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Katie Calhoun can do it all: run a car dealership, nurse her friend and mentor, Harry, back to health while juggling work, play and loneliness. What she can’t do is family.
Jace Donner’s life is on its well-planned track and he’s headed for a fabulous new career in Switzerland, but his uncle Harry needs him right now and family comes first.
When he finds the sexy, copper-headed spitfire Katie moving into his uncle’s home, he sets aside his plans. He needs to keep this gold digger from running off with the family silver. Jace soon learns Katie takes tough-minded to a whole new level and he can’t resist her. Doubt and suspicion turn to admiration and desire as Katie struggles to maintain a business, tolerate his uncle’s gruff exterior and play nursemaid all at once.
Katie learns to share more of herself with Jace than she ever has before. One day, and one step at a time, he leads her toward fulfillment. Jace invades her life, her job, her mind…but she won’t let him take her heart when he leaves…
Jace is leaving all right, but he wants to take Katie with him– if he can ever get past her defenses to prove that what they have is real and forever.
Jace Donner first noticed the cherry-red ’65 Mustang when he came out of the garage after stowing away the lawnmower. The convertible was rocking and rolling to a beat all its own, parked at the curb, filled with boxes and cartons. A string of curses floated across the lawn and he saw a copper-headed sprite of a woman struggling to unload the cargo.
He grinned, and leaned against the maple tree on the front lawn to watch.
One more string of curses that would make a sailor blush and she scrambled onto the folded ragtop on the far side of a large carton. All he could see of her was the top of her head. She seemed engrossed in solving her problem or she’d have seen him and asked for help. He heard her grunt and the carton crumpled in the corner. Must have been a pretty solid kick.
He could see where the box was stuck and her frustrated antics wouldn’t unstick it. Time for a rescue. He jogged across the lawn and bent down, unhooking the crumpled corner from under the front seat.
He lifted out the box and set it on the sidewalk.
Suddenly, the woman did a backward slide into the backseat, landing in a great display of creamy thighs and calves. Her face registered such outrage he almost laughed but control won. It wouldn’t do to antagonize a beautiful woman.
“It was caught,” he explained in his most reasonable voice, pointing to the back of the front seat, but looking at every lush, rounded inch of her.
The car and the woman were one sweet ride! A rush of desire sideswiped him. His head spun. This car, this woman equaled a man’s dream come true.
Katie Calhoun heard a deep male rumble and felt vague recognition shimmer through her mind. Odd, if she’d ever heard that particular voice before, she’d have remembered it. She forced the sense of recognition away. She peered up from her awkward position in the backseat.
It was a man, all right.
Tall and lean.
His hair was blacker than a Chevy lacquer. His eyes were blue as a Ford. The blue held the same flecks of silver and gold as a good metallic paint. They were dangerous eyes.
And he might be a dangerous man. But only to her equilibrium.
A shiver ran through her as she assimilated the information. No, she didn’t know him, but still, there was that nagging sense that she should. She closed her thighs. It was all she could do to preserve what was left of her dignity.
He stood on the sidewalk beside her car with careless grace. His easy grin and intelligent face invited conversation.
She straightened to a more proper position in the backseat and cleared her throat. “I didn’t see where it was stuck. Thank you.” She kept her tone cool.
He continued to smile, his eyes holding the expectant promise of easy acquaintance. He was dressed in old worn jeans and a black T-shirt. He was also long-limbed and looked strong, without the bulk of a bodybuilder.
Why was he still staring? She’d thanked him, hadn’t she? She glanced up and down the sidewalk to see the woman he undoubtedly had in tow. A man like this one couldn’t be running around loose.
There must be a woman somewhere.
The street was empty.
Maybe he was lost. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” the man said. His voice was low and sensual and belonged on the radio doing intros for a blues show. It didn’t belong here, in broad daylight and it certainly shouldn’t raise goose bumps on her skin in the heat of midday.
Katie felt a fresh thrill of recognition and now, attraction. This man wasn’t just dangerous. He was lethal. She checked the street again, both sides this time.
“I’m just moving these boxes into my friend’s house,” she said dismissively.
“Harry Johnson’s place?” His electric blue eyes widened.
Great, she thought, he probably lives close by. She’d have to smile and nod at him whenever they passed in the street. His wife would want to invite her in for tea. She shuddered. She felt uncomfortable in neighborhoods like this one: men cutting lawns, women making iced tea; everybody smiling, nodding and raising their two-point-whatever kids. It was all a sham.
She’d tried to tell that old coot Harry she’d never fit in here, and that he should move into her apartment. But, of course, he’d conned her with logic only Harry understood.
And now here she was, face-to-face with one of Harry’s upwardly mobile neighbors. She’d high tail it out of here, if she wasn’t afraid of Harry’s nephew.
She climbed out of the car, her chin up, refusing to feel awkward as she clambered around the bucket seat. Up close, the man was more devastating. Tall. He smelled like—oh, no—fresh-cut grass. She backed up so she wouldn’t have to smell it on him. At least, that’s what she told herself.
“Yeah, Harry’s,” she confirmed and pointed over his shoulder to Harry’s big, old two-story house.
A sudden, indefinable alertness came over the man, as if she’d shocked him. She wasn’t imagining it. His body tensed and his expression changed from friendly to suspicious.
“You know Harry?” she asked with quiet intensity.
“He’s my uncle.”
For a moment Katie thought he’d said Harry was his uncle. “No,” she said. “Really, how do you know him?”
“I told you. He’s my uncle; I’m his nephew and my mother is Harry’s sister.” He smiled. “Any way you look at it, we’re family.”
“Oh.” She’d have to point out to Harry how fast this guy showed up to pick him clean. “Didn’t waste any time, did you?”
“Of course not, I came as soon as I could.” He lifted an eyebrow at the various boxes and cartons and grocery store bags that made up her life. The sidewalk was strewn with all her belongings. Lucky, she thought, that it had all fit into one small car.
Katie chewed her lip wondering what to do next, hating Harry for insisting she come to help him convalesce. This well-tended neighborhood was bad enough, but coping with his family—well, Harry should have known better.
Katie lived her life in solitude and that was how she liked it.
“Are these boxes filled with files or something?” the nephew asked.
“No, they’re filled with my clothes and stuff,” she replied evenly, in spite of his intimidation. She picked up the largest carton and quickly dumped it back into the car. Fueled by anger for entertaining the idea that she might be needed, she picked up several of the bags at once. Faster and faster she worked, jamming everything into the spaces around and under the box.
“Wait,” the nephew said, “where are you going now?”
Katie ignored him. If Harry wanted his family gathered around instead of her, then he could have them, but it was too much to expect her to join them all. She’d never been needed anywhere. It had been pitiful the way she’d been sucked in.
Furious now, she climbed into the front passenger seat and scrambled over the stick shift to the driver’s side.
“I don’t do families,” she explained. She shoved her key into the ignition and turned it. “I’m outta here.” The engine started and rumbled impatiently. Sorry she’d never see him again, she took one more glance at his face. He sure was nice to look at. Not at all the piggy-eyed man she’d imagined when Harry had mentioned him. She gave him a jaunty salute before shifting into first gear.
With no warning, Harry’s nephew vaulted into the car and reached for her keys.
“Hey. What are you doing?”
“I told you who I am,” he insisted, his deep voice closer to a growl than she’d have believed possible. “Who the hell are you?” He shut off her engine and settled back into his seat taking her keys with him.
Katie had been stared at before, by harder men than this one would ever be. She considered lying but saw no advantage in it yet. She stared back, held out her palm and waited.
He tossed her keys into her hand, never taking his gaze from hers.
She relented. He had a right to some kind of explanation, but certainly not a full one. “I’m Katie Calhoun. I work at Harry’s.”
His eyes went cold. He nodded. “You’re selling?”
“It’s where the money is,” she said flatly. “You got a problem with a woman selling used cars?” Belligerence was an automatic defense she hadn’t allowed in years. It surprised her when she heard it in her own voice. She’d tried hard to grow beyond that street kid response.
However, her belligerent tone had no effect on him. He kept a bemused smile on his face as he slowly looked her over. Starting with her shoes, he moved up her bare legs to her knees and followed right up to her chest. She shouldn’t have worn these cutoff shorts or this tank top. She could swear he was seeing every line, every secret cleft of her, every raised bump and ripple of sensation he caused under her skin.
“I’ve got no problem with you selling used cars.”
She maintained a stare as blank as stone while he assessed her. It was an old trick, left over from childhood. This stare made her accuser more uncomfortable than she’d ever been. No denial, no confession. Just a blank stare. Got to them every time.
He would have no way of knowing the expression indicated fury held in check. He also wouldn’t understand that he’d issued a challenge she couldn’t ignore.
When the stare got to him, he let his glance waver. “It appears you were moving into my sick uncle’s house. Why?”
It was his obvious disdain that irked her most. People like him spoke to people like her in a way that made her skin crawl. A few years ago she might have walked away, but not now.
She leaned as close to him as she dared. Her breasts were within an inch of his black T-shirt. She poked him square in the middle of his chest with one finger.
“Listen, pal.” She poked him again and his eyes widened. “Whatever goes on between Harry and me is our business.”
“Keep your nose out of it.”
“Out of it?” He grabbed her finger and held her whole arm immobile. “You expect me to watch a woman like you move in on my sick, vulnerable uncle and keep my nose out of it?” His voice was deceptively quiet, making it somehow more threatening than an honest, full-bodied bellow.
Katie snorted derisively, deliberately provoking his temper. She yanked her finger back, and he let go immediately.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Jace. Jace Donner.”
His name rolled through her mind like foreboding thunder. Jace Donner. So this was the boy Harry had raised.
The same nephew who never had a vacation to spend with his uncle. The one who’d come running at the first sign of easy pickings. “I’m Katie Calhoun,” she said.
She took a deep breath and studied Jace more closely. He was tall where Harry was no more than five-foot-seven. He was lean where Harry was stocky and a bandy-legged. And his hair. Harry’s was russet red with silver bristles. “Why should I believe that you’re Harry’s nephew?” she asked suspiciously. “You don’t look a thing like him.”
Jace smoothed his coal-black hair, leaned against the door and settled in with a full smile. The ice in his blue eyes melted as he studied her face. His sudden, deep grin took him beyond handsome, making her doubt his blood relationship to Harry even more. “You mean I don’t have red hair that sticks up like exclamation marks?”
She nodded, determined not to be amused. “And you don’t have a cigar in the corner of your mouth.” He also didn’t look shifty. Nor did he have the glimmer of humor in his eye that Harry had. The humor that said Harry had never taken himself nor life, too seriously.
According to Harry, his nephew planned every aspect of his life, from what to wear to work to when he’d find a wife: the right kind of wife, of course. Harry always snorted at that particular presumption. And Katie wondered why. That part of Jace’s life plan had seemed perfectly reasonable.
People should marry someone suitable, someone who fit. Yearning for someone out of reach was stupid.
And now, here Jace was, ready to plan Harry’s life, too. But what would she do if Harry listened? What would happen to her if he sold the car lot?
No, that couldn’t, wouldn’t happen. Harry lived for that business. There was nothing else in his life. Harry couldn’t give it up, could he? Because if he sold out, she’d have to start all over again: picking up pieces, moving, rebuilding.
She bit back a sigh.
Now, instead of simply looking friendly, Jace looked competent, confident, knowledgeable, trustworthy—oh, Lord, Harry would listen to a man like this. Anyone would listen to a man like this. She chewed her lip.
Katie had spent far too many years at the mercy of other people’s whims to ignore the danger of leaving Harry alone with his nephew. She couldn’t do it. There was too much at stake to let a man like Jace Donner get involved in Harry’s decisions.
“I’ve changed my mind again.” She opened her door and climbed out. “I’m definitely moving in.” She slammed the car door shut for emphasis.
“Wait a minute,” Jace said, holding up a hand to stop her.
She ignored him and hoisted one carton up and out onto the sidewalk.
He climbed out and watched her unload the rest of the bags and bundles.
She had to stretch for the last carton behind the passenger’s seat. He leaned in and lifted it for her easily. He still smelled like grass but the underlying scent of him was all man and put her on red alert.
“Did Harry really ask you to move in?” Jace asked. It was hard to believe Harry would think Jace needed help to take care of him. On the other hand, it was possible his uncle didn’t want his flighty little girlfriend out in the world all alone while he was laid up. Maybe Harry didn’t trust her and wanted to keep her close at hand. Only Harry never had “little girlfriends” and this woman was anything but flighty. He decided to hold back his questions until he had some time alone with his uncle.
Katie nodded as she turned toward the front walkway leading to the house. “What do you think? That I’d just move in uninvited?”
Jace didn’t reply, preferring to keep his thoughts to himself.
“His doctor,” she was saying, “said Harry should have someone at home with him for the first few weeks. The old geezer wouldn’t let me hire a nurse, so here I am.” She glared at him, her brown eyes snapping as she strode quickly and deliberately toward the front porch. “A mild,” she emphasized the word, “heart attack is a warning, but he shouldn’t be alone for a while.”
“That’s exactly what Harry told me,” he said, carrying the larger carton beside her. “But he didn’t,” he emphasized the word just as aggressively as she had; “tell me about you.”
“That’s obvious,” she said in a wry tone. She shrugged. “I guess I can’t blame you for being protective. After all, at fifty-eight, Harry’s almost in his dotage. He should be protected from predatory females.”
This Katie Calhoun was a conundrum. In spite of her sass, somehow it was clear that she’d be fiercely protective of Harry if the need arose. Interesting.
She held the front door open for him and he went through to the hall. He waited until she led the way upstairs, wanting to see how well she knew the house.
“So,” he asked, “how long have you worked with Harry?”
“Long enough to know his business inside and out.” She turned without hesitation into the guest room at the top of the stairs. It had been his mother’s room when they’d lived with Harry years ago.
He set the carton on the bed beside the one she’d put there. She was busy untucking the flaps, doing a reasonable job of pretending he wasn’t there. He smiled and leaned close enough that she had to look up at him. Katie backed away as if he might scold her. She pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.
He stepped back and she relaxed again. More interesting.
If a woman doesn’t want you to know her, you’ll feel it.
He heard his mother’s long-ago advice echo in his mind, but he couldn’t act on it. For Harry’s sake, he had to ignore Katie’s signals telling him to get lost. He had to learn exactly what her relationship was to his uncle. And more particularly, what her influence on him could be.
She returned to her unpacking without saying a word while he continued to watch her fluid, efficient movements. He’d never seen hair quite the cinnamon color of Katie’s. Her complexion had escaped the freckles that usually accompany red highlights. Her skin was golden and smooth. Touchable.
She was nervous about him, unsure of what to expect. Maybe she felt intimidated. Good.
“Well?” she demanded impatiently.
“Well, what?” Jace asked. Damn, he’d lost the whole conversation. She had the longest eyelashes he’d ever seen. They were kind of light at the tips and almost touched her brows.
“Don’t you live in New York and work for a big bank? You can’t stay for more than a couple of days. I’ll be here as long as Harry needs someone. That must be why he called us both. He probably just wanted us to stay in shifts. You know, you for right now, to see to family business and me for the rest of the time.”
“I’m due in Zurich as soon as Harry’s out of the woods. This heart attack couldn’t have come at a more convenient time for me. I haven’t started my new job yet and they’re willing to wait.”
Her wry expression said she followed his warped logic. “So, you’re free for more than a few days. Still, they won’t wait forever.”
“Right. And you?” The president of his new bank had understood Jace’s concern for his ailing uncle, but hadn’t given him long to sort out the details of the rest of Harry’s life.
Jace’s promise to review files by e-mail had mollified his new bosses. To that end, he’d set up his laptop in his room and arranged for a service provider as soon as he’d arrived. He needed to get Harry online. The man didn’t even have a computer at home. He’d look into getting his uncle a computer tablet right away. Even Harry could manage that. “How long can you stay?”
“I sublet my apartment to a woman with a new baby. She had nowhere else to go. Her husband’s kind of….” She shrugged.
She sighed sharply. “You could say that. Anyway, I can’t ask her to vacate.” She glanced vaguely around the room. “So, maybe you could just leave Harry to me. We’ll manage well enough without you.”
He laughed. “Subtlety isn’t one of your strong points, is it, Kate?”
“No, I prefer the direct approach.”
“After you’ve settled in, we’ll talk about Harry and you and Harry and me,” he said sharply.
“Fine.” The word was little more than a bark, but at least she was willing to talk. It was a beginning; a wary one, but a beginning just the same.
Her eyes didn’t. “Jace?”
He looked at the long, dark red hair that framed her delicate features and softened her heart-shaped face. Her determined gaze held him. He waited.
“My name’s Katie,” she said after a long moment of mutual measurement. “No one ever calls me Kate.”