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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

EXCERPT: Sweeter Than Revenge

Sweeter Than Revenge
by Ann Christopher

Newly-minted millionaire David Hunt has come back to get revenge on pampered princess Maria Johnson, the beautiful woman who broke his heart years ago. Too bad he doesn’t know he’s about to fall more in love with her than ever …

Getting back on her unsteady feet, she watched him come closer and wondered how she could possibly survive this encounter with the man who’d loved and left her. Well, left her, anyway.

He’d changed—she saw that right away. Once he merely walked, but now he prowled with supreme confidence, owning the ground and the world around him the way Chris Rock owns the stage during one of his concerts. He’d thinned down and muscled up, too; the slight breeze pressed his short-sleeved blue silk shirt against a torso that had not one ounce of body fat on it. The height, the wide shoulders, the narrow waist and the endless long legs—none of that had changed, of course. But flecks of gray dotted the wavy black hair at his temples now.

And his face. That was different.

Not the laughing brown eyes or the clean-shaven deep chocolate skin. His cheekbones—that was it. Before they’d just been high, but now they were sharp and arrogant. So were the heavy quirked brows and the long straight nose. Faint, interesting wrinkles bracketed his mouth and lined his eyes, giving him a wiser, more mature air. He looked amused and cynical now, as though the whole world was a joke. As though he’d seen and done it all, and didn’t know what she—or anyone—could possibly say to interest him.

He stopped in front of her, staring openly. His cool, assessing gaze slid up over her mostly nude body, touching her legs and arms, lingering on her hips and breasts.

Her face burned but she held still, trying not to fidget under this inspection. Modesty was a worthless virtue, and one she’d never possessed. Hard work in the yoga studio and at the gym kept her body fabulous, and she knew it. But now her near-nakedness made her feel exposed and vulnerable, as if she needed to grab her towel and cover herself.

Why did she feel this way? David Hunt knew her body better than anyone else on the planet, including, probably, her. There was not one inch of skin, curve, hollow or hair follicle with which he was not intimately familiar. But of course that was the old David Hunt who’d loved her body.

This David Hunt was a stranger.

Finally he looked her in the eye. One brow arched skyward and one corner of his mouth inched up in a disquieting half-smile.

“Hello, Maria.”

The syllables pulsed through the air, slid under her skin and pooled into a painful mass of loss and longing low in her belly. If she’d thought—hoped—he was a figment of her overwrought nerves, she now knew better. That low, deep voice—as thrilling as helicopter skiing and as smooth as black velvet—couldn’t belong to anyone other than David Hunt.

“You came back,” she said unnecessarily, an unfamiliar, Marilyn Monroe breathiness in her voice.

Her father tutted before David could answer, stepping forward to press a light hand to the small of her back. “Now, Sugar. Is that any way to treat an old friend? Besides. I told you. He’s the new director.”

Maria and David stared at each other, neither of them blinking or acknowledging that Ellis had just spoken. The world shrank down to the two of them, to the intensity in David’s eyes, and the leashed tension that pulsed between them.

“Didn’t I tell you I’d come back?” David asked her in a low, silky voice.

Maria shivered, wondering what to make of his tone. He sounded as if he wanted to rip the bikini from her body and enter her now—hard, fast and furious. He also sounded vaguely threatening, as if he wanted to rip her body limb from limb, to punish her, to humiliate.

God, what was he doing? Why was he here?

“Yeah, you told me you’d come back,” she said, keeping her voice steady even though it wanted to quaver. “I just didn’t think it’d take four years.”

With that, she turned, sat on her lounge chair, stretched her legs out and tried to pretend he wasn’t there while watching him from under her eyelashes. During the silence that followed, Ellis shuffled on his feet and brought his hand to his mouth to cover his uncomfortable cough. David’s jaw tightened, but he managed to look supremely unconcerned, although his gaze flickered over her body again. Maria prayed for the strength to remain detached, and for the hot tears that burned her eyes to wait until later, when she was alone, before they fell.

Ellis cleared his throat. “Well, David,” he began, “why don’t we go in and—”

“Where have you been?” Maria asked David.

She regretted the foolish words even before she got to the question mark at the end of her sentence. Where was her pride? Why couldn’t she keep her big mouth shut? She would not give this man a reason—another reason—to laugh at her, nor would she act like she cared one iota about where he’d been or what he’d done. No, she would not.

David turned to her, his expression amused and vaguely reproachful for her rudeness. In a gesture of consummate indifference, he slid his hands into his pants pockets, leaned against one of the pergola posts and crossed his ankles.

“Oh … here and there.”

“‘Here and there?’” she cried. “Is that near Duluth?”

The men laughed at her, which only fueled her anger. The ancient scar over her heart, a memento of her affair with David, began to ache with renewed pain. So much for acting cool and aloof; she couldn’t even manage it for five lousy seconds.

Why was he here? To finish her off for good? What right did he have to show up, unannounced, back in her life? To look and sound so good and act bored when he hadn’t laid eyes on her for four years? Didn’t he have anything to say to her?

David turned to Ellis. “Can you give us a minute? I’d like to talk to Maria.”

“Sure.” Her father clapped him on the shoulder and favored him with the kind of loving smile he normally reserved for her. “It’s good to have you back, Son.”

Maria wanted to scream.

David nodded, looking unaccountably touched. They shook hands and pulled each other into one of those gruff male hugs. Finally her father extracted himself. “Come inside when you’re finished. Miss Beverly’s fixing up salmon salads for lunch and then we’ll head on down to the office and I’ll introduce you around.”

Ellis strode off toward the house, his step so springy Maria wondered if he wouldn’t break into the kind of triumphant dance receivers did in the end zone after a touchdown. She wished she could call him back so she would have some buffer, some layer of protection, no matter how thin, between herself and the man who could still tear her to pieces with just a look. She wasn’t safe alone with David.

David stared down at her for a long, considering moment, igniting every inch of her bare skin with a heat that should have given her third degree burns. Her poor heart hammered so strongly against her chest she was amazed it didn’t bulge out like one of those horrible incubating creatures in Alien. More embarrassing were her heaving breasts, the result of her heroic struggle for breath in this man’s presence, and pointed, painful nipples.

The agony threatened to undo her. How could she do this? How could she talk to this man who’d killed her dreams and still owned her body?

Ignoring the numerous other loungers, chairs, benches and assorted seating devices available, David sat on her lounger, his butt brushing her thigh. Facing her, he rested one hand on the other side of her legs and caged her. One muscular forearm brushed her skin, branding her with his warmth.

At this distance, the intoxicating, familiar smell of his cologne—one of those fresh, clean, linen scents that she remembered so well and that immediately shifted her mind to sheets and beds—filled her nostrils and made wet heat flow between her thighs. She waited, frozen. Her pride wouldn’t let her rub her leg against him or shrink away, both of which she wanted to do.

He leaned closer. “Take your glasses off, Ree-Ree.”

“No.” The use of his nickname for her was an unbearably low blow, and the knot in her belly tightened. “And don’t call me that.”

He made an irritated noise, snatched the glasses off her nose, and tossed them onto the table out of reach. She cried out with surprise. Blinking from the sudden infusion of bright light, she stared defiantly.

Their gazes held for what felt like a millennium. Finally one side of his mouth turned up. “You look good.”

Her mouth opened to say something cool and disdainful, but what came out was, “So do you.”

A new, soft light appeared and immediately disappeared behind his eyes, and then his jaw flexed with some dark emotion she’d never be able to identify. Turning, he looked out across the pool.

“So,” he said in a mocking, infuriating tone. “How’s married life treating you?”

“Much better since the divorce.”

His gaze, sharp and narrowed, swung back to her. “Find someone richer already, did you?”

“No. He found someone with a warmer bed than mine,” she told him, having long since gotten over the humiliation of her husband’s defection.

That glittering, insolent stare drifted down to her breasts again, then back up. “No one’s bed’s warmer than yours, Ree-Ree,” he said softly.

She gasped even as desire—powerful, hot and wet—pulsed through her core. She wondered if he had the faintest idea of what his presence still did to her, or if he could smell her arousal through the tiny scrap of thin nylon that stood between them.

Pulling away with no particular hurry, he stood and resumed his leaning stance against the pergola. “I assume you made him pay for the affair.”

“Oh, I made him pay.”

“Good.” He laughed.

When his amusement faded away, they stared at each other in a silence that seemed to throb with energy and meaning. Thinking was a struggle, and speaking was worse. Still, she wanted to tell him something she’d never had the chance to say.

“I heard your father died last year,” she said softly. “I was sorry to hear that. I … always wanted to meet him.”

He blinked. Once, twice … and then he turned his head to look off toward the rose garden. When he turned back, he swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing in the strong column of his throat, and seemed unable to speak.

Maria felt terrible; the last thing she’d intended to do was upset him about his father. She waited helplessly for him to recover and say something, but he didn’t. “I’m sorry,” she began. “I didn’t mean—”

“No,” he said, his voice strong. “It’s okay. Thanks.”

Recovering a little, her curiosity got the best of her. “Where have you been?” she asked for the third time. “And don’t say here and there unless you want me to shove you into the pool with your clothes on.”

He laughed again. “Seattle.”

“Are you … married?” she asked, forcing the word out like a woman birthing a twelve-pound baby.





“No.” One eyebrow arced toward his hairline. “And my last physical and credit report were fine, before you ask. Or maybe you’d like to see the files … ?”

“Did you bring them with you?”

Throwing his head back, he laughed the roaring laugh she remembered so well, devastating her. Not until this very second had she realized how much she missed the sound. Missed him. The empty place inside her, where he’d been, grew into an abyss.

“Where are you staying?” she asked, just to make sure he really would be nearby where she could find him if he disappeared again.


“Here? Where?”

“I assume in one of the fifteen bedrooms in this castle. Don’t worry. It’s just for a little while until my house is finished.”


“I’m coming back to stay. So I’m having a house built. It’s almost done.”

“Oh,” she said, grappling with the idea that he really was back and she really would have to deal with him whether she was ready to or not.

“You don’t seem too happy to see me, Maria.”

To her utter disbelief, his eyes flashed as if he was the wronged party, as if she was the one who’d hurt him. They stared at each other in a seething silence while she tried—and failed—to understand him.

The breeze blew across the pool, ruffling her hair but doing nothing to cool her hot cheeks. From far away in the front yard came the roar of the gardener starting the lawn mower. Overhead, blue jays squawked at each other, battling for turf in the huge oak.

Suddenly she couldn’t stand it anymore—not the tension or the confusion, and definitely not the uncertainty.

“Why are you here?” she cried, jumping to her feet. The need for answers outweighed every other consideration, including the need to protect her pride and ego. “Didn’t you do enough damage the last time you came to town?”

He blinked innocently, as if he didn’t know what in the world she was talking about. But he did know; she could tell because she felt a tremendous new energy from him, a surge that felt like satisfaction.

“Damage?” he asked. “What damage?”

“To my heart.”

“You have a heart?”

“Yes! And you broke it!”

Shrugging, he slid his hands into his pockets and watched her through flat eyes that were also somehow feral and malevolent. “Ah, but luckily you landed on your feet, didn’t you, Maria?” he asked, sidling closer. “You got over our little affair in no time flat. Wedding of the year, a rich husband. So it was all for the best, wasn’t it?”

To her horror, a dry sob erupted from her mouth before she could stop it. He stilled, studying her as though she was some vaguely interesting oddity, like a two-headed turtle at the zoo. Though the answer was painfully obvious, she had to ask the question.

“Did I ever mean anything to you?”

He growled. Actually bared his teeth in a nasty sneer and snarled at her like a rabid pit bull in the millisecond before the attack. One of his arms lashed out and his strong, hard fingers clamped down around her bicep and formed a hot manacle, hurting and binding her.

“I could ask you the same question, couldn’t I, Maria?”

Terror paralyzed her, but only for a second. Then her anger took over. She had no idea what was running through his mind, or what right he thought he had to be upset with her, but she certainly wasn’t going to stand there and let him manhandle her.

“Let go of me. Now.”

He did, jerking his hand away as if contact with her flesh tainted him. They glared at each other, their mutual hostility as dense and noxious as the ash from an erupting volcano. After sucking in a deep breath or two through his flaring nostrils, he seemed to calm down a little.

“Is there anything you want to tell me? About your wedding?” he demanded.

His arrogance and gall were absolutely mind-boggling, and she had no intention of putting up with them. “No.”

There was a long pause, as though he wanted to give her time to rethink or amend her answer, and then, when she didn’t, he snorted. “Right.”

“This is a terrible idea. I don’t want to work for you, and I don’t want you living here.”

Genuine amusement lit up his eyes, but he didn’t smile. “Thanks for the update. But guess what? You don’t get a vote.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I decided to move back home to Cincinnati. I made a few calls, and lo and behold, Ellis wanted to cut back on his hours and asked me to take over as director. So here I am. End of story.”

“But why did you decide to move back?”

“I have unfinished business here.”

From the book Sweeter Than Revenge, Harlequin/Kimani Press, January, 2008

ISBN: 037386051X
ISBN-13: 9780373860517

Copyright 2008 by Sally Young Moore

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.

The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

For more information, go to http://www.eHarlequin.com

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