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Turn around. Go back home. This could all go so wrong. What was I thinking when I decided to go through with this? Eden Byars tried to appear calm as the housekeeper at Oak Shores showed her into Jeremy Fulton's north suburban Chicago mansion, but her thoughts didn't seem to be willing to play the game.
Just keep moving forward, she ordered herself. This was too great an opportunity. She couldn't let old, uncomfortable memories mess things up.
"Excuse me?" the housekeeper asked.
Eden blinked. Had she spoken her thoughts out loud? Maybe. "The house is beautiful," she said, trying to regain her poise. "I'd forgotten." And she had never actually been inside. Not even inside the gates or down the long, winding drive shaded by oaks. In fact, she'd only ever seen glimpses of the imposing mansion in the winter when the leaves had fallen.
The woman tilted her head. "Yes, there's no other like it. Mr. Fulton is in the library, right through there. He's expecting you." She indicated a massive set of mahogany doors and left to return to her duties.
Eden stood before the doors, smoothing her hands over her old navy-blue skirt. Silly to be nervous. She'd barely known Jeremy ten years ago. They'd hardly exchanged a dozen words beyond hello and goodbye. Different social classes, different everything. It had been a nonexistent relationship.
Except for the fact that she'd had an overwhelming secret and painful crush on him until
Eden's face grew warm with embarrassment. She took a deep breath.
Dusty history, Byars. He won't remember. Please. And even if he did, it couldn't matter. She had to have the job she'd heard Jeremy was trying to fill. Fate had thrown her a curve last month just when she thought she was back on her feet. Suddenly she was down on her luck again. Creditors were calling and all of her plans were on the brink of evaporating if she didn't do something quickly.
A sick feeling slipped into her stomach. The thought of standing before Jeremy and revealing her desperation while he judged her brought back old flashbacks from high school of never fitting in.
But that had been long ago. Awkwardness was no longer her constant companion. She'd changed.
Apparently, so had Jeremy. In one major way.
Eden closed her eyes, remembering what she'd heard. She tried not to think of how he'd once been with that disarming amber gaze and those wild, reckless ways that made girls forgive him anything. Fast and brilliant and very openly temporary, he had been the most vital, alive male she'd ever known.
And now he was
Eden backed away from the thought. Don't think about it. I can handle this, she told herself.
Could she? Maybe. Yes. She had to. Jeremy's situation wasn't her concern. No man was, not in a personal way. Besides, he was no longer a boy she coveted. He was just a man with a job to fill, someone who could aid or ruin her, and loitering outside the library wasn't helping things. If she didn't prove to Jeremy that she was the besta term no one would have tagged her with when she was youngerif she didn't convince him to hire her
I'll lose everything I've worked for. The distant dreams that had kept her going this past year would never materialize.
"I won't let that happen," she whispered. Not again. Ignoring her pounding heart and a lot of unfortunate memories, Eden took a deep breath, pushed at the massive mahogany door and prepared to confront her past.
Jeremy rose from the desk where he'd been sitting when the door opened. His housekeeper had buzzed him to let him know Eden was here several minutes ago and he'd been wondering why she hadn't appeared yet.
Well, sort of wondering. He imagined it took a bit of courage to face an old acquaintance under these circumstances. But he refused to examine his circumstances. Too many dangerous emotions down that path, something he'd learned to avoid. Instead he concentrated on the moment
and the woman. He would have preferred someone who'd never known him as he once had been, but Eden had been sent here by her cousin, Ashley, an old friend of his whom he trusted implicitly.
He looked toward Eden, turning his head slightly to catch the best possible view of her. It was a habit he'd had to get used to of late, and it worked, albeit imperfectly.
Showtime, Fulton. Put the big smile on for the lady.
Skirting the desk's perimeter, he moved toward Eden with the skill of recent practice and years of athleticism.
"Eden, it's good to see you," he said, focusing on the striking, slender woman. She seemed different, more vibrant than he remembered, and he didn't think it was just a trick of his vision. When they'd been in high school, he would catch glimpses of her in the hallway, and though she had been pretty with her big gray eyes and long brown hair, she'd always had a scared, shy look about her.
Poised in his doorway, however, Eden didn't radiate shyness. The details might be fuzzy but he could tell her chin was raised. There was determination in her demeanor. Small and delicate as she was, she still faced him boldly. That determination turned a girl who had once been merely pretty into someone much more arresting, Jeremy thought with sudden awareness.
"You're looking well, Jeremy," she said in a low, pleasant and intriguingly soft voice. Only her head drooped slightly before she forced it back up.
Touché, Jeremy thought, catching that slight movement. She knew his situation and she was determined to tough it out and pretend that nothing was wrong with him.
He stepped closer and took a deep breath. Might as well wade in. Anyone who took on this job would have to face some difficult situations, possibly some uncomfortable conversations. It was time to begin the assessment in earnest.
"The Eden I once knew would never have been bold enough to tell me that I was looking well," he suggested, dropping his voice slightly.
Eden stilled as if uncertain how to react, but she raised her chin still higher. "The Eden you once knew doesn't exist any longer."
He nodded, even though he didn't totally believe her. Everyone carried around pieces of their old selves. He certainly did.
"Well then, welcome, to the new Eden." Jeremy held out his hand. She placed hers in it. Ever so briefly, he wrapped his fingers around hers. His awareness of her as a woman deepened, but he didn't let it show. When he'd been young, his anger at his fate and his spiteful guardian aunt had led him into deliberately reckless behavior that won the admiration of his peers and sent his aunt into a rage. But even then, he'd never involved innocents like Eden in his games. Shy, impoverished females had offered risks he hadn't wanted to deal with.
They still did, and now, more than ever, he tried to control his emotions. Never reveal weakness, never get close to anyone had always been the code he lived by. These days, with his future too complicated and uncertain to even consider getting involved with a woman, his physical reaction to Eden was a sure sign that he should send her away. Still, he had promised Ashley he would give her cousin a fair chance.
"Why don't you have a seat and we'll talk." He gestured toward a bank of sofas, then kept a distance behind Eden as she moved toward them. She was compact and slim, and her movements were graceful. He frowned at the fact that he had been unable to keep from noticing that. The way Eden looked when she moved had nothing to do with this job.
Jeremy pushed his reaction aside. He rested his hips against a cherrywood sideboard that dated to colonial times. "Ashley's a skilled human resources representative, and she believes that you're the best person for the job I'm trying to fill."
"Yes, I know. And I've always respected her opinions."
Jeremy couldn't help smiling at the audacity of her statement. Had she blushed when she said that? He couldn't be certain. Colors were getting to be a problem, but he was almost certain that she had blushed.
Interesting. Remembering that younger, shyer Eden, he wondered how much of her assertiveness was an act. The job in question dealt with sensitive issues, and the person he hired had to be just right. He wished he could read her expression better, but there were only six feet between them and at such close range the angle was wrong. Her face wasn't in focus.
Frustration boiled up, but he carefully tamped it down. His limitations weren't her fault.
"Ashley led me to believe that you'd welcome this position despite the fact that neither she nor you knows more than the basic requirements and none of the details. Forgive me, but while that tells me that you need the work, this is a special job. It requires honesty and trust, and I have to know exactly who I'm hiring. Despite growing up near each other and having a passing acquaintance, you and I don't have enough of a history for me to offer you the position without knowing more about you than I already do."
And there it was. For the first time Eden looked genuinely flustered and nervous. Her hands clutched at her skirt, tightening on the cloth. Even he could see that sudden telling movement. Still, despite the way she suddenly shifted in her seat and the deep, audible breath she took, she stared directly at him. "I'm afraid what little you know of me isn't particularly complimentary. Our past association
at least that one day
was something I've regretted."
Eden's voice wobbled slightly, but she held his gaze, dropping that live-ember confession into the conversation. Suddenly the tension rolled in, the past stepped into the present and the elephant he'd been ignoring so far ran loose in the library. Jeremy knew exactly what Eden was referring to. On a day long ago, just before he'd left for college, he had come across her bent over her dog, which had died. Jeremy didn't remember much about the poor animal except that it had been gray with age. What he remembered was how Eden had looked as if she was unaware of who and what he was for the first time. She had launched her delicate little grief-racked body against him. He remembered how she had held on and clutched at him as he had done what would surely have been natural for anyone in such a situation. Without even thinking, he had placed his arms around her and held her as she had sobbed out her misery. And then, when her last sobs had faded away, she had lifted her tear-streaked face, wrapped her thin arms around his neck and kissed hima hot, hard and fervently awkward kiss.
His body had instantly responded to the feel of warm, female flesh against his, but some shred of decency had kicked in. Given the situation, he had simply held on and let her kiss him, and soon she had pulled back, her lashes drooping with embarrassment as she stumbled and ran away. Three weeks later he had headed off to Yale and had not seen her since.
Now he relived that moment. She was apologizing, Jeremy realized, trying to clear the air, scrub the past away and move beyond it. Under the circumstances, a gentleman would probably pretend he had no memory of the incident, but if he ended up hiring Eden, he would have to share his own terrible secrets. There would have to be a great degree of trust between them. Pretending ignorance wasn't an option.
"What was your dog's name?" he asked gently.
"Elton," she answered without hesitation. Then she turned her head for a moment as if gathering her thoughts before facing him again. "I meant it when I said that I'm no longer the same person I once was," she said. "I doubt it was a secret that I had a huge crush on you. Every girl did, but that won't be a problem now. I'm no longer starry-eyed, and I'm not looking for a white knight to save me.
"In fact, for reasons of my own, I'm not interested in even the possibility of a relationship anymore, so if you hire me you won't have to worry about me getting all dreamy-eyed or running into walls whenever you're around, Jeremy. Or
or trying to kiss you again."
Just like that, sudden heat slipped through Jeremy's body. He ignored it. "It wasn't exactly a hardship having you kiss me, Eden, but you're right. This would be a different kind of relationship. You would be my employee. I wouldn't expect physical contact and I wouldn't try to kiss you, either."
She froze. He saw that much. "No, of course not," she said. "Jeremy, I'm only here because I need and want work. I'm here because Ashley thought I could help. I do have significant skills to offer."
Jeremy studied her for a moment, his admiration growing. Eden was still tense. Even with his poor vision, he could see her fingers curling and uncurling against her skirt. Yet she sat tall and straight and proud. She wasn't running, despite her discomfort.
"You don't really even know what the facts surrounding this job are yet," he said.
"No, I don't. I'll want to know the facts, of course, but I'm assuming you'll tell me what I need to know before either of us has to make a decision." The visual details of those gray eyes were indistinct, but Jeremy could nonetheless feel Eden's gaze resting on him. He breathed in deeply and caught a hint of a violetlike scent. No doubt it was the gathering darkness of his condition that forced him to rely on cues other than vision, but he was aware of Eden in a way he never had been. There was almost an electric hum buzzing between them, as if some primal toggle switch had been turned on that long-ago day when they touched, and he was now having difficulty turning it off. That wasn't good, and yet in these few moments he had decided that he was glad she wasn't a total stranger. Pride had gotten him through the worst moments of his life. He'd kept his secrets locked inside. Now he had even more secrets, and they were too painful and personal to trust to a stranger. The very thought of the situation that had made this job a necessity nearly doubled him over with regret and anger, but he forced himself to somehow keep standing and breathing. He concentrated on Eden, even though concentrating on her offered clear risks.
"I'll tell you what you want to know," he agreed, "before I ask you to take on this task, but I need to ask you some questions first."