Book # 1
Ethan Barron sped down Main Street in his hometown of Serendipity, New York with one thought only. You can’t outrun your past. He ought to know. He’d tried hard enough.
He was still trying, if buying the old Harrington Estate under a corporate name counted. But he had his reasons. It was one thing to let his brothers know he’d returned. He didn’t mind allowing the rest of the town time to squirm, wondering who’d purchased the town landmark from the SEC auction block. Ethan hoped the fate of the previous owner wasn’t a bad omen for him. He’d like the next phase of his life in Serendipity to be better than the last.
Ten years after taking off, he was back to face his past and make amends, if such a thing were possible. So far his younger brothers weren’t interested in any family reunion he had to offer. His recklessness had destroyed their lives and he’d compounded his mistakes by leaving town - and them to social services. They weren’t ready to forgive.
He was still working on forgiving himself.
Nash and Dare were adults now but Ethan owed them and he intended to prove they could count on him for the duration. Hopefully then they’d come around. And he’d be waiting, no matter how tough the road or how long it took. Buying the most prominent house in town was his first step. Evidence that he’d made something of himself and proof he was putting down roots, no longer the selfish ass who’d caused more trouble than he cared to remember.
As he approached the turn to the house he’d only been living in for three weeks, he noticed a woman standing on the grass beside the long driveway. He turned and slowed to a stop, parking and climbing out of his Jaguar, another concession to his success.
He walked towards his visitor, taking her in at a glance. The woman had shoulder length blonde hair and even in the heat of summer, she wore a dark pair of denim jeans and a collarless but clearly expensive jacket. Hearing his approach, she turned towards him, her eyes shaded by large black sunglasses masking her face. He didn’t recognize her and yet a flicker of something he couldn’t name passed through him.
“Anything I can do for you?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No. I was just taking a walk.” Her soft voice touched a memory deep inside him, but it was gone just as quickly.
“Well, this is private property.” He cocked his head toward the main road, hoping she’d take the hint.
He wasn’t in the mood for small talk with strangers. Although this well-put together female definitely sparked his interest, he wasn’t here for anything but family and setting the past right. No distractions. Not even sexy over-dressed ones. In his experience, those kinds of women were the most dangerous.
She lifted her glasses and her golden eyes seared him straight through to his soul as she held his gaze for a long, deliberate moment. Like she was judging him.
“Yep. Still an arrogant ass,” she muttered, her previously mellow voice now pissed off and angry.
She slipped the sunglasses back in place, squared her shoulders and headed down the road, turning her back on him just as he’d intended.
“Wait,” he called after her, the word coming out like a direct order.
“I’m not your damned yo-yo,” she tossed back over her shoulder and kept walking.
But he couldn’t let her go. “I said wait.” He took a quick jog to catch up with her and grabbed her arm.
“What?” she snapped at him and jerked her arm back, annoyed.
He inclined his head, unsure what had come over him. “Do I know you?” he asked, the answer niggling somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind.
“You tell me.” She lifted her glasses, this time perching them on top of her head, giving him a full view of her face and features for the first time.
Soft creamy skin with a hint of freckles, golden-brown eyes, and a perfect nose. Her pulse beat hard at the base of her throat, giving life to the memory that had been hovering just out of reach. Another hot steamy day, him on his motorcycle, her in her cheerleading outfit, walking from school to the house he now called home.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he muttered as more memories slammed into him.
He’d offered her a ride home that day. No one had been more shocked than him when she’d taken it. Instead of driving up the hill, he’d taken her behind an abandoned building in town and kissed her senseless. He’d wanted more. She’d rejected him.
He was right. He couldn’t outrun his past.
“So you do remember,” she said, her tone clearly challenging him.
He inclined his head. “The princess from the mansion on the hill,” he mused out loud.
She placed one hand on her hip. “What does that make you as the new owner? Prince Charming?”
So word had gotten out after all. He should probably thank his housekeeper Rosalita for that. She’d come with the house, needed the job, and didn’t like him at all. She provided him with all the gossip he didn’t want to know about the town of Serendipity and its inhabitants. She talked nonstop while she worked. Of course she’d tell the prior owner’s daughter who had bought their home.
“Well?” his trespasser asked, drawing him back to the present.
Ethan grinned. He liked her spunk and couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t remember you being a wise-ass.”
She raised a delicate eyebrow. “Maybe that’s because you didn’t know me all that well,” she said in the haughty tone he remembered.
“And whose fault was that?” He deliberately baited her, the memory of her rejection surprisingly strong after all these years.
Awareness and definite remembrance flickered in her gaze. He was struck by how those amber eyes still provided an open window to her soul. When he was younger, he’d been captivated, mesmerized by how pure and untouched she appeared compared to the girls he normally hung around with. Girls with a harder edge, willing to give it up to anyone but especially to him because he had a reputation for being bad and had no problem living up to it.
She’d been different. Special. Another reason her rejection had stung so badly.
Looks like he was facing an additional unresolved piece of his past, he thought, disgusted with himself for still caring. Although to be fair, she’d only been sixteen and a good girl at that. No way would she have put out for anyone, let alone him.
She shifted on her high heeled sandals.
Uncomfortable or restless to leave? Ethan chose the former. He’d like to think he’d gotten to her – the same way she got to him. Inside his skin just as she had way back when.
She flipped her glasses back onto her face. “Okay I think we’re finished reminiscing. You go home to your place.” She gestured up the hill. “I’ll go back to mine.”
“And where would that be?” All he knew of her family now was that her father was in jail, and her mother lived on the other side of town, a come down for a woman with her attitude and former wealth.
He hadn’t known the princess was back here at all. Apparently Rosalita had chosen to omit that bit of information.
“I’m renting a place over Joe’s on Main.” She tossed her hair in a way that indicated her new digs were no big deal.
He knew better. Joe’s was the local bar where guys like Ethan used to be hang out. But he knew not to pity her. “Interesting,” he said, instead.
“What is?” She pursed her glossed lips.
Definitely not a deliberate move, but seductive nonetheless and he longed for a hot, wet taste. Wondered what might have been if she’d given into temptation all those years ago.
But this was now and her question still hovered between them. “It’s interesting how the mighty have fallen.” No pity, just truthfulness, he thought and held her gaze, not backing down.
She raised her chin a notch. “Like I said, you don’t know me at all.”
“Then fill me in.”
She exhaled a puff of air and paused. Probably trying to decide how much to reveal, a feeling he understood too well.
“I came back for a fresh start,” she said at last. “I’ll be opening an interior design business in town. What about you?”
He shrugged. Easy enough question. “I own a weapons software development company.”
Her mouth opened then closed it again.
“Nope, didn’t end up in jail after all,” he said, catching the shock which had registered on her face.
“I didn’t think –“
He folded his arms across his chest. “Yeah, you did.”
The first hint of a smile pulled at her lips. “Okay so maybe I would have thought that, but you buying this house gave me a clue you’d turned things around.”
A hint of admiration touched her voice and though he appreciated the sentiment, he didn’t deserve it. He’d still screwed up a lot of people’s lives. But recent years had been better. He’d gone to college on the Army’s dime and put his affinity for computer simulation gaming to good use. After two tours of duty overseas, he’d ended up working at a military base stateside in the Management Information System department doing software related work and dabbling in his own development work on the side.
On graduation, he’d taken a job with Lockheed, but had chafed under their restrictions. He turned independent contractor, picked up a few contracts that enabled him to support himself and within a few years, he’d perfected a system that revolutionized the capabilities of the country’s next proposed fleet of military jets. He sold his system to the government, netting him a small fortune and enabling him to buy her old house.
None of which she’d care about. “And what were you doing here?” he asked, moving the subject away from himself.
They both knew he meant the land, the property, and specifically her old home.
She swallowed hard. He had no doubt the subject was a painful one. “I came to look,” she admitted. “To remember.”
He nodded, understanding. Her family’s fall from grace couldn’t be easy for her yet she’d come back.
Maybe they had common ground after all, he thought, finding a more than grudging respect for this woman and her strength. She was right. He hadn’t known her then. Didn’t know her now, but suddenly he wouldn’t mind rectifying that fact. If he’d had the time or energy to invest in someone who wasn’t family related.
“Look, I really need to get going,” she said. The heat’s killing me. I only meant to take a short walk through town. Next thing I knew I ended up here.”
As if on cue at the mention of the sweltering weather, he caught the bead of sweat trickling down her throat, her chest, disappearing between swells of her breasts, visible beneath the silk top she wore under her jacket.
He swallowed a groan. She was dangerous, all right. But he couldn’t let her walk back in those ridiculous shoes and she’d overheat in the damned clothes. “Come on. I’ll give you a ride back to town.”
She shook her head. “I appreciate it but –“
“It’s hot as hell and I’d bet my last dollar your feet are killing you. So come on.” He waited a deliberate beat. “Unless you’re afraid to be alone with me, Princess?”
Her breath caught in her throat and a slow but knowing smile tilted her lips. “You know I’m not.”
That quickly, they were back ten years and he was daring her to climb on his bike. And she had. She’d been afraid of him and he knew it, but she’d accepted the challenge and he’d never felt anything like it.
He wanted to experience that same rush again. Wanted to feel her arms wrapped around him, her body pressed against his, trusting him to keep her safe. But most of all he wanted to feel her fingernails digging into his skin – and not because they were riding a motorcycle. He remembered thinking that if the bike had gotten her that worked up, he could only imagine what she’d be like during sex. He’d wondered if she’d scream when he pounded into her and made her come. Hell, he’d been so hard for her on the ride, he’d barely been able to see straight to drive. He’d tried to ease the ache she’d caused. And of course she’d turned him down for that.
He couldn’t deny she affected him still.
He turned towards the car before she could notice. “Come on and I’ll drive you home.”
“One question first.”
He grit his teeth and glanced over his shoulder. “What?’
“Do you even remember my name? Or am I still just that spoiled princess to you?”
Oh, he remembered. He just liked Princess better. But from the determined look on her face, his answer mattered.
As if he’d forget. He’d taken a philosophy class his senior year in high school. The perky cheerleader had also been in that class, one of the few sophomores there. They’d been given an assignment to explore the meaning behind their names. For once, he hadn’t cut class and he’d been there the day she’d had to discuss hers. Her name had everything to do with unquestioning belief and complete trust. Something that no one had ever had in him. Ironically, he couldn’t remember what the hell his name meant, but he recalled hers.
“Well?” She tapped her foot impatiently.
He shook his head and let out a groan. “Get in the car … Faith.”
Faith Harrington bit down on the inside of her cheek. So Ethan remembered her name. Damnit. She had been looking for an excuse not to take the ride. Any reason to avoid being in an enclosed space with a man who was too sexy for words. If his bad boy persona had awed her as a teen, this new and improved adult version – too long jet black hair and all - took her breath away. Not that she’d let him know. Faith was finished letting any man have the upper hand.
But she’d take the ride. Her feet ached in her sandals and were probably swollen from her unexpected walk. She’d avoided her childhood home since her return to town a few weeks ago but she’d been drawn back today. For what, she didn’t know. Maybe she thought she’d try and see how she’d missed the signs that the father she’d adored had been another person entirely? A Bernie Madoff in disguise. He’d bankrupted the rich and the working class alike.
He’d duped everyone he came into contact with. Including his daughter.
His betrayal had ripped a hole in Faith’s heart the size of New York state - then her ex-husband had driven a Mac truck right through it, destroying everything that was left. She was free now and had been for the last six months, from her father whom she’d disowned and from Carter Moreland whom she’d divorced. She wanted nothing to do with either one. Instead she’d returned home to figure out who in the world Faith Harrington really was.
She blinked into the afternoon sun. Ethan still waited, reminding her that apparently she was a woman who found the one time rebel an extremely sexy, desirable man.
She lifted her chin a notch and strode past him, heading for the car. He beat her there, opening the passenger door for her to get inside. She made the mistake of glancing into his heated gaze, disarmed by the banked desire she saw there, and blinked in shock.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he said, misunderstanding her reaction. “I picked up some manners since you saw me last.”
She couldn’t help but smile. “As I recall you had good manners back then too.” When he’d taken her home, he’d helped her off the back of the bike, ignoring her mother’s disdainful glare.
Ethan shook his head. “I’m sure my mother would have been happy to hear that,” he said wryly.
But she caught the hint of sadness in his tone and she couldn’t let the moment pass. “I’m sorry about what happened to your parents. It was an awful tragedy and a senseless accident.” One that had rocked the entire town.
Until today, she hadn’t known what had happened to the oldest brother. She couldn’t deny she was glad to see he was back and in one piece. Even if he was now the owner of her childhood home.
“Thank you.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “But they shouldn’t have been on the road that night at all.” He shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat. “You getting in?” he asked, annoyance in his tone as he gestured inside.
She recognized a subject change when she heard one and slipped into the sports car. The sleek black Jag with its deep red interior suited him. Big and imposing, dark and brooding at the same time.
He slammed her door, walked around to the driver’s side and joined her, placing his sunglasses on his face and turning on the ignition. The air conditioner hit her full force and she let out an involuntary moan of relief. She didn’t know what had possessed her to walk here on a scorching ninety degree August day.
He raised his sunglasses for a brief moment, a knowing smile lifting his sexy lips. “Hot?” he asked.
She couldn’t mistake the dual implication or the amusement in his rich brown eyes.
“Very,” she said, knowing her words were a distinct tease yet unable to control the banter that seemed to come too easily with him.
He shook his head, slid his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and pulled the car onto Main Street. He drove confidently with one hand on the wheel, the other on the stick. She couldn’t tear her gaze from his big, strong hand cupping the shift.
“You can drop me off outside Cuppa Café,” she said in a voice she barely recognized. She pointed to the coffee shop on Main.
“Suit yourself.” He eased the car into the open spot in front of the store, idling the engine.
She turned to face him. “Thanks for the ride.”
He slid an arm over the back of her seat. “My pleasure, Princess.”
“Not anymore,” she muttered under hear breath. Because what he’d said earlier, about how the mighty have fallen? He was right. In more ways than he could possibly imagine.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you around.” She reached for the door handle and climbed out of the car.
She headed into the coffee shop, needing space and air that didn’t include Ethan ’s musky scent and the sensual awareness he inspired. Ten years ago, he’d tried to steal more than a kiss, making her desire things she’d had no business yearning for at sixteen. Making her want him in a way that surpassed anything in her previous experience. Little did he know that his kiss had meant everything to her - even as she’d known she’d been just another girl he’d tried to add to his list of conquests.
But that was then. Now she was an adult, fully aware of the meaning of her body’s response to him. But she was also at a crossroads and would be better off focusing on figuring out who she was before she got involved with any man. Especially one who made her feel … so very much.
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