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"After all, dear, you're not getting any younger," Charlotte Harrington's grandfather stated in a tone that made intelligent, self-assured adults quake in their shoes.
Not getting any younger? "Twenty-nine isn't exactly elderly."
"There's more to life than work."
Charlotte blinked. Since when had Edward Harrington thought about anything other than his precious chain of resorts?
"I only want to see you happy and settled with a husband and family. I want to hold my great-grandson before I die." He gestured to the man beside him. "Since you haven't found a suitable husband on this godforsaken island, I thought I'd help you out."
Perry Thurman held out both hands. "I miss you, darling."
Charlotte almost gagged. Perry wore his toothpaste smile and tailor-fit Armani with all the confidence of Edward's handpicked protégé. She drew a measure of satisfaction from the bump on his nose. Only the two of them knew the history of that little flaw.
Edward clapped Perry on the back. "Charlotte, Perry came to me and confessed that what happened between you two in college was entirely his fault. Give him another chance."
Her nails dug into her palms. Perry's sincerity might fool some, but not her. There wasn't enough air in the room. She walked across her office and opened the shutters. Think, Charlotte. She glanced out at the beach where sunbathers baked on the clean white sand. She felt like the damsel in distress in one of her grandmother's romance novels. Perry fit the part of the despicable groom to perfection, but this was the twenty-first century and Charlotte wasn't buying into the plot.
She turned from the window to face Edward. "You, the man who lives and breathes work, are giving me advice about love?"
"There are a few things in my life I'd do differently. We all live with regrets."
Like being away on a business trip the day your wife died?
"At least hear me out before you reject my plan." Edward smiled that I-know-what's-best-for-you smile. "It's time you and Perry were back in Boston learning the ropes. Taking a more active role in Harrington's."
Charlotte caught her breath. Running Harrington's had always been her dream. Five years ago, she'd have jumped at a chance at a management position at the head office. But here in the Keys and away from her grandfather, she'd become accustomed to making her own decisions. She couldn't go back to working under Edward Harrington's thumb. And with Perry there, Boston sounded more like a prison sentence than a dream.
"Perry's done a phenomenal job with the Monte Carlo resort."
Typically, Edward seemed more interested in Perry's professional credentials than his husband potential. So much for the new family-first Edward Harrington. Begrudgingly Charlotte had to admit that Perry's profit margin was the highest in the chain. So why had he given up the prestige of running the Monte Carlo resort? His idea or Edward's?
"But what about this resort?" she protested. "I've turned Marathon Key into one of the most elegant, profitable resorts in South Florida." She glanced at the gold-framed diplomas, certificates and hotel awards on the wall behind her desk. "I was helping run it even before Daddy died."
"I already have several investors interested in taking this monstrosity off our hands."
"You're selling my hotel?" Marathon Key was all she had left of her father.
Edward glanced around. "It's the oldest resort in the chain. Nobody pays prime rates to come to the Keys nowadays when it's just as easy to hop a jet to the Mediterranean."
How quickly he dismissed everything she'd accomplished. Her chauvinist grandfather didn't have enough confidence in her to realize she could run her own hotel business without the help of a man.
"If you intend to sell Marathon anyway, then sell it to me. I can give you a hundred thousand down by tomorrow." It'd be tight, but some decent investments combined with her inheritance would cover it.
Edward clasped his hands together and smiled. "I'll do you one better. Marry Perry, move back to Boston and I'll sign Marathon over to you as a wedding present. You can play with it in your spare time. Bring your children down here for vacations."
So, the truth finally came out. He interpreted her hard work building up this resort as playing. Watching the two men exchange self-assured grins, she steamed. The conniving rats expected her to just fall in line with their conspiracy.
"You and Perry could make a good life together."
Perry eased behind her desk and took both her hands in his. "We were young. I was stupid. Any way you could find it in your heart to forgive me? Give me another chance?"
She pulled her hands out of his grasp and shot him a go-to-hell look. Did he actually think she'd fall for his preposterous act? She wasn't the naive coed she'd been six years ago. Dimples and an expensive suit wouldn't fool her again.
Leaning close, he nuzzled her ear. "Don't be like this, darling. We'll make a great team, both personally and professionally. Just like we planned."
She flinched at his touch. The only thing Perry was interested in was getting to the top. He didn't care whom he had to use, step on or obviously even marry to get there.
A quick tap on her office door drew her attention. Without waiting for an invitation, the local Casanova strolled into the room. "Hey, Charlie, we got a problem. My boat's on the blink again."
Today was turning into a real winner.
"Charlie?" Edward sputtered. "You allow employees to call you Charlie? How can you run a resort of this caliber without respect for management?"
She bit her tongue to keep from snapping back. At least they were in agreement about one thing. Only Aaron Brody would enter her office unannounced and only Aaron called her Charlie. The man had no concept of propriety or manners. It was a miracle he managed to keep his charter business afloat. Literally. This was the third time in two months he'd had to cancel a tour because his boat wasn't running.
Ignoring her grandfather's comments, Aaron folded his tanned arms across his chest and winked at Charlotte.
She did a double take. What was up with that? Did he realize what he'd walked in on? She studied his face. She'd never been able to decipher the strange workings of his mind. Mr. Brody was a law unto himself. She'd long since given up on him behaving properly.
The first time she'd seen Aaron Brody, he'd been working on his boat. That situation hadn't changed much over three years. The image of his sweaty tanned chest and long legs dusted with sun-bleached hair was seared in her memory.
Cocky, independent Aaron would never get caught in a position like this. He'd probably tell Edward to go straight to hell.
As she studied him, an idea took form. Would Aaron go along with it? Either way, she wasn't about to lose this resort without a fight. But marrying Perry Thurman to keep it wasn't an option.
Trying not to act awkward, Charlotte sauntered up to Aaron and slipped her arm around his waist. She stared him straight in the eyes and smiled. "Aaron isn't an employee, Edward." Please let him follow her lead. She turned her head to watch the expression on her grandfather's face. "I'd like you to meet my fiancé, Aaron Brody."
Edward's jaw dropped.
She deliberately didn't introduce Perry as she beamed at her speechless grandfather. She tried to present the picture of calm confidence, but inside her stomach lurched. What now? Aaron surely thought she was a lunatic.
Edward glanced at her bare ring finger, leveled his pointed glare on Aaron, and demanded, "Is that true? Are you planning to marry my granddaughter?"
Locking gazes with Aaron, she silently pleaded with him to back her up. His eyes matched the murky green of the gulf right before a storm and were just as dangerous. She'd heard rumors of wild nights and wilder women. Hopefully he was crazy enough to take the challenge.
His body was a granite statue beneath her arm. Wiping her sweaty palm on the back of his shirt, she continued to hold his stare.
"Why would Charlie lie about a thing like that?" Aaron asked without looking Edward's way. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
Before she had time to register relief, he bent his head, slid a seductive hand inside the collar of her blouse, and caressed her bare neck. He leaned close, rubbed the tip of his nose against hers, and covered her lips with his.
She felt every thump of her heart, but her lips parted, following his lead. His tongue slowly traced the shape of her mouth. She gazed into his eyes and her body temperature rose ten degrees. His mouth was warm and intimate, nibbling and sampling as if her lips were a delectable slice of key lime pie.
As quickly as he'd swept her into his arms, he loosened his hold. A corner of his mouth twitched and a mischievous twinkle lit his eyes. "You left before I woke up this morning. You know I don't like that."
Charlotte reminded herself to close her mouth. She couldn't think of an appropriate response.
Perry paced across the room. "You can't be serious about throwing your life away on this this "
She turned her back on him and flashed Aaron a grateful smile. "I have no intention of throwing my life away." Hopefully this "engagement" would buy her enough time to send Perry packing.
Edward ran his gaze over Charlotte before focusing on Aaron. "Is that the way you dress for work?"
She glanced at Aaron's dirty khaki shorts and road-stripe-yellow T-shirt. His sneakers sported holes and engine grease stained his shirt and nails. Tufts of sun-streaked brown hair stuck out from under a battered khaki baseball cap. Typical dress for the Keys, but not her grandfather's idea of proper business attire.
Aaron shrugged and pointed to the faded green words, Brody's Charters, stenciled on the front of his shirt. "You got a problem with free advertising?" The two men never broke eye contact. "This is the Keys, pal. Not Boston."
"So, when's the wedding? Should I postpone my flight?"
She couldn't move. She should have expected Edward to call her bluff. She squeezed Aaron's waist. "We aren't planning a big ceremony. Spring break is about to hit. Maybe after that we'll go to a JP."
Edward frowned. "A justice of the peace?"
"Charlotte, please don't do this." Perry sounded truly pained.
She took a breath and pretended Perry wasn't in the room. Not too difficult with Aaron massaging the back of her neck.
He rubbed his stubbled chin with his other hand and eyed Edward. "You know, Charlie, since your grandfather's in town, maybe my pal Johnny could marry us on his boat. He's a captain. We could get married as early as say tomorrow."
Tomorrow? Her throat tightened. What was he doing? Did he think she was actually going to marry him?
Aaron flashed an innocent smile. "What do you say, Charlie?"
She felt like a swimmer trapped in a pool of circling male sharks. She offered her grandfather what she hoped was a pleasant smile. "Aaron and I need to talk. Could you give us a minute?"
She took Edward's arm and escorted him to the door. "Why don't you and Perry wait for us in the restaurant? Order lunch and we'll join you shortly."
Edward continued to watch Aaron.
Perry widened his eyes as if he were a parent instructing a child. "Don't let this guy rush you into something you'll regret."
She ignored him and pushed them out of her office.
The minute the door clicked shut she swiveled to face Aaron. "What are you up to?"
"Just playing along, sweetheart," he drawled, staring at her legs.
Smoothing her skirt, she stepped behind her desk. "I only want to make my grandfather think we're engaged. The idea here is not to marry anyone. You just have to pretend."
"The hell I will! Your grandfather's not stupid. He wants you married or you're going to lose this place. Right?"
She swallowed. Edward hadn't exactly threatened that, but he always had an agenda. As, apparently, did Aaron. He was acting too sure of himself, too in control. "Were you eavesdropping?"
He quirked one eyebrow, but didn't deny her accusation. His sneakers squeaked across the polished wood floor as he sauntered over to pick up a crystal paperweight off her desk.
"What do you want, Mr. Brody?"
He put the paperweight down and propped one khaki-covered hip on the corner of her imported, mahogany desk. "Same thing you do. To save my business."
"I'm not following."
He dug a crumpled pack of Camels and a red disposable lighter out of the pocket of his shorts and lit a cigarette.
Charlotte fanned her hand in front of her face. "Don't smoke in here."
He paused with the cigarette midway to his mouth and then took a long drag before pinching the fire out between his fingers and flicking it into her empty metal trash can.
"A hundred grand should get me back on the water in style." Studying the smoke ring floating to the ceiling, he didn't glance her way.
"You were eavesdropping. Don't try to con me."
"Careful. You'll hurt my feelings." One eyebrow arched. "Look, you need a husband to pacify the old man and save your hotel. I've got a boat that needs a major overhaul and my funds are tapped out. We need each other or we'll both be out of business."
She narrowed her eyes. "A hundred thousand dollars? You're insane. I don't need you that bad."
"Yeah, you do. You marry that self-centered slick and Granddaddy will still be yanking your chain. Percy will lick that old man's wing tips until he keels over. Your grandfather will probably even put the resort in Percy's name." He sat up straight and did a realistic impression of Edward. "Isn't proper for a business to be in a woman's name. The man runs things." He turned and flashed an enigmatic grin. "But hey? You'll be too busy popping out little Percys to have time to run a hotel, anyway."
"Don't be a wise guy," she hissed. "And his name is Perry." Interesting the way Aaron had pegged Perry in thirty seconds flat. Whereas her usually astute grandfather seemed to believe the guy had feelings for anything other than his bank account. Edward had substituted the brown-nosing smooth-talker for the son he'd lost. Perry excelled in every aspect where her father had fallen short. Advanced degree in hotel management, professional appearance, and above all, a willingness to dedicate every waking minute to the Harrington empire. Perry hadn't been born a Harrington, but it was almost as if he'd been vaccinated with Edward's DNA.
Aaron grinned. "Think about it. We stay married a few months. I keep out of your hotel business and put my boat back in shape. Grandfather backs off. We get a quiet divorce and everybody's happy. Beautiful plan."
"Ten thousand for a pretend engagement."
"Come on, Charlie." He shook his head. "Short of marrying Percy, I'm your best shot at ever owning this place."