Wonderful . . . Linda Francis Lee delights readers. -- Rachel Gibson--USA Today bestselling author
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Before turning her hand to writing, Linda Francis Lee taught probability and statistics. Lee is also the author of Dove’s Way, Swan’s Grace, Nightingale’s Gate, The Ways of Grace, and Looking for Lacey. She currently lives with her husband, Michael, in New York City, where she is at work on her next novel.
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She saw him the minute she walked in the door.
He was beautiful, with dark hair, blue eyes, and chiseled features. Combined with those amazing looks, there was a raw sensuality rippling through his broad shoulders beneath his starched, white, button-down shirt.
He stood behind his desk, talking into the phone. He had a commanding presence that was at once primal and ruthless. It was a well-known fact that Maxwell Bowden Landry of MBL Holdings went after what he wanted and got it.
Vivienne Stansfield shook the thought away, her long, black-lacquer hair trailing down her back. Her eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, her rosebud lips painted a provocative shade of pink that matched her perfectly manicured nails.
Her skirt was short, her heels were high, her legs long. All in all, she was a beauty with a movie-star shimmer, and anyone seeing her would have sworn she knew it.
As if sensing she was there, he turned and saw her through the office window. His entire body seemed to go still, his eyes darkening. He looked at her with a single-minded intensity that made sensation spin through her, her breath growing uncomfortably shallow, heat flaring, settling low. He looked at her with something deeper than simple recognition, as if he knew her.
For half a second her world seemed to slow as she tried to remember a previous meeting. But then his face cleared, and he gestured for her to enter, though he was still on the phone.
Regardless, he wasn't the reason she had come to MBL Holdings. The company was one of the largest conglomerates in Texas, handling land development, construction, and real estate. MBL was said to have a lock on any real estate transaction in the Lone Star state. And Vivienne needed a house.
She already knew what she wanted. Despite what everyone assumed she would buy, she was looking for something small, quaint--something that needed fixing up.
She struggled to keep her excitement covered by the reserved facade the newspapers wrote about. Her father would expect nothing less. Though it was all well and good for Jennings Stansfield to act however he wanted, Vivienne Stansfield was expected to be a perfect china doll.
Most of the time she managed to keep the crystalline veneer in place. But sometimes it was hard. If she wasn't concentrating, she laughed too loud, smiled too much. Once she'd been caught doing the Wave at a UTEP basketball game, even though she'd been sitting alone in her father's private box. It had looked like fun--like a fascinating taste of normal.
An assistant led her across the carpeted expanse, phones ringing, people talking, several men stopping what they were doing to stare.
"Is that Vivienne Stansfield?" she heard someone whisper.
Vivienne raised her chin, her expression composed, praying she wouldn't trip on her high heels.
She made it into Max Landry's office, her fuchsia handbag swinging delicately on her wrist, and instantly she knew coming there was a mistake. If she thought he had presence when she saw him across the busy office, when he was only a few feet away she could all but feel the barely contained energy of him charging the room. He exuded power, untamed despite the civilized surroundings of exquisite paintings and fine leather chairs, making her heart beat hard and her knees fuse in a way that she didn't understand.
But that didn't stop her from sitting down and fighting back a blush when she noticed the way he studied her as he listened to what someone was saying to him on the phone. He seemed to strip her naked with his gaze, taking her in. She had the sudden, unexpected image of him in bed, the sheets barely covering his naked hips, as he moved slowly, deeply, his weight supported on his forearms as he watched a woman's passion.
He hung up, bringing her completely inappropriate imaginings to an end. Then he came around the desk and leaned back against the hard edge.
"Miss Stansfield?" A moment of hesitation as if he were testing.
She looked at him curiously. "Have we met?"
He appeared to consider his answer. "No, we've never met. I'm Max Landry."
She shook his hand, feeling the heat of him when his large palm closed around hers. She was sure he was correct. There was no way she would have forgotten this man. "Please, call me Vivi."
Anyone who knew her called her Vivi, though the Living Section of the El Paso Tribune seemed set on, "Vivienne Stansfield, the twenty-six-year-old pampered princess of one of the oldest, and more eccentric, families in town."
That was from the newspaper that actually liked her. The rival gossip-filled rag that didn't had called her an "overgroomed show dog who had more shoes than Imelda Marcos."
Vivi fought back a cringe when she remembered. She really did love her shoes.
She glanced at Max, his arms crossed over his chest, the seams of his handmade shirt showing a hint of strain at the broadness of his shoulders, and she wondered if he had read the articles. But then she reminded herself that it was easier to act as if she didn't care.
Besides that, regardless of what people thought of her or her father, she loved Jennings Stansfield. And truth be told, he was a bit on the eccentric side. When he played golf, he wore a large-brimmed Stetson like some holdover from the days of Dallas, only he mixed it with lime green and bright orange polyester plaid pants, not to mention his personalized golf cart with the longhorn cattle horns attached to the front. No one who met Jennings Stansfield forgot him. He didn't do anything in an ordinary, low-key fashion. If he had a point to make, he made it with grand, larger than life gestures.
Beyond that, Vivi also loved being the fiance of Grady Pence--steady, kind, perfectly normal Grady with his sandy blond hair and sweet smile. She had no business noticing the notorious Max Landry and his straining shirt seams when she was already engaged to the dearest man in town.
"I'm sorry that Racine didn't get in touch to let you know she couldn't make the appointment. As I understand it, her daughter became ill at school," Max explained. "But she should have called."
He looked at her a second longer, that curious expression resurfacing, laced with an indefinable hardness that she doubted ever completely disappeared. He leaned back and glanced at his schedule that lay open on his desk. Then he stood.
"As long as you're here, I can run you over to see the house now," he offered.
"Me? I mean, you? To see the house?" She coughed delicately into her hand, her ice queen facade trying to melt beneath the idea of going anywhere with him.
"It won't take long."
She told herself to say no. She was engaged to be married. Happily taken. Unavailable.
"I'd like that," she said instead, a tiny sighing breath escaping her lips.
Max called out to his assistant. "Hattie, get me the keys for the Reynolds place."
The woman looked confused. "But you have the staff conference call at three."
"Reschedule. I should be back in an hour."
Vivi felt as surprised as Hattie looked that Maxwell Landry was taking her to see the house. Deep down, she knew it was because her father was too important a man to upset. As a result, MBL himself was showing her the property after one of his salespeople had stood her up. Simple enough. It had nothing to do with her, or the way he had looked when he saw her through the glass.
He pulled on a sports jacket, then guided Vivi down the mirrored and marble elevator to a private parking lot at the back of the building and a sleek black Mercedes sedan. She tried to ignore the feel of his palm resting lightly on the curve of her back, tried to pretend she wasn't aware of him at all.
With a minimum of ceremony, he helped her into the car, then pulled out onto Mesa Street, racing along with one hand on the wheel as he took two phone calls, giving crisp orders as they turned left then right, then left again. Every trace of awareness evaporated as Vivi gave a quick test to her seat belt just when they started to climb the narrow roads that cut along the mountain.
Flipping the cell phone closed, he pulled the car over to the side with smooth efficiency. Max leaned forward and pointed. "Up there," he said. "That's it."
Vivi had to crane her neck, but even then all she could see was a centuries-old stone weather station.
Max shrugged. "I know, it's hard to imagine, but they turned it into a house."
He glanced over at her with still no hint of a smile, only a dark sensuality that burned through her like the West Texas sun.
"Do I look like the type who'd kid, Vivienne?"
This time she studied him, his use of her full name seeming as intimate as a touch. "I'm not sure what to think, about you or the house," she replied honestly. "But I am sure that my idea of the perfect home isn't a weather tower."
She would have sworn she saw a hint of a smile somewhere deep inside his exacting exterior, like something tightly held had eased just a fraction.
"Come on," he said, his eyes seeming to glimmer, "where's your sense of adventure?"
"I'm saving it up for the drive back." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm more of the turn signal and hands at ten and two type when I drive."
With that he did smile. It was amazing, and did strange things to her pulse.
"Just have a look," he urged. "Then I promise to return you to the office in one piece."
The words came out as a rumbling purr that raced along her senses. When she didn't say no, he shifted into gear, the car sliding back onto the road.
They climbed higher up the winding lane into the startling blue sky, then parked at the curb. She could feel his hand again as he guided her up the walkway to the house, then pushed through a beautifully aged oak-plank front door. Stepping into a Spanish tile foyer, she could see straight through the living room to glass windows that seemed hammered into the thick stone walls. The city spilled out below.
"It's . . ." She hardly knew what to say.
"Yes. But in a powerful way."
"I know," he said with a quiet assurance. "We just got the listing."
She cocked her head. "I'm surprised you show real estate."
"I don't. I haven't shown property in years." He shoved his hands in his pockets, making him look boyish despite the hard line of his jaw.
Somehow standing near this man with his powerful sensuality made reality fade away, unsettling her, though she didn't feel unsafe.
"Come on," he said, "I'll show you around."
She followed him, her high heels clicking against the tile and wood floors. He showed her the kitchen, gesturing toward the stove, then pulling open the refrigerator, even popping open the trash compactor.
Her facade cracked a bit more, enough that she laughed out loud. "If MBL Holdings goes down the drain, you could get a job on The Price Is Right."
He raised a dark brow, his lips crooking at one corner. "I'll leave game shows to Hollywood."
"Who would have guessed that the infamous Max Landry wasn't interested in the spotlight?"
"Not that I know of."
"Then you should start reading the newspapers. You get written up nearly as often as I do."
He studied her without responding. She felt hot and cold all at once. Feeling awkward and in over her head, she walked to the pantry. Too late she realized she had to step in front of him to get there. She could smell the scent of him, warm and fresh, clean like soap.
"Oh" was all she could manage on a soft exhale of breath, before she gave a nonchalant wave of her hand to cover her nervousness, only to knock an acrylic cup off the counter. The sound of plastic clattering on tiles echoed against the walls, until the cup rolled to a stop at the toes of her high heels.
Max bent down to pick it up, kneeling before her, his hand at her feet, the sleeve of his sports jacket brushing against her shin. Suddenly she was aware of her short skirt, of his head so close that if she reached out just a little she could run her fingers through his hair.
"So, the newspaper is raking me over the coals." A deep ruggedness tinged his voice.
Her throat was dry and parched. "Actually, they go fairly easy on you--"
But her words cut off when he rose slowly, cup in hand, their bodies caught between the counter and the pantry.
Silence surrounded them, the rhythmic tick of the kitchen clock suddenly deafeningly loud, and she was certain he would touch her. Her palms grew damp, and her heart beat so hard she could hear blood rushing through her ears.
His gaze drifted to her lips, then lower to the line of her neck. Her sunglasses were gone, no longer hiding her eyes. She didn't understand the feeling of insanity that swept through her, the sensation of heat and desire. Or the very real wish to damn all else and reach out.
"They go easy on me, do they?" he asked, the words a rumble of sound that slid down her senses.
They were close, too close, and she could feel the startling heat of him. With effort, she tried to bring up the image of sweet, dear Grady, the man she was going to marry. But his soft lines wouldn't take shape.
She reasoned that it was not a surprise that she was unsettled. Given her parents' marriage and subsequent divorce, not to mention her father's long line of brides over the years, she'd be insane not to be a little bit wary of marriage. And this interlude, these wayward, completely inappropriate thoughts, were a direct result of a perfectly understandable spurt of cold feet.
Thankfully, Max stepped away, making it possible for her to breathe.
"Let me show you the garage."
"Tools and car parts. The adventure never ends."
He glanced back at her, his brow lifting, his full, sensual lips pulling into a smile. "I never thought of you as having a sense of humor."
"You've thought of me?" she asked, surprised.
But he had already opened the door and slipped into darkness. A switch clicked, and light flooded the space.
She saw the three-bay garage and made some inane remark before they moved on to the dining room and baths. She saw each one of them without really seeing. No matter how hard she tried to ignore him, she couldn't. She was aware of every accidental brush of his arm, every movement of his hands. She felt mesmerized by his voice, by the way he walked, confident, predatory.
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