closer. “When I saw you in those shorts, I imagined she told you I was coming and you were lying in wait…”

“As if I’d do-and, hey, it’s August. I…I have a perfect right to wear shorts,” she sputtered.

“Yes.” His gaze drifted over her appreciatively. “You look good in them. Too good-which I’m sure you know.”

“Gram didn’t tell me you were coming.”

“And she didn’t tell me to cancel my visit. I wonder why. Maybe she likes my company. Or maybe she’d prefer to sell to me. This old place and that brother of yours are way too much for her.”

“None of that is any of your business.”

“Your Tuck was running pretty wild, got himself fired from a bar because money went missing…”

“As if you know anything about Tuck. He doesn’t steal!”

Zach’s black brows arched. “Still thinking the worst of me while you defend everybody else. Your stepfather’s been giving me hell, too.”

The comparison to her stepfather cut her…deeply. Zach hadn’t been there for her when she’d needed him either, had he? He hadn’t cared…

Maybe because he hadn’t known.

“As a matter of fact, I like your grandmother. That’s why I hired Tuck. When I happened on him late one night, he’d had a flat tire. He didn’t have a spare or money or a credit card, and his phone was dead. So he accepted my offer to haul him to a service station and buy him a new tire on the condition that he become my pool and errand boy and work it off.”

“I see through your Good Samaritan act.”

“I was sort of suspicious about it myself.”

“You’re just using Tuck to get at me in some way. So go,” she whispered. “You are the last person I want involved with my family, especially with Tuck, who’s extremely vulnerable.”

“Well, sorry if my return to Bonne Terre upsets you, or if Tuck’s being my employee bothers you,” he said, not sounding the least apologetic. “But since I’ve got business in this town for some time to come, and Tuck works for me, I suppose you and I were bound to meet again…sooner or later.”

“Gambling? Is that your business?”

“Yes. What of it? You’re an actress, someone skilled at weaving seductive illusions. You sure seduced me with your little act. And I let you off easy. You should feel lucky. I’m not known for lenience with people who betray me.”

Easy? Lucky? New Orleans lay like a weight on her heart.

“All you see is your side.”

“I was the one who damn near got strung up because of your lies,” he said. “I’m the one who’s still found guilty every time some reporter decides to write another story about us.”

“Well, maybe you don’t know everything!” She stopped. She would never make the mistake of trying to confide in him. But despite her best intentions, she said, “You…you can’t believe I ever wanted to accuse you, not when I begged you to run off with me, and when it was my idea to…”

“To seduce me?” he finished.

His silky whisper and the intense fire in his black eyes rubbed her nerves raw.

“It wasn’t like that and you know it. I…I couldn’t help it if Thurman hated you for what I did.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves. You did what you did. I don’t give a damn anymore about why you did it.”

Shame and some darker emotion she didn’t want him to sense scorched her cheeks as she turned away from the coldness in his face. “If I could have undone what I did or said, or what I caused people to believe about you, I would have.”

“Hollow words…since you could have stepped up and cleared my name at any point. You didn’t. Like a fool, I waited for you to do just that. I was young. I believed in you back then.” His mouth tightened into a hard, forbidding line. “But, no, you ran off to New Orleans where you probably seduced somebody else.”

“There was never anyone but you…” She swallowed tightly. “I-I tried to apologize…and explain. You refused to take my calls. I even went to Houston looking for you after your uncle took you away, but you wouldn’t see me.”

“By then I knew what a talented manipulator you were.”

At his dark, unforgiving scowl, she sucked in a tortured breath. “If you hate me so much, why won’t you just go?”

“I don’t hate you. Frankly, I don’t consider you worth the waste of any more emotion. What I’m doing here isn’t about you. I’ve made a name for myself in other places. When Nick called me a few months ago, I realized I’d never let go of what happened here and neither have the people of this town or the media. Maybe I’ve decided it’s time I changed a few people’s minds.

“Your stepfather used to be the biggest man in these parts. Not anymore. I intend to be bigger than he ever was. I intend to make him pay for what he did-to kill him with kindness, bestowed upon his town.”

“I want you to leave Gram and Tuck alone. I’m buying this property from her because I won’t have you cheating her to get back at me.”

“You’d better not make accusations like that in public.”

“And you’d better stop trying to make me look bad to my grandmother, who’s started nagging me about not coming home often enough!”

“Haven’t you been neglecting her?”

“Well, if I don’t come home, it’s because of you. I-I can’t forget…when I’m home,” she finished raggedly.

Dark hurt flashed in his eyes but was gone so fast she was sure she’d only imagined it.

When he stomped toward the front door, she blocked his way. At her nearness, his hard body tensed. When their gazes locked, a muscle in his jawline jerked savagely. His breathing had roughened.

He wasn’t nearly as indifferent as he’d said.

Nor was she.

“Move aside,” he muttered.

Hurt, she lashed out. “No-this is my grandmother’s house. I won’t allow you to use her to get at me. So- leave.”

“Like hell!”

When she stood her ground, his hands closed over her forearms. But as he tried to edge her aside, she stomped down on his foot with her heel.

Cursing, he tightened his grip and crushed her against his muscular length.

Despite the unwanted shiver of excitement his touch caused, her tone was mild. “Would you please let me go?”

A dozen warring emotions played across his dark face as she struggled to free herself.

“I don’t think I will.”

Locking her slim, wriggling body to his made their embrace even more alarmingly intimate.

“You’re trembling,” he said. “Why? Are you acting now? Or do you feel what I…” He broke off with a look of self-contempt.

“Damn you for this,” he muttered. “You’re not the only one who can’t forget.”

Even if she hadn’t felt his powerful arousal against her pelvis, his blazing eyes betrayed his potent male need. Then his gaze hardened with determination, and she watched breathlessly as he lowered his mouth to hers.

“I shouldn’t do this,” he whispered fiercely, bending her backward, molding her even more tightly to the hard contours of his body. “God help me, I know what you are, what you did.”

“You did things, too…” He’d hurt her terribly. Yet she wanted him, ached for him.

“I can’t stop myself,” he muttered. “But then I never could where you were concerned.”

No sooner did his warm mouth close over hers than she turned to flame. If he’d flung her onto the chaise longue and followed her down, she would have forgotten the hurt that had turned her heart to stone for fifteen years. She would have ripped his jeans apart at the waist, sliding her hands inside.

She wanted to touch him, kiss him everywhere, wind her legs and arms around him and surrender completely- even though she knew his need was based on the desire to punish while hers was due to temporary insanity.

On a sigh, her arms circled his tanned neck, and she clung, welding herself to his lean frame in a way that told him all that she felt. She was a woman now, a woman whose needs had been too long denied. When he shuddered

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