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Savannah Salinger didn't like surprises.
Especially when the surprise was Jake Barnes, living, breathing, looking far too goodand standing four feet in front of her. In her office. Where she was supposed to be in control.
"Jake," she said, damning the waver in her voice. She stood and walked out from behind her desk toward him. Her heart jackhammered with a suffocating fear she couldn't take time to either rationalize or dismiss. All she knew was she couldn't let him see how his reappearance affected her. Could not let him notice her hands were shaking and sweating.
"Savannah." His frown disappeared as he eyed her with blatant approval. "What a surprise." He eased his mouth into the grin she remembered wellsixty percent cocky, forty percent pure sexy. Fortunately, Savannah was one hundred percent immune to male charmhis and everyone else'sthese days.
"What in the world are you doing here?" she asked.
"I have a meeting with Zach Rundle," Jake said. "Two o'clock."
"He has " She stepped over to Zach's desk, which lay along the back wall, and glanced at the oversize October calendar where he jotted down his appointments. "A two o'clock with the owner of the Levine land."
She peered up at Jake, eager to determine his reaction to being wrong about his meeting. Anxious to get him out of there.
"That'd be me."
She tilted her head in confusion. "I thought the owner was Odessa Levine."
"I'm here on her behalf. She's my grandmother."
Savannah opened her mouth, then closed it again. "So we're working with you."
"You're the one who's going to sell us the land?" She watched his face for a clue to his plans.
"We'll see how it goes," Jake said, shrugging one shoulder and gazing around the room.
Crossing her arms and leaning against the front of her desk, Savannah perused him, refusing to be intimidated by his nonchalance. Or his good looks.
His dark hair was just long enough to be messy on top, in a fresh-out-of-somebody's-bed way that could pique a woman's imagination. Eyes the color of melted chocolate followed her, missing nothing. He was all angles and tautness and confidence.
"Does Zach realize he's meeting with you instead of your grandmother?"
"I do." At that moment Zach, Savannah's boss and brother-in-law, entered the undersized, overfurnished construction office from the back shop area. He wiped off his hands on his jeans, brushed his brown hair off his face and extended a hand to Jake. "Zach Rundle. You must be Jacob Barnes."
"Call me Jake. Pleasure."
"You never mentioned his name," Savannah said stupidly to Zach.
"You two know each other?" he asked.
"We grew up together." Her chin rose a notch as she met Jake's eyes.
"It's been awhile," Jake said in that deep, husky voice of his, returning her stare, their past hanging heavily between them.
"What are you doing back in town?" she inquired, striving for friendliness.
"Family stuff. Researching land options for my grandma, for one thing."
Zach switched into business mode at the reminder, and the two men headed into the adjacent conference room and shut the door. Savannah slumped into her chair, relieved that Zach hadn't invited her to join them, as he often did.
She closed her eyes, wondering what to do about Jake, and about the way her heart was pounding. Keeping him out of her personal life was of the utmost importance. Yet buying that land from Jake's grandmother was vital to Zach and the company, which of course meant it was vital to her. She had to play nice and focus on their business goal until Jake got the heck out of town. And hope like crazy he'd leave none the wiser.
Jake stretched his legs out under the conference table as Rundle went to grab a folder he'd left on his desk. Fancy running into Savannah Salinger here, on his second day back in Lone Oak. Sure, it was a one-horse town, but he'd barely left his grandmother's house where he was staying since getting in. Hadn't really encountered anyone besides his grandmother and sister. Nevertheless, the odds of meeting up with the one woman who'd always gotten his attention were slim to none. Especially at a construction company.
He let his mind wander to the last day he'd seen her his final day in Lone Oak. Nearly twelve years ago. He could still recall her eyes lowering with regret. Embarrassment. Loathing, for both herself and him.
Jake straightened in his chair, every muscle in his body tense as he fought to push the memories aside. He needed to be on an even keel for this meeting, not affected by this hardheaded woman from his past.
Rundle walked back into the room, said hardheaded woman following him.
"Savannah's my detail girl," Rundle said. "She keeps track of everything, so I invited her to join us."
Jake nodded, reminding himself this was just like any other meeting he'd had back in Montana. Merely business.
He tried not to focus on how her sweater stretched across her chest as she settled in the chair next to Rundle. When Jake raised his glance to her face, tension buzzed between them.
"Why don't we get down to business, unless you two have some more catching up to do," Rundle proposed.
"We're caught up and then some," Savannah said.
Jake leaned back in his chair and motioned for the other man to go ahead.
"We're very interested in your grandmother's land."
"You and a long list of others," Jake said. "Seems it's in a particularly hot spot."
"It is. It's along the route the new road will take."
"The one that will shorten the commute time to the university."
"Supposed to turn Lone Oak into a bedroom community. God knows this town could use a boost, before it falls off the map."
Jake leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. "My grandma has lived on that land for ages. Its value is more than monetary to her. She wants to have a say in what it becomes."
"May I inquire why she sent you to meet with us?" Savannah said.
"She's eighty-one years old. Her mind is sharp, but she has trouble getting around."
"So you came back to town to handle this for her?" Rundle queried.
"I came back for other reasons, but she asked me to check into options while I'm here. I build high-end custom log homes in Montana, so I know a bit about property development."
"I'd say you probably do." Rundle sat up straighter.
"I'd like to get an idea of what you intend to do with my grandma's land."
"We plan to build a whole community. Single-family dwellings, apartments, a couple commercial buildings, a community center with a pool, convenience store and gym. Trees and green space."
"Sounds pretty progressive for Lone Oak, Kansas," Jake said. But he was intrigued. He'd expected the status quo.
"Maybe. Or maybe changes would return the town to what it used to be. Make it once again a friendly community where folks could get to know their neighbors, walk to the store for a loaf of bread."
"That sounds promising," Jake murmured. "My grandmother wants something developed that will be important to people."
"What's more important than homes?" Savannah asked, her tone defensive. "A neighborhood where people can put down roots, settle in, stay for years. That's the goal."
Zach glanced sideways at her, as if he wasn't used to her speaking up at meetings.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find a better plan for your grandma's land," she continued. "Unless you consider a sprawling industrial park a decent idea"
"What Savannah's trying to say," Rundle interjected, "is that we invite you to hear everyone out. Meet with the others who've expressed an interest in the land. We feel confident our vision is the best thing for Lone Oak."
"I've got another meeting this afternoon, as a matter of fact," Jake admitted. "But I can tell you're both very passionate about this scheme."
Savannah always had been passionate, to a fault. They'd argued over many subjects through the years. It was nice to find growing up hadn't mellowed her.
Jake posed several questions. Rundle had answers for everything, albeit vague ones. But Jake couldn't fault him for that. The guy had no reason to trust him yet. Only an idiot would hand over detailed plans at this stage.
Jake studied Rundle, from his plaid flannel shirt over a white T-shirt to his calm, steady gaze. Rundle was a couple of years older than himJake remembered his name, recalled how his brother had been responsible for the accident that killed Savannah's mom. Interesting that Savannah was working for him and seemed to have gotten over the past. He discovered nothing that suggested arrogance or dishonesty in Rundle now, and he appreciated that. His first impression was that he could work with this guy, and first impressions were usually reliable for Jake.
The worst part of Heartland Construction so far was that Savannah came with it. But he wasn't going to let the past or a woman get in the way of what was best for his grandmother whatever that turned out to be.
Having all the information he required for now, Jake stood and exchanged business cards with Rundle.
"Thanks for your time," the man said. "Give me a call if you'd like more information for Mrs. Levine."
The three of them strolled out of the conference room. Jake shook hands with Rundle again and left, thinking about the development they'd discussed. The project was actually something he could get behind. But ultimately, the decision was his grandmother's. He would advise her as much as she wanted, but the land was hers.
"What'd you make of that?" Savannah asked once Jake had left.
Zach put his files down and shrugged. "He was impossible to read. Could go either way. Sounds like he knows his stuff, though."
"What if he chooses someone else?" She hated so much that Jake Barnes was in a position to affect their entire business.
"Then we find another project." He pulled his attention from the papers he'd been shuffling. "You're too worked up about this, Savannah. There's not a lot we can do except present our case the best we can. We just did that."
In other words, they were powerless. Savannah dragged her hands through her long hair with a huff of frustration. "I have to go get the kids," she said as she extracted her purse from her bottom desk drawer. "I'll see you in a while."
As Jake got on his Harley, helmet in his hands, someone exited the front door at Heartland. Savannah. He was parked along the street about two doors down from her, and couldn't help observing as she moved quickly, single-mindedly, ignoring everything around her.
She headed toward the beat-up blue minivan parked in front of him, her wavy, reddish-brown hair flying behind her, and was about to climb in the driver's side when she spotted him. Savannah stopped in her tracks, those brown eyes of hers focused on him.
She tossed her purse into the van, then stared at her feet for a moment, as if gaining control of her temper or else gathering her nerve. She'd never been the type who needed to bolster her courage. Never worried much if she lost her temper, either, now that he thought about it. He watched her curiously from behind his dark glasses.
He noticed her shoulders rise before she turned toward him and approached. That was strange. Atypical for this normally confident, look-out-world-I've-got-something-to-say woman.
She had plenty to be confident about, too. Dressed in slender black pants that showed off her long legs, and a sweater that fell midway down her thighs and was clasped by a single tie across her chest, she somehow managed to appear sexy and professional at once.
It would've been better for him if she'd aged ungracefully. He didn't want to be attracted to her. Instead, she was just as appealing as she had been as a teenager. More so, actually, because now her curves had filled out completely and she had a look that said she'd lived life and had an inner strength to deal with whatever it threw at her. And yet, as she moved toward him, he detected a hint of uncertainty.
"Hi," she said softly as she drew to a stop right next to him.
"Hey. What's up?"
She chewed the inside of her cheek briefly. "Zach's plan is the best you'll find."
"I have to make sure of that."
"How can you argue about a place where people want to raise their kids?"
"I can argue anything with you."
She scowled at him, then glanced over her shoulder. She took a deep breath and put her hand on his bike. He eyed her, waiting for her to remove it.
"I never pictured you on a motorcycle."
"You pictured me, though, huh?" He shot her a lopsided grin.
That was all it took to get her to drop her hand. "I didn't say that ." She crossed her arms. "Still just as cocky as ever, I see."
"That's the way you always liked me."
"I never liked you."
"That's not exactly how I remember it."
She swallowed and pierced him with those eyes. "Back to the land Are you going to sell it to us, or are you just going to play games?"
"You really think I'll tell you my plans?"
Fire flashed in her eyes. Here was a much more familiar Savannah than the one he'd seen so far. A thought occurred to him. "Is there something between Rundle and you?"
Savannah laughed for the first time, and he was yanked back to the days they'd run in the same crowd. That laugh had always made him want to hear it over and over.
"Me and Zach?" she said. "Seriously?"
"You can't expect me to believe you don't have a man in your life." Jake didn't allow himself to consider why he wanted to know.
"I don't. And if I did, I can tell you with total certainty it wouldn't be Zach. He's my brother-in-law."
Jake felt the tightness ease out of his neck. "Seems your interests are pretty wrapped up in this company. Your livelihood, your brother-in-law's, your sister's "
"That's why I'm standing here in the street, talking to you."
"Wouldn't be caught dead with me otherwise, would you?" Anger from the past seeped into his voice.
One of Savannah's knuckles cracked and Jake remembered that had always been the telltale sign she was pissed, liable to tear someone's head off. Getting a reaction from her satisfied some twisted part of him deep inside.