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Larissa Whitney's luck ran out with the loud thump of the heavy door that let in the howl and clamor of the wet November winds outside, shaking the rain-soaked windows in front of her.
She looked away from the gray, brooding Atlantic waves that crashed against the rocky shore of the isolated Maine island, glancing without particular interest toward the door of the tiny restaurant that was also the only bar in the only inn on the only stretch of desolate road that could be called a village in this place, so far from the blue skies and sunny days of the summer high season. So far from anywherewhich was why she'd come. She'd expected nothing but the near-total isolation she'd been seeking, and for the past few days, that was exactly what she'd found.
So, naturally, he walked in.
Her stomach dropped with a thud as she took in the man at the door. She blinked, as if he was an apparition and she could banish him back into the depths of her memory that way, but no: Jack Endicott Sutton was still shouldering his way inside, shaking off the weather as he peeled the battered rain jacket from his long, lean frame and hung it on the coatrack.
"Anyone but Jack Sutton.. " Larissa whispered to herself, not meaning to speak aloud. Her fingers clenched hard around the mug of coffee she'd been nursing while she brooded about the mess of her life. "Please
" But there was no one listening, and it was no use anyway. It was him. It could hardly be anyone else.
She recognized him instantly, as she imagined everybody on the planet in possession of two working eyes would. That surprisingly beautiful, richly masculine face was burned into her mind, as familiar to her as that of any major movie star in any glossy magazine, which he'd certainly spent enough time adorning in his day. More familiar to her, perhaps, because she knew him personally. That long, leanly muscled body was famous for the Yale rugby shirt he'd worn as an undergraduate, the Harvard Law gravitas that was said to infuse it later, and, of course, the many beautiful women, starlets and models and socialites without number, that usually clung to it.
Tonightor was it late afternoon? It was hard to tell the difference so far northJack wore a simple black, long-sleeved T-shirt that clung to his celebrated torso over a pair of weathered old jeans that made his lean hips and strong legs into a kind of powerful male poetry, and a pair of what looked to her like incongruous workman's boots. He should have looked as if he was playing dress up, when she knew that he more commonly viewed Armani as casual wear when he was in his usual element, glittering brightly in the midst of the Manhattan high life. Barring that, he should have blended right in with the other locals who had wandered in while Larissa had nursed her hot coffee in the farthest corner, all of them dressed just as he wasbut he didn't.
She doubted Jack Sutton had ever blended in his life. And it made her heart kick against the walls of her chest.
Centuries of blood so blue it shone like sapphires coursed in his veins, making him far more than just a shockingly good-looking man with rich dark hair and dark chocolate eyesthough he was certainly that. He wore the whole of his family's great and glorious history with complete nonchalance, like a mighty weapon he didn't need to brandish. All those noble Boston Brahmins and lofty Knickerbocker families of Gilded Age Manhattan who peppered his ancestry were evident in the easy way he moved, the power and pure arrogance that emanated from him, as much a part of him as the long, strong lines of the body some regarded as a national treasure. Jack's hallowed ancestors were all of them captains of industry, leaders and visionaries, kings of philanthropy and canny investors. And he was every inch their heir. Every last muscled, beautiful, proud and dangerous inch.
She knew who he was, where he came from. She came from the same lofty heights, for all her sins. But Larissa knew what else he was: her absolute worst nightmare. And he was blocking her only escape route.
Nice job, Larissa, she told herself, veering somewhere between despair and a kind of bitterness that felt too much like anticipation. You can't even disappear to the ends of the earth properly.
But there was no point getting hysterical. She slumped down in her seat, and pulled the hooded sweater tighter around her, as if the thick gray wool might camouflage her somehow. As if she could disappear into it the way she'd wanted to disappear from the face of the earthor at least, from everything she knew. Her "life," such as it was.
She forced herself to look away from the compelling figure of Manhattan's Most Eligible Bachelor, back out to the sea, where the merciless waves beat at the craggy coastline, inexorable and fierce. He probably wouldn't even recognize her, she told herself. She had left New York months ago and had told no one where she was going. And anyway, she was hardly known for spending time in near-abandoned places like this godforsaken island, a million miles from the nearest five-star spa without so much as lip gloss on her face, wearing nothing but jeans and a sweater that could double as a cloak. Not to mention, she'd cut off all her trademark blond tresses before she'd left and dyed what remained of it black for exactly this reasonto avoid being recognized, even by the people who had known her in her long and complicated former life.
Even by ghosts of weekends past, like Jack Sutton, who, she had the uncomfortable feeling, was not the sort of person who was easily fooled. Not even by someone like Larissa, who had been fooling everyone around her for years. Hadn't she discovered that firsthand? Wasn't that why the very fact that he was here, in this smaller-by-the-moment restaurant and bar, made her so tense, suddenly? So
She ordered herself to breathe, just the way the doctors had taught her to do back in New York. Breathe. He wouldn't even notice her, and if he did, he certainly wouldn't realize that she was
His voice was cool and low, just this side of amused. It moved over her skin like a caress, then moved inside, making her feel as though she was shaking to pieces when she knew she wasn't moving at all.
But she suspected that was out of the question.
He didn't wait for an invitation, he simply threw himself into the chair opposite hers, his dark brown eyes gleaming with something she was afraid to identify when she finally dared meet his gaze. His long legs stretched out before him, crowding her under the small table, and she couldn't help but move hers out of the way. She hated herself for even so slight an indication of weakness, so small an acknowledgment that he got under her skin. Damn him.
Why did it have to be Jack Sutton, of all people? What was he even doing here? He was the one person she'd never quite managed to mislead, not even when he'd been as lost a cause as she was. Why did it have to be him? It had been months since anyone had even known her name, and now she was trapped on an inhospitable island with a man who knew too much. He always had. It was only one of the reasons he was so formidable. So dangerous to her health.
She had the sudden, insane urge to pretend she didn't recognize him. To pretend she was someone else. I have no idea who Larissa Whitney is, she could say, and it wouldn't even really be a lie, would it? She could simply deny her own existence, and maybe, just maybe, escape the great weight of it that way. Part of her wanted to, with a ferocity that should not have shocked her.
But he was looking at her with those too-knowing eyes of his, and she didn't dare.
She smiled instead, the perfunctory sort of public smile she had perfected in the cradle. She'd been well into her teens before someone had pointed out to her that smiles were supposed to reach the eyes. She'd been skeptical.
"Guilty as charged," she said, keeping her voice light, easy. Unbothered. Unaffected by this man, by the sizzling shock of his proximity, of her unexpected response to himso strong and male and alive. She shifted in her seat, but kept her face smooth. Empty. Just as he'd expect it to be. Just as she worried she truly was.
"So I hear." He smirked, his eyes never leaving hers, the challenge unmistakable. Or was that a cool dose of contempt? She could hardly tell the difference these days. "I didn't see any paparazzi swarming over the village like ants. No yachts cluttering up the bay in the middle of a November storm. No clubs heaving with the rich and the terminally bored. Did you somehow mistake the coast of Maine for the south of France?"
"It's wonderful to see you, too," she murmured, as if that scathing, judgmental tone didn't bother her. And why should it? She should have been well-used to it by now, having heard nothing but her whole life. Having, in fact, gone out of her way to court it from all and sundry. "How long has it been? Five years? Six?"
"What are you doing here, Larissa?" he asked, and his voice was not nice. Not polite. This from a man who could charm anyone he pleasedwho had been doing so the whole of his privileged life. She knew. She'd seen him in action. She'd experienced exactly how powerfully charming he could be. She repressed a shiver.
"Can't a girl take a little vacation?" she asked idly. Playfully. As if she felt either. But she knew better than to show him anything else.
"Not here." His cool eyes narrowed slightly as he watched her, and she pretended she couldn't feel her own reaction to him, unfolding inside of her. Wariness, she told herselfthat's all it was. But she knew better. "There's nothing here for you. One general store. This inn. Less than fifty families. That's it. There are only two ferries to the mainland a weekand that's weather permitting." His perfect mouth firmed into a grim line. "There's absolutely no reason in the world someone like you should be here."
"It's the hospitality," she said dryly, nodding at him as if he'd welcomed her with a song and open arms. "It's addictive."
She leaned back in her chair, not sure why her stomach knotted, why her limbs felt weak and traitorous. She'd known Jack all her life. They'd been raised in the same glittering, claustrophobic circles of New York City's very, very wealthy. The same elite private schools, the same Ivy League expectations. The same attractive and well-maintained faces at all the same parties, in places like Aspen, the Hamptons, Miami and Martha's Vineyard.
She remembered being a teenager and running into Jack, then in his resplendent twenties, at some desperately chic party one summer. She could still imagine him as he'd been then, golden and gleaming on a private beach in the Hamptons, seeming to outshine the very sun above him. He'd been loose-limbed and easygoing, with a killer smile and that devastating intellect beneath. Everyone she'd known had been desperately in love with him. When she thought of Jack Sutton, that was always how she remembered him. Bright. Inescapably beautiful. All summer in his smile.
But there was no sign of that young man here, now. And she had other memories she'd rather not excavate. The ones from that one weekend she preferred to block out. The ones that featured him a little bit older, and a whole lot more shattering than she cared to remember in any detail. The ones that made it clear that whatever else he was, he was distinctly dangerous to her, personally. All that heat. All that fire. And eyes like bittersweet, decadent chocolate that saw too much, too deep.
The truth was that this man had fascinated her and then terrified her. And all of that was before. Before. Before she'd had her own little resurrection, her own second chance. At what, she might not know. But she did know that the arrival of Jack Sutton was like throwing a bomb into the middle of it. He was uncontrollable. Impossible. And those were two of his better qualities.
She settled back in her chair, assuming the careless, languid sort of position that came to her so easily, like a second skin. The usual Larissa Whitney insouciance she could summon at will, automatically adjusting to his assumptions, to what he no doubt already saw when he looked at her. She was so good at living down to the world's expectations. She sometimes wondered if it was her only true skill.
"Are you in disguise?" he continued, in that same le-thally soft voice that made the fine hairs on the back of her neck rise. His cool brown gaze flicked over her, made her want to squirm. But she only lounged, making herself look like the very essence of boredom. "Or on the run? Do I even want to know what fantasy you're playing at here?"
"Why are you so interested?" she asked, letting out a light sort of laugh. "Are you afraid it doesn't include you?"
"Quite the opposite." His tone was curt, his eyes hard. As if she'd done something to him, personally. She blinked, taken aback. She certainly could have, of course. She just thought she'd remember it. Jack Sutton wasn't the sort of man anyone forgot. Repressed, yes. Forgot? Never.
"I heard Maine is lovely this time of year," she said, forestalling whatever character assassination he might be about to unleash on her. She wasn't certain she could survive itnot from him. It made her stomach ache just to look at him. "How could I resist?"
She nodded toward the window, inviting him to do the same. The sky had darkened, the clouds moving fast against the swollen pewter clouds. Rain beat at the glass, while below, the rocks withstood the angry assault of the waves. She felt like those rocks, battered and beleaguered, yet somehow still standingwith her own past the tragic, inescapable crash of the sea. Jack, she thought, was just the rain. A cold, depressing insult on top of a far greater injury.
"You've had a banner year already, haven't you," Jack said, in that way. That knowing way. "Or so I hear."
It made her feel horribly exposed, naked and vulnerablethings she strove to avoid at all costs, especially around this man, after the last timeand the worst part was that she couldn't even tell him the real story. She couldn't defend herself. She had to accept the fictionand worse, the fact that everyone so easily believed that the fiction was truth. Why did it hurt so much this time? It was no different than any other scandal, was it? It was only that this time around, the fiction wasn't of her own making.