Beautiful, ambitious Robyn Henderson fought hard for her place in the sun. Now Belleza Resort's head event planner is getting ready to pull off the charity event of the season. But when a series of bizarre incidents befall the desert retreat and suspicion points at LA restaurateur Sean Parker, Robyn is convinced he's innocent. And now her boss's brotherand secret crushis drawing her into a sizzling taboo affair.
Sean's return to the family fold is fraught with pitfalls, especially when he's wrongly accused. His most passionate ally is his sister's best friend, a woman Sean has crushed on for years. Aching to make their undercover romance public, he fights to clear his name. As a vengeful adversary plots to destroy his family's lasting legacy, Sean must decide where his future lies. But can he also convince Robyn to trust in their love?
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The lie rolled so smoothly off Robyn Henderson's tongue she almost believed it herself. "I got tired of being cooped up in the office, so I'm treating myself to lunch," Robyn said, parking her yellow Volkswagen Beetle outside the trendy restaurant praised for its eclectic menu and decor. "I'm checking out the new steak bar near the resort everyone's been raving about."
Kimberly Parker couldn't be fooled. She knew Robyn too well. "You won't even go shopping alone, so there's no way in hell you're eating by yourself at a five-star restaurant. So, seriously, where are you?"
Taking off her seat belt, she listened with half an ear as Kim grilled her about her whereabouts. Kim was not only her boss, but also her best friend. They'd known each other since their boarding-school days at Merri-weather Academy, an all-girls school in Massachusetts.
Robyn's scholarship essay, and letters of recommendation from her teachers, which highlighted her abilities, talents, academic history and community service, had helped her win a scholarship to the prestigious school. They had bonded over their shared interests, and soon were joined at the hip.
Robyn loved Kim like a sister and was thrilled they worked together at the Parker family hotel, the Belleza Resort and Spa, but she couldn't tell her the truth. Not if she wanted to keep her job and their fourteen-year friendship intact. The less Kim knew about her LA lunch date, the better. "Fine, if you must know, I'm meeting a friend for lunch."
"A friend, huh?" she repeated, her tone filled with disbelief. "Anyone I know?"
"I'll be back at the Belleza in a couple hours. We'll talk then."
"No, we'll talk now. What's his name? What does he do for a living? Are you interested in him romantically, or is he strictly a friend?"
Robyn strangled a sigh. Kim should have become a lawyer instead of a hotel general manager, because when it came to unearthing the truth, no one did it better. She was intelligent and perceptive, and it was times like this Robyn wished her bestie didn't know her so well. Their daily habit was to work out and have breakfast poolside, and because she'd failed to mention her plans to Kim that morning, her friend was giving her a hard time. Robyn sucked at lying, couldn't spin a convincing tale if her life depended on it; she knew Kim could see right through her. Faced with few options, she did what anyone else in her situation would do: she lied like a felon with his third strike. "It's nothing, really, I"
"Are you meeting Erik? Is that why you're being evasive?"
Robyn's good mood fizzled at the mention of Erik Cutler's name. Thinking about her former colleaguethe outgoing finance manager she'd befriended months earliermade her cringe with shame. How could she have been so stupid? she wondered, overcome with guilt. If not for Kim going to bat for her with her dad, she probably would have been fired.
Blowing out a deep breath, she inwardly scolded herself for allowing her ego to cloud her judgment. What had she been thinking? She should have known better. Determined to put the incident behind heralong with that terse, two-hour meeting she'd had with Kurt Parkershe shook off her thoughts and grabbed her purse off the passenger seat.
"You have to sever ties with Erik and move on." Kim spoke in a sympathetic voice, but her frustration was evident. "He's an opportunist, and you can do much better. You're a smart, successful woman who can have any guy she wants."
If that was the case, I'd be Mrs. Sean Parker. "Tell me the truth," Kim urged her. "I promise I won't be mad."
"I'm not meeting Erik," Robyn insisted, adamantly shaking her head even though her best friend couldn't see her. "I haven't spoken to him in months, and I don't plan to."
"Then who's your mystery date?"
"A guy I met at a charity event last spring." Another lie, another fresh wave of guilt. As an only child, Robyn considered her friends Kimberly Parker and Gabrielle Royce as family, the sisters she didn't have. She hated lying to Kim, but if her girlfriend knew the truth, she'd be pissed, and Robyn didn't want to upset her best friend.
"How are things going at the office?" she asked, desperate to change the subject. Over the past few months, there had been suspicious incidents at the Belleza. Kim and her parents were certain that someone with an ax to grind was trying to ruin the resort and had contacted the authorities to launch a criminal investigation. "Are you still meeting with detectives this afternoon?"
"Yeah, and I hope they've finally cracked the case, because planning my wedding and running the resort under these circumstances is incredibly stressful," she said, her voice strained with tension and frustration. "Would you believe the new front desk manager actually asked me about the curse of the Belleza during our meeting? It took everything in me not to roll my eyes."
Robyn groaned. The Belleza curse was a tall tale that dated back to the hotel's beginnings as the Belleza Inn in the late fifties. Back then, even though there was a lot of talk about an alleged buried treasure on the premises, nothing was ever found. The theory was that anytime someone got close to discovering it, something bad would happen to them. Robynlike Kim and Gabbywas too much of a realist to put any stock in the possibility that ghosts trying to protect their buried treasure were haunting the hotel. What worried her was that there might be a real, flesh-and-blood person out there trying to destroy the Belleza. Or worse, out to harm the Parker family.
"How does Diego know about the Belleza curse? He hasn't been at the resort long."
"Your guess is as good as mine, but if I was a betting woman, I'd put my money on Jonah." The hotel's old bartender loved to entertain guests and staff with outrageous stories.
"Hang in there, Kim. This will soon be over. I'm sure of it."
"You're right, and then I can devote all my time and energy to my groom-to-be."
Robyn laughed, marveling at how much her friend had changed since meeting her kind, soft-spoken fiancé, Jaxon Dunham.
Seeing the time on her dashboard, she stepped out of the car and activated the alarm. "I have to go. We'll talk later, okay?"
"Just make sure you're at Diva's Beauty Salon by three o'clock. It's our last consultation before the wedding, and I need everyone in the bridal party there."
"How can I forget when you programmed the appointment into my phone?" she teased, unable to resist poking fun at her friend. "Don't worry, Bridezilla. I'll be there."
"Don't hate. Congratulate!" Kim's effervescent laugh filled the line. "I'm so excited about getting married I feel like I'm going to burst. I can't wait to become Mrs. Jaxon Dunham."
And, I can't wait to see your handsome brother!
"Have a good one. I'll see you later." Robyn took out her earpiece, dropped it inside her handbag and adjusted her belted, raspberry-colored dress. It had a modest side split and a loose fit. Robyn wished she was wearing something tighter, something that played up her curves, but Sean had invited her to lunch at the end of their conversation that morning, and changing in the middle of the workday would have raised suspicion. Besides, this wasn't a date. Kim and her older brother, Sean, had been at odds for months. He'd been estranged from his family ever since Kim was awarded control of the Belleza. They'd run into each other at a Colombian restaurant recently, but didn't say more than a few words to each other. Enough was enough. In light of what was happening at the resort, Kim needed Sean now more than ever. Robyn had reached out to Sean, determined to reunite the embittered siblings, no matter what.
As Robyn strode through the parking lot, her conversation with Sean played in her mind. When she'd called to tell him about the suspicious incidents at the Belleza, he'd suggested they meet at a restaurant thirty minutes away from the resort. Ironically, the establishment was near The Pinnacle, the Belleza's competitor, which was due to open at the end of the month. Robyn wondered if his choice was merely coincidental or if something sinister was going on, but she quickly dismissed that last thought. Spotting Sean's cara sleek, midnight-blue Porsche Boxer with personalized license plates that read CALILUVparked beside the lamppost, she felt a rush of excitement. At the thought of him, her heart hammered in her chest, and a shiver ran down her spine.
Ignoring the deafening sound of her pulse, she straightened her shoulders and walked purposefully toward the restaurant. The sun was intense, raining down from the sky with unrelenting mercy, but Robyn didn't mind the sweltering August heat. Though she was born and raised in New York and hadn't moved to California until after her college graduation, Robyn couldn't imagine ever living anywhere else. She loved swimming and surfing and spending hours at Laguna Beach, relaxing in the hot sun. But it had been weeks since she'd had a weekend off to enjoy those activities.
"Welcome to The Palms," the hostess said, flashing a pageant smile.
Robyn was struck by the lively ambiance and decor. Framed paintings adorned the walls, decorative vases filled with tulips brightened the space, and waiters in classy white jackets hustled around the dining room, chatting and laughing with well-heeled patrons. Delicious aromas drifted out of the open kitchen, rousing Robyn's appetite. Starving, she couldn't wait to eat and searched the main-floor dining room for Sean.
"Are you dining alone?" the hostess asked.
"No, this gorgeous beauty is with me."
At the sound of a familiar voicea deep, husky baritone that incited illicit thoughtsher pulse quickened. She peered around the leafy bamboo plant and spotted Sean standing at the bar.
Robyn swallowed hard. He was difficult to miss, and not just because he was the tallest person in the room. The acclaimed chef had soulful eyes, a thin mustache and thick, juicy lips Robyn was desperate to taste again. Sean was thirty-three years old, but his expensive threads gave him a mature, dignified look. He was the sexiest man she'd ever seen in the flesh, but it was his boyish smile that made her swoon. Good God, he's so dreamy I can hardly stand it.
Her eyes ate up every inch of him, all six feet three inches. Robyn couldn't stop her gaze from sliding over his broad shoulders, and toned physique. Sean was working the hell out of his charcoal gray suit, and as he strode toward her, she realized he was even more handsome than she remembered. Perhaps quitting his job at the Belleza and getting away from the family fold had been good for him, she thought, returning his smile. Catching a whiff of his cologne, she let the refreshing scent wash over her.
"It's great to see you again," he said.
It is? Seriously? You really mean that?
Sean enveloped her in a hug and kissed her cheek. Heat flowed through her, caused her temperature to rise. Closing her eyes, she reveled in the moment, in his uncharacteristicbut welcomeddisplay of affection. He was a chef in a basketball player's body, and feeling his muscular arms draped around her waist made Robyn tingle all over. His lips felt soft, warm against her skin, and his touch caused goose bumps to prickle her flesh.
"I'm glad you called. This reunion is long overdue."
He released her much too soon for her liking, but she faked a smile to hide her disappointment. "How have you been?" She finally managed to find words to speak.
"Can't complain," he said. "I don't have to ask how you're doing. It's obvious. I didn't think it was possible, but you're even more beautiful than you were eight months ago."
His words triggered memories of fine wine, soft music and passionate kisses that had left Robyn breathless. Choosing to concentrate on the present, not the past, she broke free of her thoughts and took the arm Sean offered.
He winked at her, and a giggle tickled her throat. Robyn chided herself to get it together, to quit making eyes at her best friend's brother. You 're a twenty-eight-year-old woman with a fantastic career and money in the bank, so why do you get nervous every time Sean's around?
The hostess led them through the dining room, placed the menus on their corner table and sashayed back to her post. Seconds later, a brunette with a thick Spanish accent arrived with water glasses and a bread basket. "Would you like to hear the day's specials?"
Robyn didn't, but she listened patiently as the waitress spoke. The brunette chatted with Sean about the menu, then took their orders before moving on to the next table. Robyn was glad to see the waitress go, to finally have Sean all to herself. She hadn't seen him in months and wanted to catch up with him.
Liar! her conscience shrieked. You're here for another kiss. Just admit it.
"I'm glad you called," Sean said. "I've thought a lot about you the last few months."
Then, why didn't you reach out to me? The thought reverberated in her head, but she didn't have the guts to ask.
"I wanted to call you," he continued, "but I didn't think you'd speak to me."
Why? Because we had too much to drink one night and made out like teenagers?
Her thoughts returned to that fateful night. After Kim had been awarded control of the Belleza because of her outstanding marketing campaign, Sean had shown up at her doorstep, drunk and distraught. He'd asked if they could talk, and he'd looked so downtrodden, she'd invited him inside for a cup of coffee. Sean had seemed blindsided by his parents' decision and couldn't believe his dreams of running his family's resort had gone up in smoke. She'd listened as he'd poured out his troubles, and when he'd leaned over and stolen a kiss, she'd shocked herself by kissing him back. Robyn had never thought he'd cross that line, but was secretly glad he had.
The logical part of her mind had warned her to pull back, but her body had yearned for more. His advance had been fueled by liquor, but she'd still felt special, chosen. After all, Sean had had several casual girlfriends who would have gladly hooked up with him that nightor any night for that matterbut he'd come to her door and found solace in her arms. And it had been the greatest feeling in the word.
Try as she might, she couldn't stop thinking about that sensuous, passionate night. They hadn't slept together, and Robyn didn't know whether to be grateful or sorry about the missed opportunity. They'd kissed and laughed, stroked and caressed each other for hours, but stopped short of doing the deed. It had been the wise thing to do, but part of her secretly regretted not making love to Sean.
No one knew about their late-night hookup, and although months had passed, Robyn still couldn't bring herself to tell Kim about what had happened.
"Are you still mad at me for kissing you?" Sean asked.
"No, of course not," she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I forgot all about it."
His gaze darkened, but he spoke in a calm, reassuring tone. "I want to apologize for my behavior that night, and I want you to know that I'd never take advantage of you."
Too bad, because you're one hell of a kisser, and you have the most amazing hands.
"How are things going in your department?" Sean asked, unbuttoning his suit jacket. "Have you hired another event planner, or are you still working like a madwoman?"
"You know it!" Robyn shrieked, hoping to make him laugh. He did, and the sound of his hearty chuckle warmed her all over. "I'm planning several parties, the Dunham Foundation gala, and your sister's wedding, of course. Speaking of which, will you be there?"