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Authors: Evanne Lorraine

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One by one the power tools turned off. Hardhats turned in
his direction. Someone noticed his approach and alerted the rest of the crew.
Outnumbered by eight to one, a smart man might’ve made tracks for his rig.
Thing was, Liam hadn’t done anything wrong aside from objectifying Tiana’s
world-class ass in the privacy of his own mind. Politically incorrect thinking
wasn’t a crime.

Time to meet the family.

He hiked toward where she and Rob were still at it. Her
fine, denim-clad ass held his attention. Ten feet away he made out a streak of
dirt decorating her left cheek. Three feet away he peered over the top of his
sunglasses, taking in her slim arms with their subtle muscle definition. The
toned limbs were an excellent reminder a core of serious strength lay beneath
her slender curves.

He brought his focus back up to her head. “Hi.”

Tiana whirled around. The front view looked equally fine.

“I’m Liam Sterling. I live a mile up the road.” He held out
a palm to shake.

Rob stepped around her, filling the gap between them and
forcing her to take a step back. He pumped Liam’s hand. “Liam Sterling, CEO of
Sterling Enterprises?”

“Last time I checked.”

“I’m Rob Barbour, I run Classic Construction.” The man was
twice Tiana’s size. Aside from the same whiskey-brown eyes, there was no family
resemblance.

Tiana elbowed her brother aside.

The power tools whirred back life. Her brother must have
signaled his crew to get back to work.

“Tiana Barbour.” She offered Liam her hand.

Liam gave her a firm shake. “Nice to meet you.”

She angled her chin toward Rob. “My brother, the big jerk,
can’t seem to remember I’m an adult and he works for me, at least on this job.”

He kept a straight face, silently thanking Rob for provoking
her and guaranteeing her otherwise dubious welcome. “Tough to get past birth
order issues.”

She studied him solemnly. “Why don’t we talk inside?”

“Great.” Liam caught a whiff of her feminine scent as she
passed.

“Thanks for not mentioning the club.” She pitched her voice
for his ears alone.

He arched a brow. “Same goes.”

The rest of the way to her house she kept ahead of him and
well out of reach.

The fine hairs on his neck prickled, making him wonder if
her stalker had moved to the country. He automatically scanned the nearby
woods. Actual surveillance would require binoculars and some kind of hide. Much
more likely the sensation of being watched was from her big brother, a curious
member of his crew, or whoever Jacques had watching Tiana.

Liam followed her up freshly painted white steps, across the
generous front porch lined with baskets of blooming flowers and through the front
door. He stopped short in the entry and kept his shades in place to take in the
front room.

The construction noise stayed outside thanks to serious
soundproofing. Instead of silence, the hum of central air-conditioning and the
soothing notes of Vivaldi’s
Four Seasons
greeted them. A trace of fresh
varnish and a hint of lemon teased his nose. Unopened moving cartons lined the
wide hall. The faded floral wallpaper and shabby beaded wainscoting from
Tilly’s days were gone. The living room walls had been painted a matte brick
red and trimmed with new cream baseboards and molding. A lot of trouble and
expense had gone into retaining the character of the old farm house while
restoring its true beauty. Refinished hardwood floors gleamed under an antique
area rug, which had probably cost as much as his ride. The vibrant colors and
high-end furnishings suited Tiana’s delicate strength and exotic beauty.

“You’ve made some big changes in a short time.”

“You’ve been here before?”

He slid his sunglasses down to watch her over the rims.
“Sure, I knew Tilly. She and my housekeeper Lynda were close friends.”

“She was my favorite aunt. I miss her.”

“She would have loved what you’ve done with the house.”

“I’m pretty happy with how it turned out so far. There are a
few things still to be done, but the first floor is finished.” She sidestepped
a nest of boxes and moved farther down the hall, still staying out of his
reach. “Would you like a drink?”

“Sure, whatever you’re having is fine.” He pushed the
glasses back in place.

“Is pink lemonade too girly for you?”

“Pink is great.”
I’ve never had it, but I like lemonade.
How bad can it be?
He trailed her into a sunny yellow kitchen and enjoyed
the scenery while she washed and dried her hands and stretched to retrieve a
couple of Collins glasses from a mostly bare, glass-front cupboard. Her tiptoe
reach exposed a wider band of smooth, sun-kissed skin between her top and
jeans.

“Why do you keep doing that thing with your sunglasses?”

He took the shades off. “What thing is that?”

“Lowering them to look over the frames then pushing the
glasses back up.”

“I’m nearsighted.”

Tiana met his gaze. “Uh-huh. Just how myopic are you?”

“Anything more than five feet away is a blur.”

“They make you look smart and sexy.” She made them drinks
from ice and pale-pink lemonade, returned the pitcher to the fridge and placed
the tall glasses on a white lacquered wooden table nestled next to a pair of
corner windows. “Please sit. My brother seems impressed with you. Are you a big
deal in the construction world?”

He held a chair for her. “There are bigger firms. We develop
real estate projects.”

“Housing projects?”

“No, we usually work on business complexes, shopping
centers, sports arenas—those kinds of projects.”

“So you are big.” Tiana took a swallow of her lemonade.

“Depends on your definition of big.” He changed the subject.
“No corset today?”

Tiana blushed prettily. “I don’t wear them every day.”

He resisted the urge to tease further and tilted his chin
toward the crew. “Are they working on the stable?”

“Yes.”

“Big.”

“As it needs to be.” The corners of her mouth quirked as if
she fought back a smile.

He arched one brow. “I would’ve sworn I hadn’t said anything
funny.”

“The commentary was written fairly large on your face.” She
balanced on the edge of the chair across from him, poised to jump.

“I’m usually harder to read.” He leaned back, giving her
more room.

“I’m certain you’re not. This isn’t the Crucible. We’re both
feeling our way in new territory.” Her grin broke free and took his breath
away.

A knock on the kitchen door switched off her happy
expression and pulled his attention to the interruption.

She stood. “Excuse me. I won’t be a minute.”

He drank the sweet-tart lemonade, relieved the flavor was
the same, while trying not to listen. He recognized Rob’s voice. Not a
surprise. If the situation had been reversed, he would have found a reason to
hang out in the kitchen all afternoon.

She returned alone. A frown marred her perfect face. Her
cheeks had temper spots and her full lips were pressed tight. Even pissed she
was fucking gorgeous.

Liam asked, “Everything okay?”

“Peachy.” She shook off whatever Rob had to say and reseated
herself. “What were we talking about?”

Before he’d answered, her face smoothed.

“I remember. You’d doubted my need for an enormous stable.”

He found himself liking her more than he’d liked a woman in,
he couldn’t say how long, maybe forever. He arched a brow in silent invitation
for her to continue, without admitting she was right.

“You aren’t the first to wonder, just the best-looking.” She
took a sip of lemonade.

“Thanks, I think. Who else asked?”

“Fishing for compliments?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Not me,” he drawled and dropped his focus to her mouth,
wanting a taste of those distracting lips.

Her cheeks flared with fresh heat.

She lifted her chin and straightened her spine. “What you
don’t know is I intend to train, coach and teach dressage. By next summer I’ll
be holding camps.”

“I take it you’ve taught dressage before.” He liked the new
sureness in her voice when she talked about her plans.

“Yes.” She hesitated for a beat then added, “A while ago.”

He hadn’t missed the telling pause, wondering exactly what
she’d censored. His gut tightened, warning him he was on treacherous ground. He
scooted his chair farther back and lightened his tone. “Riding lessons seem
more practical. Sterling Falls is a long ways from a dressage venue.”

“This is true. However, when I offer to train, the riders
will come. Naturally, they’ll require horses, hence the need for a proper
stable. ” She glowed with utter confidence. The switch to certainty made her
all the hotter.

Chapter Five

 

Every time Liam showed up in her life, the force of his
presence hit her with the same breath-stealing rush. He certainly didn’t need
the Crucible’s props to turn her to jelly. All those lovely male muscles, his
size and the coiled power vibrating through him, even at rest, made her heart
race and her nipples snap to attention.

The intensity of his focus was much more flattering to her
damaged self-esteem and ten times more dangerous to her control than his
compelling physicality. What happened between them might destroy her, but she
would never be bored.

Rebuilding her life wasn’t about staying in a cocoon of
perfect safety, it required risks. Sooner or later she had to take a leap of
faith and trust a man. Although she still needed to be smart and careful about
her choices.

“Walk with me.”

“Where?” She made herself keep out of his long reach, not
trusting her resistance far enough to allow his touch.

He tipped his head toward the nearly done stables. “Don’t
you want to check on their progress?”

“You just want to lap up more of Rob’s hero worship,” she
grumbled, but she followed him.

“No, I want to be with you.”

His sincerity melted more of her carefully reconstructed
barriers.

Maybe I should try more candor, either he’ll accept my
ugly scars, squishy spots and all or run back to his mountain top
.
“Why are you here? This isn’t the club. I’m not interested in playing kinky
games at home.”

“Sooner or later you're going to be ready to try romance
again. I am exactly what you need and I’ll be here, ready, willing and
waiting.”

The offer of a romantic relationship was the last thing
she’d expected from Liam.
He’s so certain and so wrong. I’ve never ever
tried romance
.

“Perhaps.” She opened and closed a new gate, needlessly
testing the workmanship and pretending indifference while weakening with every
heartbeat.

Rob sent a couple hopeful looks in Liam’s direction, but
kept working. Liam did his part by walking with her and ignoring her brother.

When they’d circled the new framing, he stopped.

Awkward again, she took a step back and shielded her eyes
from the sun to peer up at him. “Would you like more girly lemonade?”

“I’ve got to get going. Besides, I suspect your construction
crew will pack up and quit charging you for slacking if I leave.”

Her head jerked toward the slow-moving carpenters and her
brother. Her lips pursed. “Point taken. Rob still thinks I need a babysitter.”

“A subject your brother and I agree on,” Liam said. “Not
that you need a babysitter. I’m more than clear on your adult status, but I’m
not crazy about you staying here alone. The mountains hide predators. The
two-legged ones are the most vicious.”

The fine hairs on her arms prickled at his warning. “Thanks
for your concern, but you don’t need to worry. I’m fine. You don’t need to
assign people to watch me either. I’m sure the tailgater didn’t follow me to
Sterling Falls.” She paused and softened her tone. “It’s only another month.
Once the construction is finished, my horses and people will arrive.”

“Great, but Rob and his crew aren’t here 24/7 so I’m keeping
a security team on you until your own arrangements are in place. Travis lives a
few miles south of you.”

“Do you think he would actually act on his threats?”

“Not really, but I don’t want to bet your pretty skin on it.
Humor me by spending some time at my place. Give me an hour to take care of a
couple of things and come over for a ride.”

She lowered her lashes, unable to meet his intense scrutiny.
“I don’t—”

“You would be doing me a favor.”

“How so?” Hope lightened her tone. She wanted to be with
him, but she needed to be discreet.

He lowered his voice so she leaned closer. “The hayburners
need exercise and even the fillies are too well-behaved. I need a challenge.”

I’m a challenge for him?
He had to be teasing, but
her heart quickened anyway. She lifted her chin. “I’ll see you in an hour.”

He cracked his car door. “Come here for a second.”

Her heart pounded harder, making her aware how much she
wanted to obey even his casual commands.

She edged nearer, unable to resist Liam’s brand of
temptation.

He opened the door wider, letting the tinted window shield
them from the nosy construction crew and gently pulled her into the shelter of
his body. His fingers skimmed her jeans waistband. Without the corset’s rigid
layer of control buffering his firm touch, the featherlight contact set off
ripples of excitement.

“You’re a dangerously tempting little slave.”

Their mouths were only a breath away, so each word puffed
against her lips, making them tingle for his possession.

She breathed his clean, musky scent and longed for another
taste of hot male, power and certainty. Her heart raced with reckless wanting
as she wound her arms around his strong neck. Despite the heat arcing between
them, she shivered in erotic anticipation of his kiss.

“You have a streak of dirt right there. It’s been driving me
crazy.” Liam brushed her cheek with a rough thumb. “Must have been something
else, I’m still crazy for you.” He tilted her chin and slanted his mouth over
hers.

His playful teasing vanished the moment their lips met.

His aggressive kiss didn’t scare her. She met his sensual
assault with softness and widened her mouth to give him better access. As she
melted against the delicious hardness of his erection, she yearned for more.
Flames of reckless desire seared away caution. In that moment she would have
allowed him anything and everything.

Liam ended the embrace and unwound her arms. “Kissing you is
too dangerous. It makes me want to fuck you until neither one of us can stand.
Much as I’d like to, taking you up against my ride, right here right now, isn’t
happening.”

He kept a firm hand on her hip or her liquid knees would
have dropped her at his feet in the driveway. “You’re the dangerous one.”

“Not every danger hurts.” He lowered his sunglasses.

She met his smoldering gaze over the top of the frames
before he pushed the glasses back into place. Her legs went wobbly all over
again from just his burning glance. She nearly trusted him not to abuse her
body. But a relationship with Liam might still be fatal to her heart. She shook
off her habitual wariness. She’d worked too hard just to survive to waste her
life cowering in fear from what she wanted most.

“You’re right and it’s past time I tested my limits.” She
nipped his manly chin then jerked away, appalled at her recklessness.

He hadn’t released her, so she didn’t fall on her butt.

“Better head back to the house.” His voice deepened, making
the words more order than suggestion. But his dimple flashed.

He’s not angry
.
She nodded and managed to
navigate around his SUV and up the five steps to the porch without crashing
into anything. She grasped the doorknob then turned to watch him leave.

Liam hadn’t moved.

She sketched a wave, scooted inside and sank against the
smooth, cool wood of the white front door. Her heart raced and her knees trembled,
but not strictly from fear.

A case of red-hot lust was a freaking miracle for her, but
that didn’t make Liam Mr. Right. She needed to know him a lot better before she
gave her heart into his keeping. He might not even want it. Maybe he had a
superhero complex and she was simply a challenge. Would that be so terrible?
Finding a Master she could respond to was why she’d joined the Crucible. There
was nothing wrong with a Master-Right-Now as long as she stayed careful and
didn’t mistake kinky fun and games for something more.She ducked into
the downstairs powder room, splashed cold water on her face and neck and patted
dry. The oval mirror reflected pupils so big only a ring of light-brown iris
remained.
The real problem is Liam makes me want forever
.

Still mooning over her sexy neighbor, she wandered into the
kitchen with a vague plan to put away the dirty glasses.

Rob knocked on the back door.

This time, she welcomed her brother’s interruption. “Come on
in.”

“The crew’s almost done cleaning up. We’ll be out of your
hair in a few. Sometime on Monday we should finish framing.”

“So you’re still on schedule.”

“Yeah, the stable will be done in another two weeks.”

Her stomach gave a happy quiver at the thought of having her
horses with her again. “That’s wonderful. I’m sorry I was short with you
earlier, but I’m an adult.”

“Nah, I was out of line, butting into your conversation. I
never made the connection between Sterling Falls and Sterling Enterprises. Liam
Sterling is a pretty high-end neighbor.” Rob tucked his hands into his pockets
and nearly scuffled his toe.

Tiana gathered the lemonade glasses and kept her tone
carefully neutral. She hated lying to Rob, even by omission. But she definitely
wasn’t ready to discuss how she’d met Liam with her brother and never would be.
“He seems nice enough. How do you know him—is he in construction too?”

“I don’t know him. Today is the first time I’ve met the
man.” Rob raked his fingers through his short hair. “Yeah, we’re in the same
business, except I run a single crew doing restoration and custom houses while
Liam runs a real estate development dynasty. Sterling Enterprises is a
privately held family business and one of the biggest firms on the west coast.”

“So he’s not one of your competitors? I don’t have to snub
him?” she teased. She already knew Liam wasn’t, but she wanted to make amends
with her big brother.

“Nah, we’re not even in the same league.”

“Then I’ll be nice to him. I’m sure he’s lots older than
you. Plus, you said his firm is a family business. Look at everything you’ve
accomplished already and you’re just one guy. Your gorgeous wife is working
hard on producing your first progeny. Give the dynasty thing a little room to
grow.”

Her brother grinned. “You’re right. I’m out of here for the
weekend.”

“See you Monday.” Tiana locked up behind Rob. Probably silly
for her to be so security conscious out in the country. Caution was an
ingrained habit she wasn’t ready to give up and Liam had mentioned the
mountains had two-legged predators. Travis had seemed more interested in
punishing Liam than her. But if he mistakenly thought she was important to
Liam… She rubbed at a rash of chill bumps as Rob drove away.

Tiana ignored the eerie feeling. At least she’d teased Rob
into a better mood. Money had always been a sore point between them and there
was nothing she could do to even the financial gap. They shared a father, but
had different mothers. Rob’s mother Karen divorced Charlie after catching him
cheating with nineteen-year-old Audrey. His first wife received a healthy
settlement from a then currently flush Charlie.

Audrey’s family was less than thrilled with their teenage
daughter’s prospective son-in-law and insisted on an iron-clad prenuptial.
Their suspicions were confirmed when Charlie lost the fortune he’d made and
cheerfully sought new ventures with steadily diminishing returns. In spite of
her grandparents’ disapproval of the marriage, they adored their grandchild and
showered Tiana with love and attention. Tiana’s money came from her mother’s
family in the form of a trust with a generous living allowance. Rob didn’t need
her money. Even if he had, pride would keep him from accepting her help. He was
lucky. He still had a loving mother who was healthy, alive and a part of his
life.

When Tiana was five Audrey died from an accidental overdose.
Even her memories of her mother were blurred by the stories her father, Nana
and Tilly told. If-only wishes stung, making her blink away tears threatening
to turn her into a red-eyed hag.

A shower before riding was a teeny bit insane, but she went
with it. After toweling off, what to wear loomed. Tiana ransacked her lingerie
drawers, finally settling on a stretchy cami and boy shorts in butter-yellow
embroidered with daisies. Feminine undies made her feel womanly whether or not anyone
else ever saw them.

She pulled on thin socks, shimmied into her favorite jeans
and buttoned a blue- white- and yellow-plaid shirt. She slipped into a pair of
cowboy boots, tugged her pants smooth and evaluated the overall effect in the
full-length mirror. The outfit pleased her, but it was nothing to make a
demanding man sit up and beg.

Tiana narrowed her gaze at her reflection, trying to imagine
clothes that would make Liam beg and failed. Just as well, she preferred to do
the begging. The thought made her giggle.

A glance at the nightstand clock said if she wanted to
arrive early, she didn’t have time to change. She scooted down the stairs,
grabbed her keys and raced out the kitchen door, locking it behind her. She had
an invitation from Master-Right-Now.

A star jasmine wound through the breezeway between the house
and the garage. She slowed to inhale the delicate fragrance. The acrid taint of
stale cigar smoke nearly made her gag.

For a few seconds, the sickening odor transported her back
into the nightmare of Richard’s abuse and she froze. She flexed her hands,
working out the stiffness from the healed burns and grounding herself in the
here and now.

One of the construction crew had probably lit up a stogie
before heading home. Richard certainly hadn’t crawled out of his grave. The man
was dead and buried and incapable of hurting her or anyone else.

She stiffened her spine, refusing to be scared by something
as silly as a smell.

* * * * *

Back at the ranch, Liam reviewed the background information
Jacque had emailed on Tiana, slowing to reread more than once. He grew more
impressed with every entry. No wonder she believed she would attract students.
She’d been a nationally ranked rider since her teens and a favorite to set new
records during the last Olympics.

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