasses needed to go.
The man nodded and hurried on his way. Yet another woman carrying a huge bouquet, roses instead of calla lilies, rushed by again.
India moved out of the entryway and the line of people going back and forth. She pulled her cell phone out of the back pocket of her jean shorts and checked the date. No one's birthday, no anniversary and no major holiday. Why were there dozens of people zipping around making the already impressive interior of her family home even more extravagant?
People were everywhere, placing flower arrangements, hanging decorations, carrying crates and cleaning every nook and cranny. The effort put into whatever was going on wasn't surprising. Her family didn't do anything half-assed. It was as if four years hadn't passed and she was back home in time for another Robidoux Family production.
"I told the caterer there were to be no oysters, at all. If my brother dies from an allergic reaction to oysters at his own party because the caterer is too dumb to remember my instructions, there will be hell to pay." Her sister's cool Southern accent was laced with frustration. India rolled her eyes and sighed. Apparently, Elaina's tendency for overdramatic threats hadn't diminished recently.
The quick apologetic reply of the unfortunate assistant her sister spoke to accompanied the sound of heels clicking along the marble in India's direction. For a second, she considered hiding, but dismissed the urge. There was no reason to hide from her sister. Their relationship wasn't the closest, but neither were they enemies. Elaina always viewed India as the annoying baby sister in need of her guidance. Adulthood hadn't changed that perception.
Elaina and a woman India didn't recognize came into view. Elaina's deep sepia skin, dark almond-shaped eyes and perfectly flat-ironed hair hadn't changed at all. Even though Elaina was thirty-four, India swore her sister had stopped aging at twenty-five.
Elaina's furious pace didn't slow down even though the other woman struggled to keep up with her. Seeing they would continue right by her — probably assuming India was just another person helping with the party which apparently was for her brother — India sighed and stepped away from the wall. "Byron isn't going to die from eating an oyster, Elaina, and you know it."
Elaina froze midstride. Surprise registered for a mil lisecond before her gaze traveled over India's body.
India automatically stood straighter. She was considered the artist of the family and her brother ... Well, he was the son, which made him their father's pride and joy. Everyone agreed Elaina was the beauty, but that didn't stop her big sister from quickly sizing up India every time they were together. That didn't make her sister's scrutiny any less annoying. So, India wasn't dressed to impress. She'd come straight from the airport, leaving her luggage in the car in her rush to get inside and figure out why there were so many vehicles in the long drive. She wore jean shorts with a white tank top that sported the words Plays Well With Others beneath musical notes. Elaina's peach silk blouse and tan pencil skirt easily outshone India's wardrobe, but India had traveled all day and opted for comfort. That had to count for something, right?
Elaina's full lips finally spread into what India assumed was supposed to be a welcoming smile. "Well, you're back. I wondered if you would actually come. I guess Daddy hasn't completely lost his hold on you."
India took a deep breath and smiled just as sincerely as her sister. "I'm not here for —" she looked around at the decorations "— whatever is going on. I have a break in touring and now I'm home."
Elaina's dark eyes widened. "Oh, well, you're home just in time." She turned to the woman next to her. "Gwendolyn, I've got to get my baby sister up to speed. You go check to make sure the crystal glasses were delivered. Please let Sandra know India's back."
Sandra was the head housekeeper for the estate. India didn't know her — she had started after India had already left. According to Byron, the woman was a saint. Gwendolyn gave India a curious look before she nodded at Elaina. "I will, and I'll make sure there are no oysters anywhere on the menu."
"Please see that you do," Elaina said in an exaggerated tone.
When Gwendolyn walked away, Elaina strolled over to India. "Gwendolyn is a straight-up pit bull when it comes to party planning. If there is an oyster in the house, she'll make sure it's destroyed."
India's lips twisted. "She sounds delightful."
Elaina smiled ruefully. "Actually, she's a little scary."
"Scarier than you?" India said with disbelief. Elaina was nearly a carbon copy of their late mother. Witty, smart and unwilling to take shit from anyone.
Elaina lifted one slim shoulder and placed the tips of her manicured fingers on the other. "No one's scarier than me."
India smiled and some of the tension eased from her spine. She'd forgotten that Elaina made her laugh occasionally. "So, this thing is for Byron?"
"You really don't know?" When India shook her head, Elaina motioned for her to follow. "Come on, let's go upstairs. It's a madhouse down here. Byron is running for Senate and he's formally announcing his candidacy tonight."
India froze at the bottom of the curving staircase. Shit. Damn. Motherfucker! She'd hoped to come home, spend a few easy days, maybe a week, catching up with her family and then get the hell out of there. Not arrive in the middle of what was sure to be a full-fledged Robidoux family drama complete with television cameras, adoring friends and political posturing. There was no way her daddy would stand for her popping in and out during her brother's political campaign. If she'd known, she would have gone straight to Los Angeles instead of opting for a family visit.
Either Elaina hadn't noticed India wasn't climbing up the stairs or hadn't cared, and continued her assent. India resumed her stride and followed her sister to the second-floor family room. Though the downstairs rooms were ornate and grandiose with their antique furnishings, expensive wall hangings and polished surfaces, the upstairs was relaxed and welcoming. This was where the family got together to talk, watch television and spend time together. Dark carpet covered the family room floor and large leather sofas and recliners filled the space before a large television screen on the left. A pool table and minibar occupied the right side of the room.
Elaina went to the bar and pulled a bottle out of the small fridge and two goblets from the cabinet. "Wine?"
"Please," India answered.
Elaina raised one arched brow. "And here I thought you weren't a day drinker."
"A lot's changed in the years I've been away." Truthfully, nothing had changed. Any other day, she'd say one in the afternoon was too early for wine. But any other day she wouldn't be home facing her demons.
Elaina poured them wine, then walked over and handed a glass to India. She held up her glass. "Welcome home, sister." Elaina's voice didn't carry any warmth or fondness. That was Elaina. Cold beauty and pragmatism. Warm and fuzzy was not her style.
India clinked her glass to Elaina's and took a sip. As the crisp flavor of the wine played across her tongue, she glanced around the room. Pictures of her and her siblings along with the various awards Robidoux Tobacco, the vast empire that supported their lavish lifestyle, had won over the years filled the bookshelf. The faint scent of cigar smoke hung in the room that was the heart of the family.
India took a deep breath. The smell of home. Tobacco had made her family rich and turned Robidoux Tobacco into one of the most profitable tobacco producers in the country. Despite arriving in the middle of a publicity storm, India had missed home.
She walked over to get a closer look at the pictures. "I can't believe Daddy still has these up."
"As if he'd take them down," Elaina said with a trace of humor. "He loves to brag about his children's accomplishments. From fourth grade spelling bees to traveling the world with a renowned orchestra."
India smiled at some of the pictures from the events Elaina mentioned. There was even a framed newspaper clipping of a review of the Transatlantic Orchestra from the New York Times. Her dad hadn't wanted her to go, but he'd still been proud enough to brag.
Her gaze slid across Elaina's wedding photo, then jerked back. Her chest tightened as if her heart was in a straitjacket. The photo of Elaina in the arms of her ex-husband Travis Strickland during their wedding dance instantly made India wish she'd gone on to LA. They were smiling and staring into each other's eyes. Elaina and Travis had been happy that day, and India had wanted to cry. She hadn't expected to still feel so disappointed.
"I hate that picture," Elaina said. India jumped and whirled around to face her sister. "Daddy loves it," Elaina continued. "He still thinks it's fate the boy he saved fell in love with his daughter." She took a long sip from the glass. "I've considered throwing it out the window, but he'd just print another."
India swirled the wine in her glass. "It is a good story."
Elaina laughed softly and drank the rest of her wine. "The story sounds nice. The ending isn't so happy." She stared at the picture a few more seconds. No emotion on her face, but her hand tight on the wineglass before she turned and sat primly on the edge of the couch. "How long are you here for?" she said in a cool, let's-change the-subject tone of voice.
Usually, when Elaina intentionally tried to change the subject, India would use the opportunity to keep pushing. That was part of the little sister code of conduct, tease older sister relentlessly. But, when it came to Elaina's marriage, India was more than happy to stray from the habit.
Besides, Elaina and Travis were divorced now. Elaina had called her two years ago to tell her she and Travis were ending things, but because Travis was their brother's best friend and partner in a successful law office, she'd have to keep him in her life. Elaina hadn't said what caused their split, and India hadn't asked, even though she'd wanted to know. In the end, the why didn't matter. She couldn't go after the man she'd always wanted when he was her sister's ex-husband.
"I'm only going to be home a few days." India sat on the other end of the couch. "The orchestra's tour for the year is over. I'm taking some time to recharge. I submitted my request to audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic."
Elaina tilted her head to the side. "Los Angeles. Impressive."
"Only if I get the job."
"You will. You're persistent and that violin was always attached to your damn hand. You'll be fine." She said the last with a wave of her hand and more than a hint of pride. Elaina may be cold and distant, but India would never call her unsupportive. As if realizing she'd let her pride show, Elaina frowned at India. "How did you get here?"
"My plane landed about an hour ago. I rented a car at the airport."
Elaina looked confused. "Why? Daddy would have had a car waiting for you."
"I didn't want that. I hoped to sneak in. I wasn't ready to see everyone just yet." She looked away from Elaina and turned the glass in her hand. Her dad would be hurt she'd sneaked home, but he'd also be happy to see her. They'd Skyped and video chatted while she'd toured, but she hadn't been home in years. Somehow seeing Travis when he was free of Elaina had seemed harder than seeing them together.
"He'll be happy to know you're here for Byron's announcement," Elaina said. "He's worried your prolonged absence reflects badly on Byron."
India froze with the glass of wine halfway to her mouth. "How?"
"You being away makes it look like our family's torn apart."
"What? Where on earth did that come from?"
Elaina's lips twisted into a small smile and she shook her head. "I wish I could blame it on his overactive imagination, but I do think this is from Byron's campaign manager. You running off and not coming home for years does make it look as if you don't want to be around."
"I didn't run off. I've been touring." That's what she told herself anyway.
"Doesn't matter. You know Daddy only thinks three things are important. God, family and Robidoux Tobacco." Elaina raised a manicured finger with each word. "To him, you've turned your back on two of the three. I'd admire you for doing what you love instead of sticking around here and doing what he wanted, if it hadn't made my life so damn difficult."
"Sure, Elaina, I left just to make your life difficult," India said sarcastically.
The corner of Elaina's mouth lifted for a half a second before she sighed. "I'm the one who argues with Daddy. Byron hangs onto his every word and you're the sweet one who can do no wrong. Did you really think you could go traipsing off across the world and Daddy wouldn't shift your share of the pressure to live up to the family's legacy on me and Byron?" Elaina brought her glass to her lips, frowned when she realized the glass was empty and stood. She quickly crossed the room to the bar.
"I didn't think he'd take things out on you two." Honestly, she hadn't thought about how her leaving would affect Elaina and Byron. She'd only known she couldn't stay and pretend as if her heart wasn't breaking every time she saw Elaina and Travis together.
Elaina poured another glass of wine. "You should have known Daddy wouldn't be easy to deal with after his favorite daughter defied him."
India rolled her eyes and fell back onto the chair. "Don't be dramatic. I didn't defy him. Daddy knew about the offer to play with the Transatlantic Orchestra. I told him I wanted to go."
Elaina strolled back to the couch. "Yes, and he said you couldn't go, remember? That meant the case was closed. Even I thought you were staying. You never went against what Daddy wanted. What happened?"
The need to go against her dad's wishes had never been a problem before, because until then their dad hadn't denied her anything she'd wanted. He'd disciplined her when she'd messed up and pushed her to be not just good but great in everything she did. She hadn't fought him on things the way Elaina used to, so he never had a reason to say no to India's requests.
The urge to tell the truth about why she left was on the tip of her tongue. To shed light on things in the open and unravel why events had played out the way they had. India sat forward and swirled the contents of her glass instead. Confessing her sins and fighting with Elaina would make a difficult homecoming worse.
"I wanted to go, that's what happened. I was tired of being Daddy's baby girl. It was time to live my life." That part was true as well. She'd had no identity before leaving. The youngest Robidoux. The sweet baby sister. Leaving her family behind had allowed her to grow and depend on herself. For that, she'd never regret her decision.
Elaina scoffed and sipped her wine. "You're Grant Robidoux's daughter. You don't get to live the life you want."
India swore there was bitterness in Elaina's voice, but her face held no sarcastic or angry smirk. Instead she stared off into space. Grant Robidoux making demands of his family was no secret. Everyone was expected to do their part to uphold the traditions their paternal grandparents started when they opened Robidoux Tobacco. Their mother had helped market the company before she'd passed away ten years ago when India was twenty. Elaina worked at the company and oversaw some of their other holdings and was primed to take over the helm, Byron had been one of the many legal counsels for them before opening a law firm with Travis, not to mention all of their aunts, uncles and cousins who also worked somewhere in the company.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Forbidden Promises"
Copyright © 2020 Synithia R. Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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