Excerpt: Lies of the Heart

Lies of the Heart by Laurie LeClair

Book 3: The Heart Romance Series

Chapter One

“Ah, geez, he’s even more gorgeous than he was ten years ago,” Tessa Warfield muttered under her breath as she snuck a peek at Chance Deveraux through the grimy window. He stood at the long bar. In the mirrored reflection in front of him, she got more than just a mere impression. Tall, dark, lean. To die for.

His grandfather’s pub seemed to hum with activity while she remained outside shivering in the cold, dark November night. The prospect of entering the room full of animosity kept her rooted to the spot.

Alone at the bar, with his head down now, dejection and despair seemed to cling to Chance like a second skin. Tessa’s heart squeezed with sadness. She ought to march right in there and tell him so. But she held back even though his grandfather’s lawyer requested her to be here tonight.

The past tangled her in knots. Years of being told to despise the Deverauxs filled her head. But her heart said something far different. How could she hate Chance?

The memories of yesteryear still held her in their grip. She recalled the precious times while growing up when he’d been anything but her adversary. Something in his eyes back then called out to her, as if he’d known how desperately lonely she felt. When the other kids in the neighborhood didn’t want her hanging around with them, he’d convinced them that she wouldn’t be any trouble. She’d gone along on their many secret excursions thanks to him, always lagging behind. And he’d be the one to stop, come back and get her, and then help her up a steep hill or large boulder. Something sweet and pure unfurled in her heart each time.

It had lingered and grown into a full-blown crush by the time she’d turned ten. In the years that followed she’d succumbed even more to his charming, bad boy ways.

Now, she realized the wondrous feelings he’d evoked in her during that time prompted her to go against everything her granny had ever told her about honoring her family name. She just had to see the man who had stolen her heart when he’d only been a boy.

She could only imagine what it would be like to see him up close again, to stare into those fathomless gray eyes of his, to touch him, or maybe even kiss him once again. She gasped at the last thought. Tessa knew she couldn’t back down from her mission. I just have to see him.

Her destination clearly defined by the brilliant beam of light over the door, Tessa gulped hard and made her way into the web of hatred.

***

Chance Deveraux’s heart ached and a huge, leaden knot sat in the pit of his belly. Sadness wrapped around him, engulfing him in an ocean of grief. In his mind, the words repeated themselves like gunfire: Granddad’s dead, Granddad’s dead!

Standing alone, he leaned his forearms against the cool, gleaming mahogany bar considering how empty and lifeless his world would be without the funny old man. A tiny smile lifted one side of his mouth as he recalled the many times while growing up when either he’d fished his granddad out of trouble or vice versa. Man, they’d been a pair, matched set, as some folks in his hometown would say. Bad boys.

The noisy, crowded smoke-filled room closed in on him with suffocating pressure. He cupped the cold, long-necked bottle in his palm, debating whether or not to take a swig. He traced his thumb down a trail of condensation on the brown glass, recalling how many times in the past he’d done the same, only then he hadn’t fought with his conscience at all. He’d willingly gulped down the tasty brew with gusto, drowning in his sorrows.

Now, more than ever, he wished to surrender to the lure of oblivion, the blessed silencing of the bellowing in his head and the excruciating pain squeezing his chest. Something held him back from giving in.

The scent and sight of that slick road rushed up to him now. His motorcycle had hit an icy patch, then slid out from beneath him. Metal scraping and crunching had filled his ears. The memory of the bone-jarring impact on the asphalt nearly had him groaning. But it was the agony-laced screams of his friend riding on the back of Chance’s motorcycle that would never leave him alone, that had followed him to jail, and would haunt him in his dreams for the rest of his life.

Gripping onto the cool glass tighter, a muscle jumped along his jaw. To this day, Chance couldn’t even speak to anyone about that night; it was too painful to face his own mistakes, his reckless drinking and careless behavior.

He figured granddad’s soulful plea to the courts on his behalf had swayed the judge; his tarnished record should have kept him locked up. It had taken some time, but he’d straightened out his head and set himself back in the direction he’d always wanted. His hopes and dreams just hadn’t been able to come to fruition before granddad had died. And for that he’d always carry around a deep, everlasting sorrow.

Inhaling sharply, the acrid scent of cigarettes stung his nostrils. The bitter taste of regret filled his mouth, regret for missing out on the last few years of his granddad’s life.

I didn’t get the chance to prove to him that I could make something of myself after all the screw-ups.

He’d still get there, with some luck and money, but the celebration wouldn’t be as sweet without his chief supporter rooting him on.

But other people were counting on him now. He wouldn’t let them down. Not this time.

At the distinctive clicking of a cue stick hitting a ball, he glanced up watching the journey of it across the pool table, and then the ball finding its target. Scanning the patrons in the mirror above the rows of liquor bottles, he found Father Thomas O’Malley grinning from ear to ear, his bushy white brows topping twinkling blue eyes. Apparently, he’d been the one to sink the ball in the pocket. Granddad’s friend and bartender Walter scowled down at the priest as he hooked his thumbs in his red suspenders and tugged on them.

Curiosity had Chance checking out the sea of familiar faces dotting the dimly lit paneled area, keeping their distance to give him his privacy. Until now, the fifty or more people had blurred together. He looked from each crammed table to the next, all friends of his grandfather’s paying homage to the old man who had owned this very pub. The reluctant smile tugged up one side of Chance’s mouth even further. It was fitting to conduct his grandfather’s wake where he’d loved to live. Even in her distraught state, his grandmother had seen to that. Obviously granddad’s friends thought the same as one story after another about the hijinks he’d been involved in floated to Chance’s ears. Quiet, respectful laughter soon followed.

Squinting through the hazy smoke, he spotted Gil Lambert sitting by himself in the corner. The hunched over, lanky attorney looked grim-faced. His disheveled salt and pepper hair nearly stood on end as if he’d dragged his hands through it repeatedly. A mixture of concern and curiosity pooled inside of Chance. Now, why does Granddad’s lawyer look so upset?

His middle clenched; he figured it had something to do with the upcoming reading of the will. Dread gathered low as he wondered what in the world had his grandfather pulled now. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he supposed he’d be the source of the old man’s shenanigans this time. Hadn’t he’d always been warned that his chance would come in the end?

Just then the tinkling of the bell over the door sounded, drawing everyone’s attention, including his. Horrified gasps rose among several tables nearby, and then total deafening silence reigned.


Chapter Two

Slowly, Chance released his hold on the beer and turned fully to the intrusion. He sucked in a sharp breath and something invisible slammed into him as he gazed at the vision filling the doorway. His pulse rate picked up speed, the blood roaring in his ears. Even after all these years, he’d know that red-headed beauty anywhere. Tessa Warfield. The enemy.

Tall and willowy she stood frozen for a moment, the outside lights illuminating her alabaster skin and her long springy spiral, strawberry blonde curls. How many times had he wondered what her hair would feel like sliding through his fingers or how soft her skin would feel beneath his hands? How many nights had he yearned to simply talk to her?

Forbidden. But that hadn’t stopped him from dreaming about her or losing his heart to her. Knowing she was off limits made it all the more appealing to get to know her. For her sake, he’d kept his distance as much as he could. But, living across the street from one another all their lives had brought them together. They’d kept their secret meetings from their relatives. The added risk had made the encounters exciting and dangerous. That had only propelled them onward at times.

And, for those too brief times, he suspected she’d wanted the same opportunity to relish the irony of their shared situations: both parents dead, raised by grandparents, a wicked sense of humor to combat the hurt, and forced to continue a family feud where no one recalled how it had ever started.

Only he knew he’d fared better with his kin than she had with her bitter, resentful granny. A picture of the pinched up face of the older woman rose in his mind as she’d yelled at Tessa for being near him, the good-for-nothing grandson of that no-good bastard. The embarrassment and horror that had entered Tessa’s beautiful eyes had torn a chunk off his heart. In the end, they’d both stayed true to their respective families and away from each other. Loyalty above all else.

Now, a dagger of empathy shot through him. Defenseless, she was entering enemy territory. He had all he could do not to rush to her and whisk her away from harm’s way. But he promised himself if things got ugly he’d use everything he had to protect her. The fierceness of that thought shocked him.

From across the fifteen or more feet that separated them, she caught his stare. He sucked in another sharp breath, captured by the large luminous, green eyes. How many times had he imagined her gazing at him with those big eyes of hers allowing him to be drawn into her soul, sharing their secrets with each other, sharing their pain?

Entranced, he watched a mischievous smile light up her face. The effects of the sexy and secretive curve of her peach-colored mouth wound around his middle and tugged. In the back of his mind he wondered if her lips still tasted as good as they looked. Peaches and cream. She made her way to him, weaving past gawking men and disapproving women. Man, she’s got guts.

With each graceful step she closed the distance, her body gliding to him. Stark awareness of the alluring woman she’d grown up to be stirred in the primitive part of him. Her long flowing, black skirt clung to her trim, but shapely figure, clung in places he’d longed to touch. Gulping hard, his fingers itched to slide the fabric up over her calves and past her thighs.

Choking back the rumble in his chest, he tried to banish the budding desire as she drew nearer. He scanned her from the top of her curly, long hair to her perfectly shaped oval face. Her wide, scared eyes never wavered behind her long lashes. He took in her small straight nose and thrust out chin. Briefly, he dropped his gaze lower, imagining how the soft, lush femininity of her would feel in his arms. An ache of awareness shot through him.

Bewildered at his body’s instant reactions to her after all this time, he quickly raised his eyes and looked into hers once again. This time he looked longer, witnessing the deep-seated knowledge buried there in the darkening green. It felt like a fist punched him in the belly.

Forbidden attraction.

He knew he owned it as well. Something flickered across the surface. Pain. Then she concealed it, but not before his heart clutched. How long and how much had they both suffered because of their families feuding? Whether they wanted to admit it or not they had a certain kinship that couldn’t be denied, drawing them inexplicably together.

Some tantalizing scent drifted to him, lavender he thought. A knot, low and deep, coiled in his abdomen.

***

A block of icy fear sat in Tessa’s middle as she took one step after another, being sucked into the ever-increasing risk. Her heart thundered in her chest as every patron in the pub centered their attention on her, probing every nuance. The stony silence pulsated in her ears. The sickening sweet stench of a cigar drifted to her, making her tummy even queasier than it had been.

Keeping a smile pinned on her face she made her way into the lion’s den. But, up ahead the real problem stood, shaking her to her core.

His dark gray eyes followed her every move, unnerving her. The lazy, heavy lidded look sent tingles through her veins. Halting in front of him, his fresh, outdoorsy scent made her head spin, or was that just the man himself?

Highly aware of him, she endured his thorough perusal, as if he mentally stripped the clothes from her one piece at a time. She knew the second he noticed the rapid pulse beating at the base of her neck. He looked lower and, as if mesmerized, gazed at the rise and fall of her suddenly aching breasts encased in the silky green blouse as her breaths came in short, quick pants.

As if gathering his wits, he grinned wickedly. Locking gazes once again, he reached out and gently pulled the thread of a spiral curl loose from the corner of her lip. Softly, he brushed it away, his knuckle skimming her cheek. “Hello, sunshine.”

Heat branded Tessa where he’d touched her flesh, his slightly rough finger lingering for a moment longer than necessary. Oh, how I remember those hands.

She drew in a shaky breath as warmth flowed through her chilled body at his words. Sunshine. While all the other kids on their block used to call her string bean or knobby knees, he’d always called her sunshine, making her glow inwardly. That wicked grin of his, enveloping body heat, and his deep whiskey voice had the same, devastating effect as it always did. Magic.

“Well, Chance Deveraux, how the hell are you?” she asked in a breathy voice, saying the first thing that popped into her numb mind as she drank in the incredibly sexy man he’d become.

He threw back his head and laughed, a nice gusty sound that broke the tension in the room. Soon the surrounding mourners began to talk in low, hushed whispers.

Tessa made out her name on many peoples’ lips and how dare she intrude on their moment of grief. The ball of nerves in her tummy tightened. And something inside her withered at the constant age-old division of loyalties among the towns’ people. So many of them had taken sides years ago and never faltered from that stance. It shouldn’t bother her after she’d lived with the snickers and stares for all this time. But somehow, deep down, it still did. Why couldn’t everyone just get along?

Oh, Lord, they don’t know why I’m here. Didn’t Gil tell anyone? Reading the quizzical expression on Chance’s ruggedly handsome features she had her answer. Not even he knew.

“Can I buy you a beer?” Chance shoved the bottle in front of him along the shiny surface of the bar.

Shaking her head, she made a face recalling the one time she sneaked a sip in high school and had promptly spit it out. “Don’t touch the stuff.”

He shrugged. “Me, either. Not anymore.”

The few short, clipped words held a wealth of meaning. What had happened to him? Instead of probing deeper, she said, “Soda, it is.” Tessa looked her fill, hungry for the sight of him as he gestured to the bartender for two colas.

In the ten years since she’d last seen him, he’d changed noticeably. Gone were the long hair and too-thin look. From studying his profile, she noted his dark hair, sprinkled with a smattering of premature gray, was cut short and close to his head, bringing out his strong, handsome facial features. When he whipped around to look at her again, she sucked in a sharp breath, adding silently, it also brings out his all-seeing, smoky gray eyes. For a moment, she became lost in the flecks of charcoal gray speckling his irises.

Shrugging self-consciously for being caught staring, she swung her gaze away from his. But she couldn’t deny the one, all-too-brief scan of the rest of him. Up close the well-defined muscles, encased in faded jeans and gray pullover shirt showed his flat stomach to perfection, replaced the thinness of yesteryear. And he’d adopted a guarded look that hid a great deal, she suspected.

She swallowed hard as the comparisons sprang to mind. Once, on a fall night much like this one, she’d had the privilege of kissing and touching him.

Now, searching his stare for any sort of recognition of those sweet, drugging kisses, her middle dipped and a coldness invaded her heart. His drunken state at the time had seen to it that he didn’t remember. While she could never seem to forget.

“Here.” Walter Peabody’s gruff voice brought her out of her reverie and back to the here and now. The bartender’s dark, narrowed eyes rested on her. Tessa shivered at the look of disapproval on the balding man’s pale, softly wrinkled face, knowing that she wasn’t wanted here. He shoved the cans, along with two glasses, in front of them, and then departed, muttering, “As I live and breathe I can’t believe a Warfield is in Gabe Deveraux’s pub. Now I’ve seen everything.”

As she reluctantly slid onto a stool she brushed Chance’s hip accidentally. For a moment, she stilled, as did he, experiencing the bolt of electricity that shot through her body. Jerking her head around to face him, she asked, “Did you feel that?” Then she promptly cursed herself for always saying the first thing that jumped into her head.

His slow, sexy smile told her his answer without words. She raised her gaze to his darkening eyes and her heartbeat picked up the wild, thundering pace from just a few seconds ago. “What do you think? Of course I felt it.”

Gulping hard, she could only nod. Magic. She’d searched for it with someone special. But no one ever quite connected. Not like Chance Deveraux did. The enemy. What would Granny say if she ever found out?

The thought of her elderly relative had Tessa breaking out in a cold sweat. Granny had nixed any kind of romance Tessa had ever attempted to establish with a man, sighting their many flaws and how she’d only get hurt eventually. A pang of loneliness throbbed to life. How could she convince granny that she already hurt without love in her life? And if she couldn’t get granny to allow a man in her life, then how in the world could Tessa have the baby she longed for?

Sighing, she knew she’d have to keep her wanton feelings for Chance Deveraux, bad boy extraordinaire, bottled up tight, or suffer the consequences at home. She’d had lots of practice doing that while growing up. The risk of her being seen here and with him increased ten-fold.

Her middle dipped, realizing that granny would find out from the town’s gossips. A wave of shame washed over her; she’d disappoint her granny. Again. Despite all her best efforts she always fell short of pleasing the high standards of the lady who had raised her when no one else would. The least she could do was honor the age-old feud and stop embarrassing her grandmother.

Clearing her throat, she longed for a drink, but couldn’t quite bring herself to take even a sip from the enemy’s camp. She disregarded the cola and fell back on her wit, making the best of a bad situation. Leaning close, she whispered, “Don’t tell my granny or she’ll be liable to put a chastity belt on me.”

His laughter rippled over her, warm and soothing. “How’s the old bat anyway? Still curmudgeonly as ever?”

A part of her agreed with him on his description, but the fiercely loyal part answered instead, “Granny’s just feisty, that’s all.”

“Yeah, right.” He snorted. “You’re feisty, she’s cranky, permanently.”

She couldn’t help but giggle at that. “You should be careful what you say about her; it might get back to her, then she’ll chase you down the street with a frying pan again.”

He arched an eyebrow, his expression indignant. Something low and deep tugged within her at that sexy look. “Who? Me? I was completely innocent the last time she did that.”

Warming to the subject and him even more, the knot in her middle relaxed. “Really? Then what about the time before that when you’d snuck in the house, stole her undies, then hoisted them up in the tree in the front yard, so they flapped in the wind for all the neighbors to see.”

Horrified, he asked, “Undies? Hell, Tessa, they were nothing short of bloomers!”

Fighting the losing battle of her bubbling laughter, she wagged a finger at him. “So, you admit it then.”

Closing the small space between them, he said softly in her ear, “I not only did do it, but I took a pair of your panties, the sweet little green pair with Saturday written on them in white lettering. I still have them.”

His hot breath tickling her flesh sent shivers down her spine. The fresh, pine scent of his after-shave wrapped around her in a sensuous fog, sucking her into the dangerous man. But his words and his bad boy ways stunned her. He still has my panties! What else did he take over the years? Rearing back to look him in his twinkling gray eyes, she said, “That was you! I thought granny tossed them out.”

He scowled. “You gave her credit for that?”

At his disgruntled look she burst out laughing. “Chance Deveraux, you dog you.”

Shrugging, his rugged features relaxed into a smile and the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled, but it didn’t fully reach down and erase the pain in his eyes. “I prefer devil to dog, sunshine. And don’t tell me you never tried anything like that in your life.” He poked his chest, saying, “I know better than that.”

“Who? Me?” she mimicked his earlier mock outrage.

“Yes, you,” he said, using his forefinger and thumb to cup her chin. His touch scorched her skin. “How about the time you stole my clothes when I went skinny-dipping in Carbuncle pond?”

Heat flew to her cheeks. Her impish streak burst forth. “I’ve got to say you do have really nice buns.”

“Ah hah! So, you do admit it now.”

Holding up her hands briefly, she agreed. “Guilty as charged.”

“I knew it was you all along.” Releasing her, he shook his head. “Oh, Lord, you should have seen me hobbling down the dirt road that night. Every time I saw any sign of lights coming, I’d rush to the side of the road and hide.”

“Hey, I left a trail of clothes for you, didn’t I?”

“You started out with my sock. What was I supposed to cover with that anyway?”

The tantalizing image flashed through her mind and she bit back on a groan. More heat whooshed through her blood stream. The prank of the past, combined with the forbidden aspect of this meeting, made her nerves jumpy and her senses heightened to the underlying sensual currents pulsing between them.

Now it was his turn to hold up his hands. “Oh no, don’t even go there.”

“It was funny then, and, if you’d think about it, it’s even funnier now.”

He laughed, a warm, genuine sound that held none of the raw emotions she’d thought she’d heard earlier in his voice.

“God, you’re good for me, Tessa.” Just the way he said her name in that whiskey-husky voice of his sent thrills through her veins. “I’ve been feeling sorry for myself until you walked in.”

Her chest ached for him. “I’m sorry about your granddad, Chance. He was sweet, funny, and he adored you.”

“Chip off the old block, huh?” he nearly choked.

Reaching out to him, she covered his fisted hand with hers. He flinched, and then withdrew. Swiftly, he checked out the interested audience unable to tear their eyes off her and him. Turning back, he looked at her as if he’d only just realized who she was.

“How would you know what he was like? Hell, the Deverauxs and Warfields haven’t said two kind words to each other in who knows how many years,” he said between gritted teeth, a muscle jerking along his jaw.

The blast of anger shouldn’t have surprised her, but it did nonetheless. Waves of pain rolled off of him and hit her. Behind it all she realized that she should never have come here tonight.

Twisting on the stool, she made to jump off. “You’re right, I don’t belong here.”

He shifted abruptly, barring her way. Standing before her, tall and imposing, he asked, “So why did you then?”

Briefly, she squeezed her eyes shut, blocking the painful memory that his stance brought back to her. The feel of his hand lifting her chin had her opening her eyes and gazing up at him. Ten long years fell away and she recalled those moments when she’d last been this close to him.

She’d clung to that image in the wrenching months afterward. With each new day and the knowledge they had brought, she’d found a place deep inside of her and escaped to the precious time she’d spent in Chance Deveraux’s strong arms.

Along with the rush of painful memories came some good ones, too. For the first time, granny had reached out to her, only knowing a man had left her heartbroken. Granny’s brief, miraculous transformation of bitterness to love would forever be branded in Tessa’s soul. Love would heal them both.

Now, she searched his gaze, peeling away the hurt, looking past the rebel and into his soul. Her heart twisted as she hungrily stared at the man who had once claimed her heart and soul. And he never even knew it, no one had, except me.

While coming here tonight, she’d convinced herself that once she saw him again the little girl crush she had on him years ago would have vanished. Now, mesmerized by his darkening gray eyes, she knew different. The attraction was there, stronger and more palpable than before. How in the world could she keep it buried from everyone this time?

She stared into the eyes of danger. He could never find out her secret, all of her secrets. Never. If he ever did he’d rush to tell granny the truth to gain the upper hand in the feud and ruin her relationship with her only surviving relative.

She had to do whatever it took to stay away from the one man who yearned to destroy her granny and in the end her. Despite the pulsating attraction between them, she knew he’d do it.

Panic began to bubble in her chest; if she wasn’t careful she’d eventually blurt out the truth. Her mouth had always gotten her in trouble. She had to get this over with, and quick, and then put as much distance between her and Chance as humanly possible.

“You didn’t answer my question. So why did you come here tonight to a place you knew wouldn’t welcome you, in fact might have even kicked you out?” His softly asked question dropped her back to earth.

“I…I was invited.”

His dark brows came together in a deep frown. “Who did?”

“Gil?” she squeaked out, unsure of how he’d take it.

A mixture of dawning, shock, and denial entered his eyes. He dropped his hand and backed up a pace. “No.”

Guiltily, she nodded.

He jerked his head around. Tessa followed his line of vision, spotting Gil Lambert making his way to them among the suddenly quiet crowd with their eyes pinned to the unfolding drama. When the lawyer stopped near them and rocked back and forth on his heels, Chance demanded, “Tell me granddad didn’t include a Warfield…”

“Can’t do that, son. She’s here because she’s in your grandfather’s will.”


Chapter Three

If Tessa had felt alone before, it was far worse now as Chance directed another accusatory look her way. She gulped hard and pasted a smile on her face, feeling the quiver in her cheeks at the effort it cost her.

Sitting there, hunched up on an old hard wooden crate in the box-laden stock room, she cupped her chin in her palms with her elbows on her knees. She followed his pacing in the cramped, musty quarters. Dust motes swirled around him and sailed to the bare light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling.

She sneezed loudly when the grime floated back down to her.

“God bless you,” Chance said, tossing the words over his shoulder.

“He’s the only one likely to,” she muttered under her breath. She wondered how in the world she’d figured she could easily slip in and out of this place tonight without fuss or fight. As usual her inquisitiveness had gotten her in another pickle.

The muffled raised voices of the bar’s patrons penetrated the flimsy door. They’d heard Gil declare she was in the will and weren’t taking it very well at all. Thankfully, Chance had ushered her quickly out of the ruckus, stashing her in this back room for her safety. A tender spot deep inside had throbbed to life at the endearing, protective gesture.

Now, she glanced at his foreboding features. Dark and dangerous. Instantly, she realized he was still that bad boy of yesteryear, still her family’s adversary, now more than ever. If he ever found out her secret…

She shivered at the disquieting thought of being cooped up with a growling panther, ready to attack. And she could very likely be his prey.

“I wish Gil would hurry up and get in here so we could get this over with,” she said, talking her thoughts aloud once again. The less time she spent in Chance’s company the better.

At the thought of never seeing him again her middle clenched and a sharp ache swept through her. As she drank in his rugged profile, she realized the buried feelings from her childhood not only still lingered, but also had grown.

She brushed the disturbing news aside, knowing she had to forget about the magic and concentrate on protecting her granny from this man.

Dragging a hand through his hair, he muttered, “What’s he up to now?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Gil?”

“No, granddad.”

Lifting a shoulder, she said, “Heck, if I know.” His lips didn’t even twitch at her attempt at humor. A trickle of fear grew in her chest. The day fun-loving Chance Deveraux didn’t crack even a teensy weensy smile stopped her cold.

He didn’t think she had anything to do with it, did he? She was certain if he thought about it hard enough he’d figure out she’d never be privy to his grandfather’s wishes when even he wasn’t. But somehow she doubted he could reason clearly with so many bottled up feelings swirling around inside him; she’d glimpsed the myriad of emotions chasing across his handsome features and sensed the thickening anxiety in the air.

And I’m the easiest one to blame, the best target to unleash all his anger on. Better me than a dead man he adored.

Chance plopped down on a box across from her. Startled at his abrupt move, she dropped her hands and pulled back, stiffening her spine. He looked her square in the eye. Suspicion lurked in his. “How long have you known about this?”

She swallowed past the lump that suddenly formed in her throat. “Since this morning when Gil called. Thank heavens granny was out. She’d kill me if she knew I was even here.”

His doubts about her involvement seemed to melt away right before her. “Yeah, I guess it was a stretch thinking the Warfields had put granddad up to this.” He arched a brow. “Don’t tell me you’ve finally broken free of the chains your grandmother has on you.”

A wave of unease washed over her. He’d struck too close to the truth. “Granny’s just protective,” she argued, somehow the words rang hollow.

“Controlling, is more like it.” He paused, and then said, “So why did you show up tonight when you know good and well she’ll eventually find out? You didn’t have to, you know.”

Tessa avoided his penetrating stare, smoothing out an invisible wrinkle from her dark skirt. “Just curious, I guess.” Curious about you, about how you would look and if you would remember…

Peeking at him from under her lashes, she inadvertently rested her gaze on his firm lips. She licked her own, somehow thinking she could still taste him after all these years. Hot and wild.

He rubbed a hand over his jaw, saying, “So she doesn’t know you’re in the will or she’d be here…” He waved his hand, saying, “Of course, now that I think about it, Granddad would have sworn everyone who knew about it to secrecy. He’d make certain she never knew a darn thing about that or anything else. Thank God for small favors or she’d be rubbing this in my face,” he muttered the last under his breath.

“What about yours?” Tessa asked, her voice squeaking as she realized what struck closest to his heart and what bothered him the most. Betrayal. “Maybe your grandmother knew and didn’t tell you either.”

She swore she actually saw a dagger of hurt slice across his face, and then nothing but taut, chiseled lines remained. In that instant, she put herself in his shoes. His family had turned on him. How dishonest, how disloyal!

A cold, dull ache of empathy encompassed her chest, squeezing tight. Lord, what would I do if granny ever kept something this important from me? She couldn’t even imagine how much it would destroy her.

Compassion welled inside her. Leaning forward, she reached out, lightly touching his warm clasped hands. “I’m sorry…”

Suddenly the doorknob twisted, and then the door banged open. Tessa snatched her hand away and jumped back at the unwelcome intrusion. The noise from the outer room grew in frightening volume, chilling her to the bone. Chance rose swiftly as Gil, followed by Father Tom, entered, causing the room to shrink even more. The lawyer shoved the door closed, muffling the angry voices directed at her.

Tessa’s heart thumped faster. She scooted back on the box even more, hugging her knees to her chest. Gazing upward, she noted the anxious looks on the two older men’s faces. The stark beam of light revealed the creases and worry lines, while the shadows must have hid so much more.

“Well, child, I say we get this over with and get you out the back way, fast,” Father Tom’s said, his kindly features softening when his sympathetic gaze rested on her. He leaned over and patted her shoulder. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

His firm assurance gave her some comfort. At least she had someone on her side. “Thanks, Father Tom.”

Gil cleared his throat, then said hurriedly, “Under the… ah…difficult circumstances, we can dispense with formality, if that’s all right with the two of you?” He looked to Chance as he withdrew a thick envelope from his inner suit pocket.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” Chance said, a muscle jerking along his clenched jaw and his hands balled into fists.

“Tessa?” Gil asked softly, turning to her.

Nodding, she said, “I’m dying to find out why a Deveraux would put a Warfield in his will anyway. It’s gotta be some humiliating thing, right?” She’d racked her brain all day for an explanation and came up with the obvious: It was Gabe Deveraux’s last act of spite against the Warfields.

The attorney seemed to pale considerably, and then unfolded the official document. The crinkle of the paper grated in the raw atmosphere. She braced herself for the inevitable. Coughing gruffly, he began, “There are some smaller bequests for Gabe’s friends and his wife that we don’t need to go into here and now. Chance, you’re the main beneficiary. He left you the pub–”

“The pub?” His dark brows drew together in a deep frown. “Why in hell would he leave me the damn bar?”

Gil coughed, and then cleared his throat loudly. He tugged at his collar, loosening his tie in the process. “Ah… listen, Chance, I know about your…problem…”

Chance snorted. “You don’t need to sugarcoat it, Gil. I’m a drunk.”

“Recovering,” Father Tom said hastily. When Chance pinned him with a sharp look, the priest shrugged. “Your granddad mentioned that to me.”

The news slammed into Tessa. Studying Chance closely, she shivered, realizing she didn’t know him anymore, or who she had dreamed he had been. Maybe Granny was right all along; he was nothing but trouble with a capital T.

Gil sighed heavily. “He speculated that you would sell it and use the money for starting up that program for troubled teens, like you’ve always wanted to do.”

The stiffness seemed to siphon out of Chance. “Phew! I thought he’d want me to run the damn place.”

“Ah…” Gil choked out, “he does, for a time.”

“Christ, how am I going to work around booze? Didn’t he ever think of that?” His strained voice vibrated in the tiny space. Tension crackled like an electrical current around him.

Gil hesitated for a second, and then plunged in, saying, “There’s also a condition attached to selling.” For a long moment he stared fully at Tessa. “I’m sorry about this. I tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen to reason.”

Her heartbeat thudded in her chest. All the blood left her head, making her dizzy. “It involves me, doesn’t it?” It sounded like her voice came from a long distance away.

“Afraid so.”

Chance swore loudly and viciously. “Spit it out, Gil.”

“You have to keep the pub, run it for six months, bring it back into the black–”

“Not about the pub, about her.” Chance jerked his chin in Tessa’s direction.

“This part is about her.”

Thick, pulsating silence throbbed in the cramped stock room. Father Tom shuffled his feet. Tessa gulped hard, wondering what on earth she had to do with a watering hole, as granny called it.

Piping up, she asked, “I don’t have to give up my share in the beauty salon, do I? To help run this place?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Gil hastened to reassure her. “I only wish it were that simple… He, ah, says Chance can have it all on the condition that he put a stop to the feuding between the Deverauxs and the Warfields.”

Chance let out a harsh bark of laughter. “What does he think I am a miracle worker or something?”

His family had thrown him into the ring of a battle he didn’t want to nor had any inkling to halt, Tessa realized. A cold, hard stone lodged itself in her heart. All our lives we’ve been conditioned to hate each other. Nothing in the last ten years has changed that. There was no doubt about it; the man who’d stolen her heart years ago and stomped on it hated her and her granny.

Some kind of inner warning took hold of Tessa, gripping her in a wave of anxiety. However Chance was to go about this mending of ways, she knew it concerned her. Bravely, she asked in a choked whisper, “What do I have to do with it all?”

Looking from her, to Chance, and then back to her again, the lawyer said, “You two must marry.”


Chapter Four

Chance silently closed his grandmother’s bedroom door. On the other side, she snored softly, sedated for the night. He blew out a hot breath. She’d known, too. It seemed granddad had talked it over with her some time ago and she’d reluctantly agreed. Marriage to Tessa Warfield!

With a heavy ball of dread resting in his middle, he walked the few paces down the carpeted hall and into his old room. The light spilling in from the hallway revealed that much of it still looked the way it had the last time he was here. The double bed shoved against one wall, a dresser in the corner. On the walls hung poster after poster of motorcycles, his passion for more years than he cared to count.

A light, snapping on in the house across the street, drew him to his window. He pushed aside the sheer white panel and heavier blue drape to get a better view. He gulped hard. Directly across from his room, in her pretty pink and white bedroom, he watched Tessa slowly dance. Wonder rained down on him at her graceful ballerina moves.

“That’s right. She always wanted to be a dancer. I wonder why she didn’t ever become one…” Each gentle glide of her hand, each delicate arch of her body in her white leotard mesmerized him. Just watching her, he could almost hear the haunting music she danced to.

A low tug in his abdomen and the heat rushing through his blood shook him to his core. He wanted her. And he had for ages. Somewhere deep inside he finally fully acknowledged that fact. But, he figured, after years of following his wild side and getting into risky situations because of it, he’d learned his lesson. Surely he’d be able to squash any latent feelings for the sexy redhead. “No such luck,” he muttered, the knot of desire coiling a little tighter. He’d been closer to her tonight than ever before and he knew he wanted to get closer still.

He grimaced, and then ran a hand down his face. His gaze remained fixated on her fluid motions while his head hammered away at the yawning gap separating them. Much more than a street kept them apart.

“How could granddad do this to me?” he wondered for the hundredth time since hearing the news just a couple of hours ago. Inside he still reeled from it all. “He knew I never wanted to marry again.”

Marriage equaled disaster in his book. He didn’t owe Tessa Warfield anything, but he knew what a lousy husband he’d been in the past and wasn’t about to inflict any other woman with him ever again.

It hit him then. His granddad’s words rushed back to him and he swore that the owner of that gravelly voice stood beside him at this very moment, saying, “Face your fears head on, my boy. Otherwise they’ll eat you alive.”

So much made sense now. “The pub to face my fear of falling off the wagon. And Tessa for my fear of failing another woman…” And in forcing Chance to face himself, granddad wanted an end to the decades-old feud. “Why the hell couldn’t you have done that yourself, instead of laying it all on my shoulders?”

Shame washed over him at the bolt of anger tearing through him. But he couldn’t halt the sense of betrayal any more than he could draw his next lung full of air. “Why couldn’t you have made this so much easier and let me get on with my own life? Now I’ve got to bide my time and fix the mess you got me in.”

His yearning to fulfill his long-time dreams reared its head. An ache shot through him. He had so much to offer kids. From all he’d learned from the mistakes he’d made, he could help them, steer them in the right direction instead of following the wrong path like he had for so long.

“So close…” He clutched the fabric in his hand tighter as a war raged inside of him. “Run the pub and wed Tessa for six months, then I can walk away from both without a backward glance and have everything I ever wanted.” The reward in the end outweighed the hardships he’d face over the months to come.

Unless I fail on both counts. A stab of fright lanced through him at the thought. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. He swiped the moisture away, hoping to erase the fear just as easily. But a thread of it lingered in his gut, tying itself in a knot.

Mentally, he considered the damage of delaying his project even longer if he didn’t go along with the terms of the will. He made decent money as a mechanic, but still hadn’t tucked nearly enough away to launch his own program for troubled teens. Any way he viewed it, he had no real choice unless he started out on a shoestring budget. He pictured fitful starts and stops with that scenario. The kids would suffer greatly if that happened. Years yawned in front of him. Grimacing, he shook his head.

Across the way, she twirled again and, as if captivated, he simply stared, transfixed. Under the concealing clothes she normally wore who would have thought Tessa had such a dynamite body, slender yet with curves any man in his right mind would drool over. He swallowed hard imagining how she’d feel beneath him.

Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he conjured up the reoccurring dream he had of her. “A dream like no other,” he whispered, recalling how all his senses sprang to life each and every time he happened to drift into the erotic sequence of making love to her. Just thinking about it now, he could taste her on his lips. “The sweetest peaches…” And her alabaster skin felt like satin under his fingertips. Her scent, light and haunting, came to him now. “Lavender, just like she was wearing tonight.”

Quickly, he shook himself out of his stupor, afraid if he pursued it for too long, he’d never be free of her powerful magnetic pull.

If his head had clearly considered the ramifications of fulfilling his granddad’s wishes, then his heart lurched at the emotional consequences.

After Gil had dropped his bombshell, Chance had whipped around to face Tessa. That one, all-too-brief gaze she’d shot him had torn him in two. Mixed in with the shock, he’d seen need crying out from the depths, a hunger he could only claim as a desperate desire for love. Knowing her upbringing and her kin, he could readily understand that emptiness inside of her. Yet, he hadn’t counted on an echoing response deep in his soul. “Why her, why me… Why this?”

Blowing out another hot breath, he tried to brush away that unshakable connection he experienced with the woman. He failed. Their bond ran deeper and stronger than he cared to admit. “But marriage?”

By marrying him she could give him everything he ever wanted, but in return what could he possibly do for her? What benefit would she get out of all of it? “Maybe…a chance at a real life without her granny’s controlling ways…”

Looking now, he detected a hint of sadness in Tessa’s graceful movements. It struck a chord within him clear to his core. There seemed to be something alive and vital missing from both their lives. Dreams denied.

Without thought, he released the curtain abruptly. The fabric swung back into place. He swiveled around, stalked out of his room, down the creaky stairs, and then out of his house.

Half way across the deserted street, the crisp night air penetrated his thin shirt. Determination won out against the chill. Marching up the walkway to the pristine white, two-story house, his feet crunching in the gravel, Chance heard the first strains of the beautiful classical music. The teasing melody plucked at his heartstrings, wrapping around him.

He took the porch steps two at a time, and then rapped his knuckles on the edge of the screen door, rattling the hinges. Suddenly the music died. Momentary regret swamped him. Next, he detected muffled voices from within, one growing closer.

Finally, the door swung open and he stood face to face with Tessa. Clutching a fluffy pink towel to her chest, she exclaimed in a harsh whisper, “What in the world are you doing here? Don’t you know you could get yourself shot?”

Her concern and theatrics brought a chuckle from deep inside. “By who? You?”

“Tessa, who is that?” the sharply barked question came from the bowels of the old house.

The lady before him pointed her thumb over her shoulder and said to him, “Her, that’s who.” To her granny, she yelled, “Nobody to worry about.”

“Well, get rid of them and go to bed. For land’s sake, it’s nearly ten o’clock.”

Tessa rolled her eyes heavenward, making Chance laugh out loud even more. “Hush!” She shoved open the screen door, coming out to join him, while she closed the inner door. Standing in front of him now, she gazed up at him.

For a moment, Chance caught and held his breath. Being this close to her, inhaling the scent of her, he had great difficulty in remembering why he was here on her doorstep.

“Shoo! Go home, now, before granny comes chasing after you.”

The spiral curls, caught up in a ponytail at the crown of her head, bounced as she nodded in the direction of his darkened house. A shiver racked her body and she hugged herself.

“Can’t do that, sunshine.” He grinned as she scowled. Yanking his shirt over his head, he shook free of it. He tugged down his T-shirt with one hand while handing Tessa his gray shirt with the other. When she stared at it blankly, he put it on her, assisting her with the armholes, and then carefully smoothing it over her. All the while she easily complied as if in a trance. “You’ve got something I want.”

“Me?” Her usually soft voice cracked.

“Yes, you.”

“If this has anything to do with earlier tonight, then just forget it.”

Something wrenched inside him. He shrugged awkwardly, saying, “I know I’m no prize, but there’s got to be something I have that you want. We could trade.”

She went perfectly still, now clutching the towel in a white-knuckled grip. He swore she stopped breathing altogether. In the dim light from the moon, he thought she lost all her color.

Shaking her head, she said, “Granny would never…no, I can’t. She’d never go along with it.”

With a sneer, he asked, “Why, does she want the pub so much?” It still rankled that his granddad would blackmail him with the fact he’d give everything to old lady Warfield if Chance didn’t go along with the terms of the will. That alone should have made his decision a foregone conclusion.

“You know she hates drink of any kind. Calls it the devil’s brew.”

It may have been something he saw flash in her eyes, censor perhaps, that clued him into how she’d taken the news of his being a recovering alcoholic. A part of him shriveled up. “I’m no saint. Never have been.”

“I didn’t–”

“You didn’t have to say a damn word.”

She visibly cringed. “It’s just that granny says…well, that it’s immoral,” she trailed off.

“In other words, I’m immoral.” Her silence spoke volumes. Through the ache in his chest, he trudged onward. “Six months, that’s all I’m asking for. You give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want.”

“A baby,” she blurted out, and then slapped a hand over her mouth.

That stopped him cold. Shock raced through him. He figured she’d say anything but what she had. “A baby?”

Slowly, she dropped her hand. “Yep, that’s what I want. Always have.” The hint of longing in her voice pierced his heart.

Something stirred deep down inside him. A wistfulness tugged at him. One time, long ago, he’d dreamed of having a child. But that had been before, before he’d lost his wife, before he became a drunk. He had little to nothing to offer a wife and even less to a baby. It was one thing to help troubled teens and yet entirely another to create a perfectly innocent baby, thrusting him into inheriting a wretched past filled with demons lapping at his heels.

“Tessa, who’s out there?” The older woman’s voice grew closer. Chance heard her shuffling along the floor coming their way.

Panic crossed Tessa’s face. “Yes or no? Tell me now before she comes out here.”

He gulped hard. “I…”

“Hurry up. What I tell her when she finds us all depends on how you answer me now.”

Just then the door swung open and Chance got his first glimpse of the elderly woman who hated him since the day he was born. She looked the same: silver hair in a bun, lips pinched up in blatant disapproval, glaring dark eyes, short and thin, almost wiry frame. “What in blue blazes are you doing here? And at this hour?”

A cocky grin at besting this old enemy broke across his face. He winked down at Tessa, mouthed the word yes, and then turned back to the older woman. “Why, Mrs. Warfield, I’m here to ask for your granddaughter’s hand in marriage.”


Chapter Five

The high-pitched shriek from her granny rang in Tessa’s head. Chance’s hearty laughter soon followed. He easily moved her off to the side, tapped her gently on the nose, and then said in a low voice, “I think you should go lock up the gun and hide the frying pans, sunshine.”

Wide-eyed Tessa stared at his broad back as he entered the house. “Oh Lord, they’re going to kill each other. I just know it.” She caught the screen door right before it banged shut, and then went in after him.

Mentally kicking herself for revealing her heart’s desire, Tessa knew the reason behind it. Lately, she’d thought of nothing else, especially after hearing her two best friends and business partners were expecting. Envy nearly strangled her heart.

In the old-fashioned room, he dominated the delicate Victorian furnishings as he moved silently toward the chairs flanking the large fireplace with its carved oak mantelpiece. But somehow he seemed oblivious to the sharp contrast as he plopped down in a dainty green velvet chair across from her granny’s. The cream-colored dollies on the arms slipped a little and he nonchalantly fixed them.

“Get out of here,” Granny said, waving a flowered hankie in front of her colorless face while gathering her floor-length navy blue robe to her bosom.

“Can’t do that, Mrs. W.” Chance stretched out his long legs and locked his fingers behind his head as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“Granny, can I get you your medicine?” Tessa dropped the pink towel on a nearby table and stood a few paces away from them, hugging herself. Chance’s shirt surrounded her with welcoming warmth and his scent. It was odd she clung to something of his so tight. But she knew if ever she was to have a chance at a baby, it would have to be with a man who could stand up to granny. No other man in town fit that description more aptly than Chance Deveraux.

But, Lord, she’d be taking a risk at marrying him. That’s if granny ever agreed to the union. But, if by some miracle she did… Her mouth went dry at the danger of unwittingly revealing her emotions to him. Could she keep everything bottled up tight for six months? She sincerely doubted it when her heart leapt at the just the sight of him and she spilled out her thoughts whenever his hypnotizing gray eyes fixed on her. But what other choice did she have if she wanted a baby so badly? Somehow I’ll have to keep my secrets locked away from Chance and granny. I just have to.

“Go, child, get it and some ice water, too. Then call the police to get this riff-raff out of my house. And while you’re at it take off that shirt. It’s his, isn’t it?” Twin spots of red dotted granny’s cheeks as she glared at Chance.

Looking down at the soft, gray shirt, a well of shame and regret washed over her. Torn between pleasing her grandmother and keeping the comforting clothing on, she knew she had to abide by her granny’s wishes. “Yes, it’s his.” She caught the hem in her hands and began to tug it upward.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Chance said. His firm command stopped her in her tracks. “You’re shivering even now. Keep it on.” To granny, he said, “We have business to discuss. I want to marry your granddaughter.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That could be arranged.” His wink took the sting out of his words, just barely.

“I…I never…”

“Apparently you did once. You did have a son.”

As she smoothed his shirt back down, Tessa sucked in a sharp breath at that one, waiting for her granny’s reaction. She didn’t wait long.

“Out, you no-good troublemaker. You’re just as shameless as your grandfather. He didn’t have any manners either.”

At that, all the humor drained from Chance’s face. A dark, dangerous quality shadowed his features. Ice chips formed in his gray gaze. Tessa shivered, and then backed up a few paces until she stood behind her granny’s chair, clutching the back of it. The decorative wood dug into her hands, but she didn’t care about the sharp sting of pain. If he tried anything she’d swing the chair out of his way and save her granny. Slowly, Chance dropped his clasped hands and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs.

“Never speak of my grandfather to me again, do you understand? You never took the time to know him for who he really was.”

Granny gave an indelicate snort at that.

If possible, his features hardened even more. “I don’t know how this feud got started or why it’s lasted this long. I only know that it’s going to stop with Tessa and me.”

Fearful he might give away her wish to her granny, Tessa shook her head vehemently, gaining his attention. She crossed her index fingers in front of her, and then made a half circle motion in front of her belly. Don’t tell her about the baby I want.

He frowned slightly, and then shook his head. “It will end with our baby–”

A horrified gasp escaped from granny. Shaking, Tessa leaned over the back of the velvet chair and clasped her granny’s bony shoulder, hoping to give some comfort. “No, not that…” Soft sobs racked the older woman’s body and Tessa ached inside. With each mention of a newborn, her granny reacted with heart-wrenching tears.

Going around to her, Tessa gingerly sat on the arm of the chair and hugged her grandmother to her. The small frame shook uncontrollably. Her frail hands clutched at Tessa. Glancing down at the blue-veined, paper-thin skin, Tessa nearly choked. Hour after hour of her granny lovingly knitting the multi-colored pastel baby blanket, cheery yellow outfit, and tiny matching booties rushed back to her. The same ones Tessa kept carefully wrapped in tissue paper and hidden in the back of her closet.

“Shhh, now, it’s all right,” Tessa choked out, feeling the sting of tears in her own eyes. The hole in her heart seemed to open even more. Gulping hard, she looked over at Chance. Shock was too mild a word to describe his expression. Thunderstruck was more like it.

After he seemed to have collected himself, he reached into his back pocket and extracted his handkerchief. Gruffly, he said, “Here, yours is already soaked through.”

Gratefully, Tessa accepted the gift. “Thank you,” she whispered hoarsely, and then helped granny mop up her eyes. “He didn’t mean to bring it up, Granny. How could he? He didn’t–” She stopped herself short, swallowing the words. He didn’t know. And God help me, he never will.

Taking a shuddering breath, Granny composed herself as she pulled back from Tessa’s embrace, taking Chance’s handkerchief with her. She dabbed her eyes with the snowy-white cotton fabric. Softly, she said, “Please go and get my medicine for me, child. I want to talk to this young man while you’re gone.”

Stunned, Tessa could only stare for a few moments. The color in the once paper-white face returned, allowing Tessa to see for herself that her granny really didn’t need her heart medicine at all anymore. Her request had more to do with Tessa leaving the room than anything more pressing like her health.

Reluctantly she rose, first eyeing her granny, and then Chance. He shot her a grin to ease her worry, and then he winked. Her insides fluttered at the sexy look, but her mind still screamed, Warning! Warning!

“Are you sure you don’t need me here?”

Granny waved her hand, saying, “Off with you now. I’ll be fine.” She wiped her eyes and nose, gazing straight at Chance. Her whole body looked poised for battle.

With trepidation, Tessa slowly exited only to go as far as the dining room. Once there, she lurked in the shadows, intently listening to every word spoken.

Chance followed Tessa’s lithe graceful movements until she was out of sight, and then he focused fully on the older woman before him. The tears of a moment ago, having left him speechless and stunned at the time, had vanished. The mutinous expression that greeted him didn’t surprise him in the least. He dug in his heels, relying on every weapon in his arsenal.

“You can’t have her,” Mrs. Warfield stated matter-of-factly, crossing her arms over her chest.

Shrugging, he said, “Suit yourself.”

Her silvery brows arched and her mouth opened slightly. Obviously caught off guard, she frowned at him. Narrowing her eyes, she asked, “What kind of game are you playing here? First you want her, then you don’t.”

Outwardly he made himself relax as he leaned back in the tiny chair and crossed his left booted foot over his right knee. With keen interest, he went on, “Well, she does have some shortcomings, you know…”

“Hah! Why she’d make any man a wonderful wife and don’t you forget it.” A pink flush entered her cheeks, causing him to breathe a sigh of relief. He’d prefer fire and brimstone any day to being responsible for putting her in a sick bed. Scratching the back of his head and scrunching up his face, he said, “She’s a little too tall for my taste. Only a couple inches shorter than me.”

“She’s statuesque, that’s all.” She easily dismissed it with a tilt of her head.

“And skinny.”

“Trim,” she snapped, automatically correcting him. Looking at him haughtily, she asked, “You wouldn’t want a fat wife, now would you?”

Inwardly, Chance beamed at the way things were falling into his lap. He had all he could do not to rub his hands together in glee. Instead, he ran a hand over his jaw, feeling the beginnings of the stubble there. “What about her hair? It’s all curly and wild and red!” He said the last as if it were the plague. Secretly, he had a thing for redheads, but he wasn’t going to tell the old lady that or he’d lose his ground here.

Sitting across from him, she opened and closed her mouth without a word escaping. She answered on her second effort, “Why…why it’s strawberry blonde, not red, for land’s sake. Can’t you tell the difference? And women all over the world pay good money to get their hair that color.”

“You don’t.”

Flustered even more, she stammered, “I…my coloring isn’t right. I’d never be able to get away with it.”

Easily, stringing her in, he said, “Of course, there’s her overreacting. She always did that as a kid.”

“Over…Why, she’s just…just theatrical. It runs in the family. Her mother came from a long line of gypsies. In fact, the girl was a gypsy Princess.” She patted her tidy bun.

Although he’d never heard that one, that didn’t surprise him in the least. Tessa had grown up to be exotic and sexy as hell to him. Shooting her a mock horrified gaze, he exclaimed, “A gypsy! She’s going to be more than a handful for any man.”

A sly smile cracked through the softly wrinkled long face of the woman. “Are you saying you wouldn’t be able to control her? Is she too much of a woman for you to handle?”

Careful here, if I play my cards right I can have it all.

“Well now…”

“I bet you you can’t.” Triumph shone in her dark eyes. Her smile widened. “No Deveraux in the world could ever possibly rein in a Warfield. We’re too much for the likes of you.”

“Oh, really?” He arched a brow at her. His middle tighten in a knot at hearing the unspoken words, Warfields are better than Deverauxs.

“Yes, really.” She chuckled now.

Slowly, he dropped his foot back to the floor, and then shifted in the seat so now there was less than three feet separating them. “Okay, you’re on.”

Her mouth dropped open. “Whatever do you mean?”

“I’m taking you up on your bet.”

“Bet? What bet?”

Grinning, he said, “A second ago you said you’d bet me I can’t handle Tessa. Now I’m taking you up on it. Marriage. Six months.”

Stomping her foot, she said, “No, absolutely not.”

“Oh, so you just want us to live together. All right.”

Her gasp tore through the room. “There is no way I will ever allow Tessa to live with a man.”

“Okay, have it your way, marriage it is then.”


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