In memory of a rare, special night when I finally got two of my very favorite people together, this is dedicated, with love, to my cousin Colleen and my best friend, Mimi.
Here's to French manicures and ice cream, plots to convert Christopher into a Babs fan, and conversations both serious enough to make us cry and so hysterica! We nearly wet our pants.
I adore you both.
LILY MORRISETTE PAUSED WITH HER WATER GLASS suspended halfway to her lips as she stared in fascination at the big man letting himself in through the kitchen door. The granite tiles beneath her feet were smooth, and around her, the hugeLaguna Beachoceanfront house was silent, the only sound the distant ticking of the antique mission clock in the living room. Cool, salt breezes with an underlying hint of April flowers blew in on the man's wake. But cool wasn't the first word to pop to Lily's mind. He had to be about the hottest thing she'd ever clapped eyes on.
She knew who he was, of course, from the photographs Glynnis Taylor had shown her. But none of those came close to doing him justice, and Lily was caught flatfooted by the sheer impact of his physical presence.
He was six feet of dark and dangerous—you could tell the latter just by the way he held himself. As for the rest—the midnight-black hair and dark jaw stubble, the long legs, and those wide shoulders straining the navy material of his T-shirt—well, heck, it was overkill, pure and simple.
Lily considered pouring her glass of water where it would do the most good to cool her down. She didn't, naturally, but holy petunia. She'd finally met her fantasy man in the flesh.
Then he opened his mouth and wrecked the illusion.
"Who the hell are you?" he demanded, swinging an olive-drab duffle bag off his shoulder and down to the tiled floor. "And what are you doing in my kitchen? Where's Glynnis?"
His eyes were a clear, pale gray, the irises ringed in charcoal. Intense and unflinching, they narrowed between thick, dark lashes to rake over her, taking in her thin cotton, peppermint ice cream-colored drawstring pajama bottoms and tank top. The scrutiny served to remind Lily of every one of the extra ten pounds she could never seem to shed, no matter what. She set her glass down on the countertop with a sharp click, but refrained from responding in kind to his rudeness.
"You must be Zach." She stepped forward, extending her hand to Glynnis's brother. "She's away right now, but I'm Lily—Lily Morrisette. I've heard a lot about you since I started renting a room here."
"The hell you say," he growled, ignoring her proffered hand. His voice was so deep she could practically feel its vibration through the soles of her feet, the way she always registered the bass thumping from the car of the teenage boy who lived down the block whenever he drove past. It was also nearly as frigid as those iceberg eyes of his when he continued, "Glynnis has always been a sucker for every con artist with a sad story to tell, but I didn't think she'd go so far as to actually install one in our house while I was gone."
"I hope you got whatever you were angling for while the opportunity was ripe, lady." His gaze was so scornful it took all Lily's starch not to recoil. "But don't let that shapely little ass get too comfortable, because the free ride is officially over. Go pack your bags."
He thought her bottom was shapely? And little ! Then she gave herself a sharp mental shake. Good God, what was the matter with her? His opinion of her butt was up her chin. "No," she said firmly, and crossed her arms over her breasts.
"What?" He went very still, as if no one ever contradicted him.
Perhaps no one ever did, Lily surmised, recalling that he was some hotshot Marine who specialized in reconnaissance missions. Then his mouth went hard, and part of her attention got distracted by the thin white scar that bisected his upper lip.
Funny the difference a few minutes and an insulting attitude could make. What she undoubtedly would have considered sexy as all get-out a moment ago struck her now as vaguely sinister. Pretty is as pretty does , Grandma Nell would've said, and for the first time Lily understood on a bone-deep, fundamental level exactly what her grandmother had meant. This guy's behavior wasn't pretty at all, and she refused to be the first to flinch in the strange game of chicken they played. "What part of the word don't you understand?" she inquired sweetly. Then her voice adopted the authority she'd acquired from years of dealing with the temperamental chefs who'd taught her her craft. "I'm not going anywhere, so get used to it."
The next thing she knew, she had a hundred and ninety pounds of irate male looming over her, making her painfully aware of her own less-than-impressive stature. "We can do this the easy way, or we can do it tough," Zach said, and the deep timbre of his voice registered up and down her spine. "But one way or another, sister, you will be leaving."
Lily's head snapped back to meet his storm-gray eyes. "Back off, soldier boy. And let me make myself perfectly clear: You lay one hand on me, and I'll have the cops crawling down your throat so fast it'll make your head twirl." She hated it when people used their size to try to intimidate her.
"Yeah, I quake in fear of a little operator like you calling in the local heat." But he eyed her as if unable to figure out where she got her brass and stepped back. The retreat must not have sat too well with him, though, because those mile-wide shoulders of his immediately adopted a stubborn set, his square jaw did the impossible and became even harder, and he leaned into her just enough to invade her personal space without actually crowding her to the point where she could warn him off again.
"Tell you what," he said with soft menace, "I'll save you the trouble and give them a call myself. Then they can escort you off the premises, and I can get a good night's sleep. After playing hurry-up-and-wait on military transports for the past two days, I'm in no mood to deal with a wheeler-dealer out to fleece my sister of her inheritance."
Tired of the slurs against her character, Lily turned on her heel. She caught a glimpse of his satisfied expression out of the corner of her eye and had to grit her teeth against the frustration that burned like chipotle pepper in the back of her throat. Refusing to give vent to her ire, however, she stalked out of the kitchen and down the adobe hallway to her room, where she headed straight for the little fireproof safe she kept in the night-stand next to her bed.
Her blood raced so hot through her veins she was surprised steam didn't rise through her pores, and her nerves jangled just below the surface of her skin. Then her knees abruptly buckled, and she collapsed onto the coverlet. Perching her bottom on the edge of the bed and clutching the small box in her lap, she took several slow, deep breaths. How on earth had everything gotten so far out of hand so flipping fast?
The truth was, aside from his being a complete idiot regarding her role in his sister's life, Zachariah Taylor probably had valid reasons for his concern. Glynnis was only a week or so from her twenty-fifth birthday, when she was supposed to come into a sizable trust fund, the source of which Lily didn't know. It had something to do with a family-owned corporation and Glynnis's grandfather, she thought, but wasn't actually sure of the details, since her younger friend had a tendency to go off on incoherent tangents whenever she came to that point in a conversation. What Lily did know was that
Glynnis didn't have a great track record picking her friends—at least when it came to men. Actually, that had recently changed, but the point was that Glynnis had been burned more than once by guys chasing after her for her money, and it was no secret she was an easy touch for anyone with a hard-luck story.
No doubt brother Zach had a tough time believing her ability to read character applied solely to the male gender.
Lily also conceded she may have been the tiniest bit predisposed to think the worst of Zach before they'd ever met. Glynnis adored her brother, but from everything she'd ever said about him Lily had formed an impression of one of those macho, overly dominant types who live to keep their womenfolk dependent. She'd been momentarily sidetracked by his Greek god physique, but Zach's insulting assessment of her character had immediately plunged her right back into that mindset.
But perhaps it was time to draw back and regroup. He was clearly stressed and likely worn to a nub from travel frustration. That sort of thing could prey on a person and turn even the easiest-going disposition nasty. So perhaps they ought to start over again. She opened the box on her lap, withdrew what she'd come looking for, then returned the box to its drawer and headed back to the kitchen. She'd show him this, then calmly explain how she had come to be living here.
Her willingness to give him another shot, however, didn't render her so full of comradeship that she was ready to start tossing flowers at Zach's oversized feet. She had her work cut out, in fact, not to lapse into defensiveness the moment she walked back into the room and found herself once again the cynosure of those take-no-prisoners eyes of his. So although she politely extended the document to him rather than slapping it against his hard abs the way she might've done five minutes ago, her posture as she faced him was screw-you erect.
"What's this?" Not waiting for an answer, he opened the thrice-folded paper and began to read. His dark eyebrows suddenly gathered like thunderclouds above his nose, and his gaze snapped up from the document to pin her in place.