Authors: Candice Poarch
ny moment now, the rain would burst from the clouds.
Mackenzie Avery strolled down the sidewalk of the exclusive L.A. neighborhood in his designer jogging suit, of courseâtrying to blend in with the locals. He'd come here several times in the last week to see the little girl who was now pedaling her red bicycle hard, trying to make it home before the downpour began. The wind whipped her hair and clothes, but she was determined.
He snapped pictures of her with his tiny camera, which he hid when she passed him. She was close enough to touch, yet didn't recognize him. It had been four years since she'd last seen him.
He'd first seen Noelle when she'd visited her grandparents and stayed at their summer camp, which was next door to his father's thoroughbred farm in Virginia. That was when he'd fallen in love with her. He'd spent summer vacations from college at home, and her grandparents had brought the kids to his father's farm for riding lessons. Mackenzie had even taught her how to ride. But her grandparents had died four years ago and she hadn't returned since.
Mackenzie rubbed his chest as if he could rub the ache from his heart. She was his precious little girl, yet he couldn't claim her. He could never reveal to his wife or his father that he had a daughter. He'd made a promise, and if he told his father, the older man would take the next plane to California to make trouble. So he held the secret inside, and it weighed on his chest as heavy as a boulder.
Mackenzie stood in the shadows snapping pictures of the ten-year-old until she finally disappeared into the house.
If there was one thing he regretted in his life, it was not being able to participate in his daughter's life. Especially since he and his wife had just discovered that she couldn't have children. She was heartsick. And because she'd tried so hard to conceive, he was unwilling to cause her more pain.
With a sigh, Mackenzie jogged the two blocks to his car. He got in just as the clouds burst. Again he wondered if any of the other specimens he'd given had resulted in children. And if they were as healthy and as happy as Noelle. He'd never know, he realized as he drove away.
Nor would he ever return to Noelle. After all, he could never reveal to her his true identity. He'd just have to wait eight years until she came of age and then hope she'd try to contact him. That was his only chance of an introduction to his own daughter.
Sixteen years later
oelle Greenwood was late, as usual. With all the running around she had to do, what a time for her car to be in the shop! She shoved a few bills into the cab driver's hand, gathered her mountain of shopping bags and sprinted out of the carâstraight into the solid wall of a man's chest. Everything went flying: packages, purse and her. She braced herself to hit the ground when strong arms captured her.
“Whoa.” The man lifted her upright.
With a grateful smile, Noelle mumbled a quick “Thanks,” and started shoving things back into the shopping bags.
“Let me help you with that, honey,” his deep voice said. It was the “honey” that set her on edge. What right did he have to be acting so familiar? She wasn't his honey.
Noelle jerked her gaze toward the man. Not only was he attractive, he was hot, and he knew it. She was close enough to see the flecks of brown in his eyes, the sexy curve of his lips, the smooth nut-brown color of his skin. Reflexively she took a step back.
His smile beamed bright enough to melt ice. He wore black jeans on his long-legged, six-three frame, with a cream-colored sweater and a black leather jacket. The clothes molded to him in all the right places.
All that shouldn't be legal in one package, she thought.
She kept the thought to herself and gathered her things. “I have it,” she said. Although she was grateful he'd saved her from landing on the street, she had things to do. Besides, men that attractive were nothing but heartache. He'd probably bumped into her deliberately. The sidewalk in front of the apartment building was wide enough for him not to invade her space. Especially since he obviously hadn't been waiting for a cab. The one she'd got out of had already pulled away from the curb, and he'd made no effort to stop it.
“I'll take care of the packages, thank you.” She took the sweater dangling from his fingers and a box from his hand. “Excuse me.”
The thousand-watt smile slipped. “Is everyone in Memphis this unapproachable?”
“Must be your unlucky day.” She knew she was acting irrationally, but his kind brought out the worst in her.
“Guess so,” he said. “If you're sureâ¦”
“I'm positive. Thanks.” With the boxes safely tucked into the bags, she scrambled to hook all the handles together and move on.
“You forgot something,” he said, dangling a black lacy bra by the strap on one long finger for the entire world to see.
She grabbed the swinging bra and stuffed it into a bag. “Thank you.” If she gritted her teeth any harder, she'd need a porcelain inlay.
Shaking his head, every lady's dream man finally walked off into the building. He struck her as the kind who wouldn't settle down with one woman when five would do.
Noelle rushed inside and punched the elevator button for her fifth-floor apartment. The unnerving man was nowhere to be seen. And she felt grateful.
She had her hands full with having to make nice with another man she was to meet that very afternoon. And from what she'd been told, Colin Mayes was another hottie. She had her work cut out for her. She had to talk her way into his homeâwithout putting out, because Colin Mayes lived on the same estate as her grandfather. A grandfather who didn't know she existed.
Still puzzled over the rude woman he'd met earlier that afternoon, Colin Mayes stood beside Brent Jamison observing a much more agreeable female. She was a good hundred feet away, parading across the lawn, putting on a show as if she knew he couldn't help but stare. With a haughty glance she turned away, and Colin chuckled.
She was stunning, he thought as he looked over the sleek lines of one of the most beautiful females he'd ever laid eyes on. Long legs, a little reserved, but plenty of sass, too. And a lot of mystery. She was the kind of female that would keep a male guessing. He started to approach her, then stopped himself, as curious, she tossed her head toward him once again.
Oh, yeah. She was the one. He had to have her. He'd give anything, do anything to get her.
“She's a beauty, isn't she?” Brent said, clearly pleased.
Colin didn't respond, couldn't reply, really. He'd wanted this fine-looking filly too long to blow the deal now. He was taking a huge gamble, risking everything for her, especially considering how badly his father wanted to sell the family's half of River Oaks Thoroughbred Farm. His dad held Colin's carefree lifestyle over his head as a threat to sell River Oaks. For some time, he'd been harranging Colin about settling down. Colin had slowed down a lot, but at twenty-eight he wasn't ready to live the life of an old married man. There wasn't a female alive who could make him give up his freedom. Not yet anyway. Besides, his grandfather had left the farm in a lot of debt. What woman wanted a man who couldn't afford the bling?
He really couldn't afford to be away now, but crucial business decisions had to be made if the farm was to continue to grow. His trainer would look after things until he returned. Equestrian breeding season was beginning and Colin would be unable to leave again until July. He planned to enjoy a little play on this trip, along with the work.
Back home in Virginia he had to put up a front for his old manâbut not here.
“Take a closer look,” Brent said, and signaled for the stablehand to lead the sleek black-tailed filly named Maggie Girl closer to them.
Colin had checked out her temperament, ability and conformation earlier and had been satisfied with her history. She was in good condition for breeding, not too fat or too thin. Now he looked her over thoroughly from head to hoof. Afterwards, he fed her a carrot which the mare ate eagerly from his hand. “Go on, girl,” Colin said, patting her on her flank before he followed Brent into his office.
Done in mahogany and a rich burgundy hue, the room was clearly a man's domain. A slew of ribbons hung on the mahogany-paneled walls. The room was as lavish as any in Brent's palatial Memphis estate.
One day River Oaks would be this lucrative, Colin thought. Still, he knew racehorses were Brent's hobby, not his livelihood.
As if reading Colin's mind, Brent announced. “I'm ready to step down from the radio.” The Jamisons owned two extremely successful radio stations.
“In a year. I'm ready to spend more time on the horses, and the wife wants to travel.”
“You're selling the station?”
“I've gotten some compelling offers, but the kids want to keep the business. Which brings us to the point of this trade. I have some prime horses. Some are doing well at the tracks. But I need something new. And since I'm not selling the business, I don't want to shell out any more cash than I have to. It's no secret that your stallion, Diamond Spirit, is sought after for stud fees now, but with all the improvements your grandfather and George made on River Oaks, you're cash-poor.”
Nobody knew that better than Colin. His dad reminded him of how far in debt they were every time he tried to convince Colin to sell the farm.
“Dally Run sired Maggie Girl,” Brent continued. “She'll be a good filly to match with your stallion. And I want to match one of my mares with Diamond Spirit. Think we can negotiate a deal that's agreeable for both of us?”
The older man leaned back in his chair and clipped off the tip of his Dominican cigar as he waited for Colin's response. He took his time lighting it.
Brent's hair was styled in a short cut. He worked out regularly in the gym in his house and it showed. He was an extremely alert as well as shrewd businessman. But Colin wasn't a novice. He'd learned a lot at his grandfather's side.
River Oaks was just getting to the point where their number-one stallion brought in a quarter of a million for each live foal. But they needed another stallion to take over after Diamond Spirit was put to pasture due to old age. He also wanted Maggie Girl, and she wasn't cheap. At the same time, Colin didn't want a cash agreement any more than Brent did.
Colin steepled his fingers beneath his chin in an effort to stop himself from rubbing his hands together. “Then let's make it happen,” he said.
“He's here,” Cynthia Jamison said, dropping her purse on the bar of the extraordinary entertainment room in the Jamisons' sprawling home in an upscale neighborhood north of Memphis. “Mama said Colin and Dad have been in the office for a couple of hours. I talked her into asking Colin to dinner, so you'll have time to do your magic.”
“Look at me,” Noelle said. “I'm so nervous, I'm acting crazy. I went out shopping today, as if I had the money to spare.” The image of that annoying stranger popped unbidden into her mind for the umpteenth time that day.
“You've got to spend something on yourself. I know you want to open your grandparents' old summer camp, but don't neglect yourself,” Cindy said. “I thought you'd change your mind by now, especially since your donor father is dead.”
Some months before, Noelle had discovered that her mother had used a sperm donor to conceive her, and Noelle had become obsessed with finding him. After an intensive search she'd done so, had even spoken to him before he was killed in a car crash.
“Somewhere deep inside me, I still have this need to meet his father, though I can't explain why.”
“Are you going to tell him who you are?”
“I don't think so. Why disrupt his life? I actually have a father who loves me. That's why this is so hard, you know.” Noelle paced up and down the carpet, paying no mind to her opulent surroundings.
“Will you relax?” Cindy said. “Why are you so nervous about meeting Colin? He's just a man. One who loves women, by the way.”
“If this doesn't work out, how am I going to get into River Oaks and meet George Avery?” When she had contacted her donor father in August, he'd told her his father was still alive and he wanted her to meet him, but Mackenzie Avery had died a week after they spoke, so she doubted he'd had time to tell him.
“I don't like using Colin to get an introduction.”
“Just stop it,” Cindy said. “We have it all planned out. When you get to Virginia, he'll introduce you to your grandfather, and then you can drop the guy. He's always dropping women when he tires of them. So what if the shoe's on the other foot for a change?” Cindy rounded the bar, filled a glass with wine, and handed it to Noelle. “Drink this. It'll relax you. Colin has a rep, and it's about time somebody took him down a peg. If we're lucky, he'll think twice about the way he treats women in the future.”
“I don't want to take him on. I just want to meet Mr. Avery. I hope I won't cause any problems for your father,” Noelle said.
“Don't worry about Daddy. Business is business. But this is all play.”
“You're wrong there,” Noelle said, sitting on the edge of the barstool. “This is strictly business.”
Cindy perused Noelle's outfit critically. “You could have worn something a little more revealing, you know.”
“This works.” She'd chosen her outfit carefully. It was feminine and molded to her curves without shouting,
Come here. I'm dying to impress you.
“Maybe you're right. In that sweater, you're making sure he won't be able to keep his eyes off you.”
“Let's hope he won't.” Noelle had been working on this introduction for months. Although she had always planned to reopen her grandparents' summer camp, she didn't tell her parents why she'd chosen to do so now. She hoped her father wouldn't be hurt. He was one in a million. She wouldn't do anything to hurt him.
The intercom buzzed. “They're leaving the office,” Gloria Jamison's voice came through loud and clear.
“Thanks, Mama.” Cindy smiled at Noelle. “Pull yourself together. It's show time.”
Colin and Brent had haggled for two hours before they emerged from the office, satisfied with the deal.
“You haven't met my daughter, have you?” Brent asked, walking beside him to the house.
“Haven't had the pleasure.” Colin reminded himself not to get tangled with the daughter of a man with whom he was doing business, and with whom he might need to do business in the future.
“Her college friend is visiting today. She's moving to Virginia near you. Her grandparents left her some kind of children's camp. Blue Mountain Farms. Familiar with it?”
Colin certainly was. It was the boarded-up place adjacent to River Oaks. “It's been closed down for a while but someone's been working at the house lately.”
“Probably her father. She wants to open it up. Turn it into some kind of summer computer camp.”
Now and then Colin rode his horse near the property. The buildings looked so weather-beaten that a stiff wind might topple them over. And so neglected, as if they were waiting for someone to come along and wake them up.
“She's got a lot of work ahead of her.” Colin stopped himself from checking his watch. All he wanted to do now was get back to the apartment, call George and celebrate with a stiff glass of good old Kentucky bourbon and a willing woman.