Cinderella Busted Excerpt
“Want to help me choke a couple zoning commissioners?” Lily Foster asked as she strode into the nursery office.
Her sales manager’s eyes went wide. “Wow! Look at you.”
She halted mid-step. “What?”
“Don’t give me that. You look gorgeous! I knew that sundress was perfect for you the minute we spotted it in Dillard’s.”
“Evidently not perfect enough,” she grumbled and dropped into a chair near Tammy’s desk.
“I take it the zoning meeting didn’t go well.”
“And you couldn’t sway the commissioners in your little yellow sundress?”
She gave Tammy a don’t-go-there look.
“Okay, so what happened downtown? Do you have to move out of your cottage?”
“I don’t know.” Lily shook her head. “Turns out it wasn’t a new zoning proposal like we first thought. The City of Jupiter changed the residence-at-commercial-properties zoning law over a decade ago. At the time, the city council ruled a residence could exist on the second floor of a business—due to the heat they received from folks living over the shops on Antique Row—but single-structure residences at commercial properties like mine were out, and no one ever stood up and complained.”
“They can’t force you out now, can they?”
Lily hoped not. Bloom & Grow was the only home she had ever known. Lily’s father had started the nursery three decades earlier on a hundred-acre parcel bordering the famed Intracoastal Waterway, and when her mother had succumbed to cancer shortly after Lily’s birth, Hank Foster had built a small cottage on the back five acres and raised Lily there.
She shook her head. “I wasn’t sure, so I went over to the Code Enforcement department, too, and the manager claimed some attorneys had formally challenged my grandfathered status—already living in my residence prior to the code change. He even thought it odd that I’d been singled out.”
“I bet it’s that real estate attorney who wants to buy your property,” Tammy said.
Lily nodded. “I think so, too. The manager said I needed to appear before a Special Code Compliance Magistrate—she used her fingers to make quotation marks and give the title extra weight—at the end of the month and bring proof of the date of my residence prior to the promulgation of the new zoning law.”
“You think that’ll do it?” Tammy asked.
“The Code Enforcement manager seemed certain, although he did say the attorneys had filed legal briefs in Tallahassee about my commercial property.”
“This whole business worries me.”
“I know. Me, too,”
“Are you’re going to hire an attorney?”
“We don’t need one. The Code Enforcement manager said we could easily fight this on our own. I’m not dipping into my nest egg for an attorney we don’t need. If I can provide proof of my residence prior to the passage of the new law, the Code Enforcement manager promised to appear with us at the Special Magistrate meeting, and he will attest that my cottage is grandfathered. So you see? We’ll be home free. An open and shut case.”
“I don’t know, Lily. Things always get complicated when attorneys get involved.”
“Have faith. We’ll be fine.”
“But it’s not like you can’t afford an attorney,” Tammy argued.
“Like I’ve told you before, I’m not touching that nest egg Hank left me unless I have to. I’m determined to do this all on my own.”
“To make the nursery a success.”
“It’s already a success, hon. You don’t want to risk that, do you?”
Lily gave her a pointed look. “I’m not. I can do this without Hank’s help or any outside help. I know I can.”
“I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I’m going to do exactly what the Code Enforcement manager said to do. He promised to be there at the meeting with me. Everything will be fine. You’ll see.”
Tammy gave her a resigned nod.
“Now, you called and said you had sample brochures for Rob’s new interiors line.”
Tammy handed over three booklet-style color brochures. “A courier brought the three samples after you left for the zoning meeting. If you’ll approve one, I’ll place our order with the printer and have the brochures placed in every hotel and resort office in the tri-county area.”
She gazed at the brochures. “Rob’s really serious about doing this.”
“Sure he is. We already discussed this, and Rob thinks the new sideline could be as profitable as our specialty trees.”
Tammy ran the nursery like a tight ship and left Lily and Rob to do what they loved—grow the impossible trees and shrubs. Best of all, the customers loved her gregarious flame-haired sales manager.
Lily nibbled her lower lip. “I suppose.”
She hated to change anything Hank had created, but the nursery was hers now, and she trusted Tammy and Rob more than anyone else on earth.
The office phone rang, and Tammy snatched up the receiver. “Bloom & Grow. Tammy.” She cut a glance at Lily. “Oh hey, Garrett. The order is staged in the laydown yard and ready for final inspection. Okay, great.”
She clicked off and rose to her feet. “I have to go do a last-minute check on the BDC order. It’s a big one, and I want everything to be perfect. BDC is the most prestigious company we’ve ever done business with, and that was their landscape architect, Garrett Tucker, on the phone. He said the BDC owner is on his way over.” She pointed her index finger at Lily like a pistol. “You stay right there and review those brochures. If the owner shows up, just tell him I’m at the laydown yard, and I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Will do,” Lily promised, glad she’d passed the final-inspection responsibilities to Tammy months earlier.
Lily’s father had started the tradition to be sure his plants were going to a good home. While Lily liked having the tradition, Tammy was more outgoing and better at eking out promises of proper plant care from their customers.
Tammy paused at the back door. “I want a thumbs-up on one of the brochures when I get back.”
Lily waved her out with a, “Yes, boss,” then flipped through the new color brochure. She wondered whether her dad would approve of starting a line of interior plants, and a familiar lump immediately formed in her throat when she remembered the first time she’d called her father Hank.
The occasion had occurred on her first real day of work at the nursery--she had been all of twelve years old. She and her father were walking back to the cottage at the end of the day, and she had asked, “How’d I do today, Hank?” Her father had stopped dead and asked, “Why’d you call me Hank?” She’d shrugged and told him, “All the employees at the nursery call you Hank.” Her father had smiled and said, “Fair enough.”
Hank Foster had been gone three years, and Lily still thought of her dad a dozen times a day. His heart attack had caught them all unawares, and since he treated his personnel like extended family, his death had been traumatic for all of them.
Bloom & Grow lost money in the year after Hank’s death. Without Rob Shaw and Tammy Waynette, Lily never would have made it through that traumatic time, but the three best friends settled into a rhythm. Hank had always kept a hand in every aspect of the nursery, but the new leadership team split their duties. Rob took over all growing responsibilities, Tammy sold everything he grew and paid the bills, and Lily managed nursery production and operations. The nursery had turned a fair profit in the second year, and this year would be gangbusters.
Everything had looked rosy until last month when a neighbor had called Lily and said a real estate attorney had made a lucrative offer for the neighbor’s adjoining commercial property. The neighbor had urged Lily to consider selling out along with him.
“Never,” she’d told him. “My employees depend on me. This is their home. I won’t take it from them.”
“Think about it,” her neighbor had coaxed. “The attorney wants both our properties. We can negotiate more money if we sell together.”
Two weeks later, the letter from the Code Enforcement Department had arrived, citing a zoning regulation prohibiting residences at commercial properties. Lily suspected the real estate attorney was behind her letter. Even if she had to move out of her cottage, she refused to sell Bloom & Grow and turn all her employees—friends—out on the street to find new jobs.
Lost in her daydream, Lily never noticed the customer looming in the doorway.
The front door of the quaint, shake-roofed office stood open when Rhett Buchanan drove into the parking area. Like he had time for this foolishness. Whoever heard of the CEO of a billion-dollar development firm approving a truckload of trees, even if they were species no other nursery could grow?
He peered through the windshield at the overhead sign. Evidently, a small-time nursery called Bloom & Grow had heard of such nonsense. He tugged his tie loose and rolled up the sleeves on his white dress shirt before angling out of his black SUV. At least a nice breeze was whipping off the Intracoastal Waterway.
Rhett had argued with Garrett over lunch about doing this inspection alone. Apparently, this eccentric nursery insisted on a final inspection conducted only by the actual owner—no substitutes. Sounded more like an interview. He let out a resigned sigh. Garrett Tucker made Rhett’s new resort developments stand out like diamonds in the rough and accomplished the feat with specialty landscape materials. The man had a gift, but only Garrett could find an oddball place like this to buy trees.
“Better just to get this over with,” he muttered and started up the stairs to the porch.
At the threshold, he froze. His gaze slowly took in a pair of perfect slender legs, then inched up to a spectacular yellow sundress with a cleavage that made his mouth water.
A flawless complexion, shoulder-length blond hair, and delicate features finished the marvelous package who appeared to be perusing some sort of plant brochure. At that moment, Rhett wished he owned this oddball nursery, so he could spend all day selling plants to the beauty in the yellow sundress.
Wait a minute. Single women don’t buy plants. Married women buy plants.
His eyes flashed to her left hand.
No ring. Hmm. Things just got interesting.
He cleared his throat.
The beauty started and turned a pair of sapphires the color of the Gulf Stream in his direction.
“Sorry,” he said, then smiled. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
The beauty smiled back—a dazzling smile with perfect straight white teeth.
His mouth went dry. The woman was drop-dead gorgeous.
“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I was daydreaming and didn’t hear you come in.”
He nodded, started to reply, then didn’t. He just wanted to stare a while longer. Quickly realizing he’d look like an idiot if he did, he cleared his throat and began again. “Sorry, I’m being rude. My name is Rhett Buchanan.”
She took the hand he extended. He felt a spark, and her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. If he hadn’t been staring at her eyes, he might have missed it. Had she felt the spark, too?
“I’m Lily Foster.”
“I’m, uh, h-here to inspect some plants. T-Trees actually. An order for BDC.”
Great. He just stuttered like a bashful high-school boy. This from a man who bought and sold corporations over lunch. What the hell was wrong with him today?
“I see.” She stared for a long moment, then glanced down.
Good Lord, was he still holding her hand?
“Sorry.” He let her go.
She smiled again. “The sales manager will be right back.”
“Are you here to inspect trees, too?” At least he didn’t stutter this time. He was getting his wind back.
“No, I’m here to look over the new interiors line.” She held up the brochure.
He nodded. He wanted to keep her talking. Her voice sounded sexy as hell.
“Do you spend a lot of time here?” He glanced around the tidy office made cozy with a half-dozen plants and palms of some sort.
He nodded again. He was getting real good at nodding. “Are you pretty good with landscaping?”
She eyed him warily. “Yeah?”
He dusted off what he hoped was his most charming smile. “Maybe you could help me with my inspection. It’s too many trees for me, and I could sure use some help.”
“Well, Tammy will be there to answer any questions.”
“Tammy Waynette, the sales manager.”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re kidding me, right?”
“About what?” The sapphires looked wide and innocent.
She laughed, a musical sound like delicate wind chimes. “I’m not kidding. Tammy says her mother loved the country western singer.”
He grinned back, couldn’t help himself. “Poor girl.”
“I don’t think she minds.”
He nodded. Again. “Do you know if she went to the laydown yard? My assistant said the trees would be staged in the laydown yard. We could meet her there and get started.”
Her eyebrows rose to twin peaks. “We?”
“Yeah, well, Tammy’s here to sell trees, and I’m looking for an objective second opinion on what I should keep or exchange. I could sure use your help since you’re pretty good with landscaping and all.”
Not that he had any intention of exchanging anything. He couldn’t tell a diseased tree from a healthy one, but he’d look at every single tree if it meant spending more time with Lily Foster.
She hesitated. “I suppose I could tag along.”
“Great! Shall we go?”
Lily led Buchanan outside where they grabbed the customer golf cart parked in front of the office. Rhett climbed behind the wheel and headed for the center drive Lily indicated. The man was tall; she guessed at least four inches over six feet. Riding passenger gave her an excuse to stare at him and wonder how she’d gotten so lucky. To actually be dressed up on the day a gorgeous hunk came in to inspect trees? What were the odds? A successful hunk, too, since he owned his own corporation, and Tammy said the BDC order was a big one.
Rhett Buchanan certainly didn’t fit her impression of a corporate CEO, powerfully built and handsome enough she had gone completely tongue-tied back in the office. She could get lost in those amazing green eyes. And that slow, sexy smile he’d given her had made her toes curl.
“You’re smiling,” he said. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. I’m just enjoying a pretty day.”
She would do much better out here in the nursery with plant material to talk about rather than forcing conversation in the office. For the first time in her life, she wished she had spent more time flirting with boys in high school like all the other girls. Instead, she had studied her heart out to get good grades and make Hank proud since she was all he had.
Buchanan pulled the cart up at the laydown yard, but there was no sign of Tammy’s fiery-red curls among the rows of trees. An errant customer had probably waylaid her somewhere in the nursery.
Lily and Buchanan got out and ambled over to the first row of trees, a dozen dwarf magnolias. The containers were well-chosen, some of their best product. Hands on his hips, he gazed at the trees and back at her, then raised his brows in question.
“They’re perfectly matched, disease-free,” she said.
“I thought so, too.” He winked.
She felt her neck flush, and her gaze strayed to the dusting of dark hair on his tanned forearms. “Where are you going to use all this stock?”
“A new condominium and shopping district in Boca. These trees are for Phase I, and I suspect Garrett will be ordering more.”
“He’s the vice-president of real estate development for our company, BDC. He’s also a frustrated landscape architect—that was his bachelor’s degree—but his subsequent MBA pushed him up the corporate ladder.”
“You like him,” she said simply.
His gaze sharpened. “I do. How did—”
“The sound of your voice when you talk about him.”
“Wow, beautiful and perceptive.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm and glanced away.
“Sorry,” he said softly, “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
A dark brow went up.
“Okay, maybe a little.”
Actually a whole lot. Rhett Buchanan seemed so confident, so sure of himself. She was out of her league, and she knew it, but she still wanted to play for just a little while longer.
“Garrett and I were fraternity brothers in college,” Rhett was saying. “Been together ever since.”
“Ah, I see. So who likes the plants, you or Garrett?”
“Mostly Garrett, but I do appreciate their value. He’s convinced me that installing—and more importantly, maintaining—specialty landscapes can double the exterior value of architectural designs.”
“Good for him! He’s right.”
“Another plant lover,” he said, grinning.
“Of course I am.”
“You’re gorgeous when you smile,” he said suddenly.
Okay, that had nothing to do with inspecting trees. Was Mr. Buchanan flirting with her? He’d complimented her twice in five minutes. She jerked her gaze away. She was heating up—all over.
“I’ve embarrassed you again.”
“You didn’t,” she assured him, lying through her teeth. “You just took me by surprise is all.”
“I would think you hear that a lot,” he said softly.
“Oh. No. I don’t.”
He stepped closer, and she feared her cheeks and neck would turn bright pink. She quickly moved toward the next row of trees. The first six containers were perfectly manicured weeping mulberry trees. This Garrett guy sure knew his plant material. She guessed he had selected their best specimens.
“What do you think?” she asked, gesturing toward the mulberries and staring straight ahead. Safer that way.
“Gorgeous, like I said.”
She glanced back.
He wasn’t looking at the mulberries. He was staring at her. Her cheeks just had to be pink. Lord knew they felt hot enough.
“You’re supposed to be inspecting trees,” she scolded with a smile.
He laughed. “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
By the time they made it through the third row of containers populated with an assortment of Helliconia and Callistemon, she grew more comfortable and even tried flirting back. They laughed and joked about the perfect places to plant the gnarly and exceedingly crooked Corylus, and Lily had the time of her life. Until the bottom dropped out about halfway down the fourth row at the gray Bismarchia palms.
“Do you buy a lot of plants here?” Buchanan suddenly asked.
Her head snapped up from examining a bent gray frond. She swallowed. “Buy?”
“You must be one of the nursery’s best customers as well as you know the stock and know your way around here.” He gave her that slow, sexy smile again. “Are you buying landscaping for business or pleasure?”
Oh good grief! He thinks I’m a customer.
But why wouldn’t he? Today, she was dressed like one. Surely, he could tell from their conversation she worked here at the nursery.
He waited for a response. So that was why he had asked her to help him! She grinned. She couldn’t help it. She felt like Cinderella masquerading as a princess at the ball. Maybe she could just avoid answering his question altogether.
She guided him to the end of the aisle, made the turn to the fifth row of trees, and aimed their steps toward a cluster of Monterrey pines.
Buchanan put a hand out to stop her. “I hope you’ll let me take you to dinner to thank you for helping me, Lily.”
His eyes, now a dark emerald green, locked on hers, and she felt her heart lurch. This could not be happening. Drop-dead gorgeous guys like Buchanan didn’t ask Lily Foster out. She hadn’t had a date in six months, which really wasn’t all that surprising considering she didn’t frequent singles bars and clubs.
Tucked away at Bloom & Grow, she worked ten hours a day with few, if any, days off, and when she looked out her window at night, she could still see her workplace. She had no social life.
Buchanan looked worried. She’d waited too long to answer him. “Mr. Buchanan, I—”
"Call me Rhett, please,” he said quickly and reached for her hand.
The physical connection was so swift and startling she felt an electric shock, and a faint tremble worked at her spine.
“I want to see you again,” he said softly. “Tonight. If I can’t talk you into dinner, how about a cocktail party? Island crowd? You’ll have fun. I promise.”
She feared she swayed slightly, but he gave no indication. He merely continued his mesmerizing stare. She knew she hadn’t gasped at his invitation because she couldn’t breathe. His stare felt like a tender caress, and she prayed it would last a while longer.
An Island party? Her?
She had never been invited to a Jupiter Island party in her life.
“All right,” she whispered, so softly she almost couldn’t hear the words.
He heard. He grinned.
“There you are!” Tammy rounded the end of the row of pines and caught sight of her.
A panicky chill hit Lily. Had Rhett only invited her because he assumed she was part of the Jupiter Island social set? A social equal perhaps? Would there be take-backs or do-overs if he found out she worked here at the nursery?
“Good afternoon,” Tammy said to Rhett, flipping her luscious red curls back over her shoulder and extending her hand. “I’m Tammy Waynette, the sales manager of Bloom & Grow.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said and shook the proffered hand. “I’m Rhett Buchanan, but please call me Rhett.”
Lily knew that come-hither gesture of Tammy’s and watched her eyes light up—that predatory glint Tammy got when she spotted a handsome man. Lily felt a stab of unfamiliar irritation. Like iron flecks to a magnet, men naturally cycled to Tammy, with her gorgeous head of fiery-red hair and emerald-green eyes, and Lily usually enjoyed watching the show. But not today, and not with Rhett Buchanan.
“Sorry I’m late,” Tammy apologized. “Everybody wants plants before the weekend, and we had an unexpected order to pull.”
“No problem,” he said.
“So has Lily been showing you your trees?” Tammy asked and flashed Lily her patent I’ll-take-it-from-here look.
“Yes, she’s very knowledgeable,” Rhett said and slanted Lily a smile.
“Well, of course she is,” Tammy agreed, “she’s our—”
“—best customer!” Lily blurted. “Actually, Tammy thinks I’m her most frequent customer since I don’t buy stock every time I visit.” She gave Rhett a sheepish smile. “I like to look.”
Tammy’s eyes visibly widened.
“Rhett and I ran into each other in the office while I shopped from your interiors brochure,” Lily quickly added. “I volunteered to show him where the laydown yard was since I’ve been here so many times.”
Rhett turned back to Tammy. “She’s been a big help.”
Tammy’s expression had gone incredulous. Lily shook her head and mouthed, I’ll explain later.
“Okaayy,” Tammy said slowly.
“I was just getting Rhett started with his inspection, and I’ll leave him in your capable hands now,” Lily said and followed with a just-go-along-with-this look.
“Surely, you’re not leaving,” Rhett said quickly. “Please stay and walk with us. Besides, I need to get your phone number.”
Tammy’s eyebrows went straight up.
Rhett pulled a pen and a small note pad from his shirt pocket and handed them to Lily. She scribbled Lily next to her cell phone number on the top page and handed the pad back. She could swear her hands trembled, but Rhett didn’t seem to notice.
Tammy sure did. Her brows stayed sky-high. Lily just smiled and gave Tammy a chagrined shrug when Rhett turned away. She tagged along behind the two, but Rhett reached for her hand and tugged her forward to walk alongside him. Lily’s heart sang.
While Tammy chattered her way through the rest of the inspection, Rhett stole furtive glances in Lily’s direction. Each time he did, she got a delicious butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation.
Please, dear Lord, don’t let any of the nursery people come along and ask me for something.
Probably no one recognized her in the yellow sundress, but she tempted fate out here in broad daylight, and she needed to make a quick exit. As Tammy finished the final row of stock, the threesome walked toward the golf cart.
“You two take the golf cart,” Tammy said smugly and stared right at Lily. “My truck’s back here. I’ll meet you up at the office.”
Rhett drove the cart as before, and when they neared the office, Lily inwardly groaned at the sight of her red Toyota Tundra truck parked out front. Her jig was up. No self-respecting socialite drove a truck. If she climbed in that truck, Rhett would know she had deceived him, and a socialite wouldn’t hang around the nursery all day either.
As though in answer to a prayer, Rob Shaw pulled up in his sleek black Porsche. Lily hopped out and streaked for the Porsche.
“Thank you so much for bringing my car up for me, Rob. I forgot I left it at the Bonsai greenhouse,” she said loudly enough for Rhett to hear, then whispered, “If you love me, Rob, you’ll lend me your car for ten minutes and play along. Let me be Cinderella for just a little longer. Please?”
Rob gaped at her just like Tammy had out at the laydown yard, but he unfolded his tall frame from the sports car and silently handed over the keys as Rhett walked up. The two men stood eye to eye.
Rhett extended a hand first. “Rhett Buchanan, tree buyer.”
Rob shook his hand. “Rob Shaw, tree grower.”
Rhett laughed and turned to Lily. “I need directions to your house before you go.”
“I’ll meet you,” she blurted. “I have a late afternoon meeting that may run long.”
He looked dubious. “Sure.” He got his pad and pen back out and wrote down an address and a phone number, then handed the slip of paper to Lily. “The address is on the island, easy to find. That’s my cell number. Call when you’re close, and I’ll come outside and meet you.”
Lily’s knees wobbled, and she locked them tight. She had actually gotten away with this masquerade. “Great,” she said.
“The party starts at seven.”
“Okay. I’ll see you then.”
He didn’t move, and she realized he was waiting for her to get in the Porsche, so he could close the door. The door on Rob’s Porsche. Rob’s Porsche with a stick shift.
Oh good grief.
As gracefully as she could, she twisted her legs and sandals into the low-slung vehicle.
“Nice to have met you, Lily. Very nice.” Rhett winked, then closed the door.
One little wink made her heart race. She gulped, nodded, and cranked the powerful engine. She waited a few seconds in the hope Rhett would walk back inside, but he didn’t move. She positioned one sandal on the clutch pedal and the other sandal on the gas pedal, and with three inches of cork heels on her espadrilles, she couldn’t feel either pedal. Shoving the gearshift in reverse, she eased up on the clutch, gave some gas, and bucked the sleek sports car into a stall.
Okay, sorry for fibbing, Lord. Now please help me!
She kept her eyes on the dashboard, recranked the engine, and tried again—with another brief prayer to keep Rob from strangling her later. Three hard jerks and she managed to back the Porsche out. Lily finally glanced at Rhett and knew for a fact her cheeks and neck had a lighthouse-bright flush.
She buzzed down the window. “I just got the car, and I’m still getting used to a stick.”
He grinned. “I figured.”
She pulled out of the front entrance, drove around the north end of the property to the shipping entrance, and turned in, then veered to the driveway at her cottage where Rob appeared moments later.
“Figured you’d end up here,” he said and crossed his arms over his chest. “Start talking, Cinderella. And when you’re done, I’m giving you pumpkin-coach-driving lessons.”
Rhett noticed that Garrett Tucker eyed him warily when he strode into his office.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” Rhett dropped his briefcase on his desk and gathered up some files. “Are the lawyers here?”
Rhett kept a handpicked team of real estate attorneys on retainer for BDC. He needed them with his worldwide development projects, and the legal-team leader was Carstairs Whittenhurst, III, summa cum laude Harvard law. Rhett considered the lean, weasel-faced attorney to be arrogant, obnoxious, argumentative, and the sharpest attorney he had ever met. The last attribute was the only reason Carstairs still shadowed the halls of BDC’s worldwide headquarters in Palm Beach. Rhett deplored any necessary meetings with the man. He set Rhett’s teeth on edge the minute he opened his mouth.
“Of course they’re here, and Whittenhurst is antsy. The meeting started at four, and it’s ten after. You’re never late, so tell me why you’re late and smiling.” Garrett frowned.
“I had a great afternoon.”
“Before or after you went to Bloom & Grow? You did go to the nursery, right?”
“So where did the great part occur? Before or after the nursery? Because you sure were mad about doing the inspection.”
“At.” Rhett shoved two briefs in a manila folder.
“At the nursery. I met an incredible woman there. She took my breath away.” Blond hair and sapphire-blue eyes flashed in his line of vision, then faded.
Garrett gaped at him. “You mean Tammy?”
“The sales manager? No, not her. I met a customer in a sexy yellow sundress.”
“Women don’t take Rhett Buchanan’s breath away,” Garrett argued. “You’ve got that backwards.”
Rhett shook his head. “No, I don’t. It took some work, but I got her to agree to go out with me tonight.”
“Some work? This is like a nightmare. You’re my idol. You can have any woman you want, and you’re telling me you had to work at it like the rest of us do? You’re bursting my bubble.” Garrett dodged the wadded up paper Rhett threw at him.
“Cut it out. I’m serious.”
Garrett grinned deviously. “So am I, and you have to reschedule your date. We have to go to Delia’s cocktail party tonight, or did you forget? She invited Horning to her party, and we get to schmooze him for backing on the San Antonio project. Remember Horning Oil?”
“I remember, and I’m taking Lily to the party.”
“What?” Garrett stared incredulously.
“You heard me.” Rhett tucked two folders in his leather folio.
“Have you lost your mind?”
Garrett took two strides forward. “We’re talking about Delia Armstead, your on-again, off-again girlfriend-slash-fiancée.”
Rhett glared. “I never asked—”
“No, but she thinks you will,” Garrett interrupted. “The woman turns into a barracuda when you get within five feet of another woman. Delia will eat this Lily alive.”
“I don’t intend to leave Lily’s side.” He tucked the leather folio under his arm. “Let’s go. The lawyers await.”
“Don’t do it, Rhett. Take the girl out tomorrow.”
“No!” he said sharply. “I told you I met with some resistance. If Lily has another day to think about it, she might change her mind. Contrary to what you think, not every woman wants to go out with me.” He strode for the door.
“I'll bet you ten bucks right now that you decide taking Lily was a big mistake,” Garrett said, right on his heels.
Rhett stopped to scowl at him. “I am not betting on my date with Lily, and it's not going to be a mistake. Good Lord, you'd bet on anything.”
"Only when I'm going to win."
Rhett and Garrett strode into the ornate, cherry-paneled conference room across the hall where six attorneys impatiently waited around a dark cherry wood conference table that took up most of the room.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Rhett greeted the group as he took his place at the head of the table. Garrett slid into the chair always left open for him to Rhett’s right. “I apologize for my tardiness. A previous meeting held me up.”
Whittenhurst sniffed, and Rhett ignored him. “We’re meeting to discuss parcels on the East Coast of Florida, which you—” He nodded at Whittenhurst. “—are trying to acquire for my next golf resort development.”
“Yes,” Whittenhurst cut in, “and we’ve pared the list to three parcels and feel a site visit to be in order.”
Rhett held up a hand to stop him. “Carstairs, I haven’t toured sites with you at this preliminary stage in four years, and I don’t see a reason to start now. I’m too busy. These are golf resort parcels, BDC’s bread and butter, and you know exactly what I want and need. You’ve been with me for eight years. Every property you secured in that time has met our needs perfectly, both physical and financial. So let’s move on.”
Whittenhurst’s lips pressed into a hard line, and he prattled on. “I didn’t know if you wanted to purchase one parcel at a time or all three together.”
“Can we afford all three?” Rhett matched his icy tone. “Yes, we can. If we don’t develop them right away, we can always sell them later, so press forward. What’s the timeline on the closings?”
“Two immediately, the third will be delayed.”
Rhett raised his brows.
Whittenhurst gave a resigned sigh. “The third property is the last open parcel of coastline facing Jupiter Island that is big enough for a golf resort community, and we’ve met with a few roadblocks, but we’re working through them.”
“Roadblocks big enough to squelch the deal?”
“I don’t believe so, but one never knows.”
“I’ve wanted to do a golf course community in Jupiter since I moved here,” Rhett said eagerly. “Find out, Carstairs, and do it quickly. And I better not hear that Aidan Cross stole one of the parcels out from under us like he did last year. Got it?”
The ass gave an imperious sniff. “As you wish, Mr. Buchanan.”
Tammy appeared on the nursery path to the cottage and joined Rob and Lily in the driveway. Lily crossed her arms and awaited the interrogation.
“She wanted to wait for you to get started,” Rob told Tammy as she caught up to them.
“I’ll bet.” Tammy grinned and stopped alongside Lily. “So?”
“Nuh-uh. I go first,” Rob complained. “Is my Porsche all right?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “It’s fine, I think.”
She hoped so. After the first half-dozen jerks and bucks, the remainder of the ride had been smooth. She shoved in the clutch at her driveway entrance and coasted to a stop.
Tammy swatted him. “What do you care? Lily’s more important than some old car.”
Rob arched a brow, and Lily took up for him. “It is a Porsche, Tammy, and I did just jump in and take it without asking.”
“It’s all right. You were just trying to impress the guy,” Rob said grudgingly. “I’m just dying to know why.”
Lily smiled at her head grower and best friend in the whole world. He could afford a dozen Porsches with his trust fund and never miss the money.
Rob had disowned his family, which amounted to his parents since he was an only child, when they refused to bless his horticulture career and subsequently cut him off without a cent. Lucky for Rob, his grandfather had left him a small trust fund. Though access to said trust fund came with the single proviso that he had to hold down a forty-hour-per-week job. Somewhere. Luckier still for Rob, his grandfather’s idea of a small trust fund could buy and sell corporations.
Rob had snatched his trust fund out of his father’s bank, secured a horticulture internship at Bloom & Grow with Lily’s father, and even moved into the little blue cottage with the Fosters until he eventually secured a place of his own. Rob had never left. Lily shared her father and finally got the sibling she’d always wanted.
“I’m waiting,” her faux sibling prodded with a grin.
“I’m sorry I took your Porsche without asking,” Lily said, with proper chagrin.
“Oh, who cares?” He waved off the apology. “Why is what I’m waiting for.”
“Well, we met in the nursery office. Rhett was looking for Tammy, so he could do his final inspection on the BDC order. I thought he knew I worked here, so I offered to show him the trees. We were having such a good time, and then he asked me out. I hesitated because I feel funny dating customers, but I really wanted to go.”
“Then I showed up and almost blew the whole deal for you,” Tammy said. “It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on.”
Lily groaned. “That’s the bad part. I realized too late that he thought I was a wealthy customer, so I kept pretending.”
Rob frowned. “You lost me.”
“Rhett asked me out because he thought I was some Jupiter Island socialite, the kind of woman he obviously dates. If he thought I was just a gardener, he wouldn’t have asked me out. I just know it.”
“What?” Rob and Tammy exclaimed in unison.
“You heard me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Rob said.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so, and when he insisted on going back up front with me, I just couldn’t jump in my dirty truck. Wealthy Jupiter Island socialites don’t travel by truck.”
“And I pulled up in the nick of time with Cinderella’s Porsche,” Rob finished.
Lily shrugged sheepishly.
“What was the name of his company again?” Rob wanted to know.
“BDC is what the landscape architect Garrett Tucker listed on the purchase order,” Tammy volunteered.
“No, it can’t be,” Rob said.
“You know the company?” Tammy asked.
“What was the owner’s name again?” he demanded. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Rhett Buchanan, why?”
Rob scrubbed a palm down his face and gave a long, deep sigh. “Geez Louise.”
“What? Tell me,” Tammy pleaded. “I can’t take this.”
“I don’t think I want to know,” Lily said softly.
Rob opened his eyes and stared at her. “You might be right, Lil. Rhett Buchanan is the most eligible bachelor on the entire East Coast, let alone Jupiter Island. BDC is a worldwide conglomerate. I know because my father does business with them. Buchanan is the CEO. He’s a billionaire.”
Tammy hooted. “This is great!”
“No, it’s not,” Lily said sternly. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going.”
“Yes, you are,” Tammy argued.
“Lil’s right, Tammy. This has mistake written all over it.”
“Are you crazy?” Tammy said. “This is what she deserves.”
“A relationship built on deceit?” Rob stared open-mouthed.
“I don’t have a relationship,” Lily cried, “and right now I don’t even have a date. I’m not going.”
“Wait just a minute, both of you.” Tammy held up both hands to silence any interference and turned to Lily. “You liked him, didn’t you?”
She could feel her cheeks growing warm again. The curse of being a fair-skinned blonde—everyone knew when she was embarrassed or upset. Her cheeks took out all the guesswork.
Lily stared at her friend for a long moment, then nodded.
“A lot. Am I right?”
Lily flinched under Tammy’s intense stare. She had never lied to either Tammy or Rob and never would. The truth was she hadn’t felt this excited over a guy since . . .
Well . . . Since never.
The butterflies in her stomach still fluttered, and just imagining Rhett’s face made her cheeks grow warmer still.
“I can see by your blush I’m right,” Tammy said softly. She held up a hand to silence Rob. “Lily, you deserve to be Cinderella for at least a little while. You can always tell him the truth later, and by then, he’ll love you as much as we do.”
Lily wanted desperately to go along with her suggestion. Rob remained silent, and she knew what he was thinking. Socialites considered gardeners to be dirty second-class citizens. His own parents had disowned him for passing on a chance to enter the family investment business and for choosing to be a lifetime gardener. Rhett Buchanan would never have asked her out if he’d known she was the head gardener there.
“You’ve let this nursery suck all the life out of you for too long. You deserve some fun, Lily. You always make the sacrifices, but not this time,” Tammy prodded gently. “Maybe Rhett is Mr. Right. Maybe he isn’t. But you deserve to have the choice.”
Rob suddenly heaved a resigned sigh. “She’s right, Lil.”
Lily stared first at Tammy, then at Rob. He’d surprised her. “Can I borrow the Porsche?” she asked.
“After I give you those pumpkin-coach-driving lessons,” he said, laughing, “and I’ve got time right now.”
Lily slid the stick shift into second gear and steered around the corner with a sigh of relief. Rob’s driving lesson had worked wonders, and she only had a little further to go, all of it down residential streets on Jupiter Island.
She pulled to the side of the two-lane road to call Rhett and briefly turned on the inside light to click numbers. She looked in the rearview mirror, and a face she didn’t recognize stared back—eye shadow, blush, mascara, lipstick, and blond hair swept back in a graceful chignon, held in place with an elegant gemstone comb. Who was that woman staring back?
Tammy was right. Tammy was always right.
Lily punched in Rhett’s number and turned off the interior light. With the darkness came a jolt of panic. What if he didn’t answer? He was arguably the most important executive on the entire eastern seaboard. Why should he wait around for her call? What if something better had come up? Or someone better? He probably had a hundred girlfriends.
Rhett answered on the second ring, and her heart woggled wildly in her chest. “I was afraid you’d changed your mind,” he said. “Where are you?”
Lily felt her whole face pull into a wide grin. He had worried, too. How cool was that? Considering who he was. “I’m sorry I’m a bit late.”
It was Tammy’s idea to make you sweat, but I can’t tell you that.
“If I’m still invited, I’m at the corner of Gomes and Estrada.”
“Of course you’re invited,” he said quickly. “Come down three more streets to Larkin and take a right, second house on the right. I’m out front waiting for you.”
Lily heaved a loud and contented sigh. The way he said waiting for you made every single vertebra in her spine quiver in unison.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said breathlessly and didn’t even flinch at her inability to sound cool and calm.
Rhett Buchanan was waiting for her, and if his voice alone did that to her, what would his touch do? She felt her grin stretch even wider. For tonight, she was Cinderella. She intended to enjoy every minute and hope Prince Charming didn’t pry enough to find out she was a gardener.
At least she felt beautiful, arrayed in the brand new cocktail dress she and Tammy flew over to Niemen Marcus to purchase that afternoon. Two hundred dollars’ worth of black chiffon in horizontal tiers with a silver pendant of cubic zirconia stones and matching drop earrings. Tammy had also found a pair of sexy black sandals for her, not too tall since Lily didn’t often wear heels. An outfit worth every penny she had spent.
“Well, here goes everything,” she murmured and put the Porsche in gear. “Please, Lord, just let me have a good time this one night.”
She made the turn as directed and found the entire street lined with cars on both sides. The second house on the right was lit up like a Christmas tree, and as promised, Rhett waited in the middle of the front yard. Attired in a navy blue suit, cream-colored shirt, and dark tie, he looked every inch the billionaire.
Good grief, Lily! The richest man in Florida is waiting out front for you like a high-school boy at a birthday party.
She forced herself to breathe. Why, oh why couldn’t Rhett be poor, so they could have a chance together? She didn’t want to like him because there could be no future for them. But just looking at him made her feel tingly all over.
Just one night. Keep telling yourself that, Lily. Just one night.
She slowed to a stop in front of the house, unsure what to do since there was not a parking place in sight. Rhett spotted her immediately and hand-signaled someone in front of the house as he strode toward the Porsche. A valet jogged to the Porsche, and Rhett reached her side by the time the man climbed in the driver’s seat.
Rhett slid the valet a bill. “Don’t let anything happen to the young lady’s car.”
The valet grinned and took off.
Rhett took Lily’s hand in his. His touch felt warm and confident. He pressed a kiss against her knuckles and smiled. “I’m so glad you came.”
Her hand felt white hot at the spot where his lips had touched her skin, and she yearned to reach out and touch the spot. She felt dizzy and weak-kneed and couldn’t ever remember anyone gallantly kissing her hand.
“Me, too,” she said and inwardly groaned at her ineloquent response. “I mean, thank you so much for inviting me.”
He didn’t move and stared as though he were memorizing her features. She could drink in the sight of him all night, and his sensual gaze did funny things to her heart. Good grief, was this what the poets meant by love at first sight?
No, no, no. Just one night, Lily. Just one night.
“You look stunning,” Rhett said finally and stepped back to scan the dress, too.
She felt the grin explode onto her face, both ineloquent and involuntary. No help for it. “Thank you.”
Gracious, did he still have hold of her hand? How had she missed that? Without thinking, she squeezed his fingers, and his eyes immediately twinkled, then darkened. He leaned in and gently brushed his lips across hers like a stealth bomber on a strafing run, mission over almost as soon as it began.
Before disappointment could filter to her brain, his lips pressed again—more firmly now—and she felt the tip of his tongue part her lips. The only other part of him touching her was the strong hand enveloping hers. His tongue gently played with hers, their lips together with only a fine pressure, and the tingling sensuality made her sway. His other hand cupped her elbow as he pulled away.
“Steady?” he asked softly.
She nodded, completely incapable of speech or even breathing for that matter.
“I hope my kiss did that,” he said, his voice whisper-smooth.
Her chagrin evaporated. She smiled and willed air into her lungs.
“I wanted to stake my claim before I took you inside and was forced to introduce you to anyone.” His eyes twinkled again. “I remember how you affected me the first time I laid eyes on you, and I don’t want anyone inside getting any ideas.”
Shoot me now, and I’ll die happy.
Her heart bucked wildly behind her ribs, and she wanted to ask, how did I affect you? But no words would come with her heart performing wild-mustang pirouettes and making it hard to breathe again. So she kept silent, desperate to look poised and elegant for this sensual man. She settled for what she hoped was a dignified smile.
He smiled back. “All right, let’s head inside. Remember, you’re with me.”
Prince Charming refused to let go of her hand, and Lily trembled with pure unadulterated joy for the first time in her life.
“Who the hell is that?” Delia Armstead hissed into Garrett’s ear and dug her fingernails into his arm.
She nodded toward the front door, and he followed her gaze. Rhett Buchanan guided a breath-taking blonde down the three steps into Delia’s massive great room, and Garrett quickly stifled the smile guaranteed to drive Delia’s claws in deeper. Small wonder his boss had trouble concentrating this afternoon.
Of course, Rhett would argue if Garrett voiced that thought aloud. The man had a mind like steel trap, and you never had to tell him something twice. Rhett Buchanan was the smartest man Garrett had ever known, and he long ago decided Rhett possessed a photographic memory.
But not today.
Garrett had been repeating himself ever since Rhett got back from the nursery, and Rhett’s mind had wandered off twice in their conference call with the Rome office that afternoon. Now Garrett knew why, or rather he could see why.
Delia’s father, Chester Armstead, had cornered their special guest Grant Horning on the far side of the room, and Rhett was slowly working his way that direction, stopping to snag a couple glasses of wine off a passing tray carried by one of the half-dozen waiters Delia had hired for the night.
“Well?” Delia hissed.
“I don’t know. Never saw her before in my life.”
“How dare he bring another woman into my home?” she snapped.
Garrett wondered about that himself. The move was definitely gutsy even for Rhett. He slanted a sideways glance at Delia and grimaced. Men usually considered Delia a beauty with her sleek dark hair and violet eyes, but at the moment, her rage had melded her features into a mask resembling The Wicked Witch from Oz. Man, what a transformation.
She yanked his arm and spun him sideways. “You have to know something,” she snapped. “You’re his best friend. Cough it up.”
“I don’t know anything other than he met a woman at the nursery today when he went to inspect our tree shipment, and he invited her to the party.”
“My party,” she said, glaring. “What nursery? Since when does Rhett inspect tree shipments? That’s your job.”
“Bloom & Grow is a nursery in Jupiter, and it’s a long story, but the nursery requires the actual owner to approve final stock selections.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she fumed.
“Yes, that’s what Rhett said, too.”
Until he got lucky.
“What’s so funny?” Her hands were on her hips now, not a good sign.
"Not a damn thing,” he said, trying to look grim and unsure whether he succeeded.
“Well, you’re going to introduce me to her,” Delia said and slipped her hand through his arm.
Garrett pulled away. “Like hell I will. I’m not getting in the middle of this.”
She snatched him back, lightning fast. “Yes, you are. Or did you forget I set up this whole party just so the two of you could schmooze Horning.”
“No, Delia,” he replied calmly, “you volunteered to give the party, so you could sink your hooks back into Rhett. Now that you’ve dumped your polo player.”
“You’re horrible,” she hissed, refusing to let go of him.
“No, just truthful and your father wanted to schmooze Horning as much as we did. But I’ll introduce you if you’ll leave me alone and leave me out of this. After the introduction, I’m walking away, and you’re on your own.”
“Fine,” she said curtly and urged him forward.
Lily spotted a face she recognized and felt a spate of panic. The man who worked with Tammy picking out Rhett’s trees was walking straight toward her, and the gorgeous woman on his arm had her gaze locked on Rhett. Lily’s jig was up.
Rhett turned as the couple approached, and he reached for her hand. Was he staking his claim again? If so, Lily sure didn’t mind.
“Good evening, Rhett.” Tammy’s client was almost as handsome as Rhett, similar in height and build, blond where Rhett was dark. His smile looked positively devious.
“Garrett,” Rhett said, then nodded at the beauty. “Delia.” He turned to Lily with a tender, almost apologetic smile. “Lily Foster, this is Garrett Tucker and our hostess, Delia Armstead.”
Tucker shook Lily’s hand. “Very pleased to meet you, Ms. Foster.”
The woman’s hand shot out, and a look in her eyes made Lily hesitate before clasping the hand in her own. Delia Armstead was either an old girlfriend of Rhett’s or would like to be his new girlfriend. Her handshake was strong and intended to make Lily wince before she tugged free.
“Pleased to meet you,” Lily murmured.
The woman said nothing.
“I’m going to go freshen my drink,” Tucker announced suddenly and scooted off through the crowd, muttering something that sounded like, "ten bucks."
Unfortunately, the beauty didn’t follow him. Instead, she sidled around to Rhett’s other side and slipped an arm through his.
“How’ve you been, Rhett?” she asked silkily. “I’ve missed you.”
One question answered. Delia was a girlfriend. The next question was old girlfriend or still a girlfriend?
“What do you think of my redecorating in here?” Delia purred, easing into Rhett’s side. “I hired Lawson from Palm Beach to do it since I was so pleased with the work he did on the solarium.”
“It looks very nice,” he said matter-of-factly.
Lily tried to tug her hand free, but Rhett’s grip was like steel. That helped to soothe the inexplicable hurt she felt, but not much. He had escorted her to a party at his girlfriend’s house, and on their first date no less! She inwardly seethed.
“I want to go freshen my drink, too,” she said, angrier still that her voice held an edge. “You two catch up. I’ll be right back.”
Rhett had no choice but to let her go now or be rude to his hostess. Lily scooted free this time and headed straight for the bar without a backward glance. She couldn’t bear to see the woman’s hands on Rhett.
And already, too. Boy, had that infatuation hit fast.
She closed in on the bar and noticed a double set of open French doors leading out to the patio. An exit. She immediately formed her plan. Quick stop at the bar for looks, then out to the patio, around the side of the house, and grab a valet to find Rob’s Porsche.
She felt like an absolute loon. She’d known Rhett all of seven hours, and she felt crushed by the fact he had another girlfriend.
“A chardonnay, please,” she said, after the hired bartender handed off a requested scotch rocks to the gentleman in front of her.
“We have a choice—”
“Any is fine,” she said, cutting the bartender off.
“Delia’s famous for her wine collection,” a deep baritone voice said from her left. “You shouldn’t’ve been so quick.”
Lily slanted a furtive glance from beneath her lashes. Had Scotch Rocks said that? The man hadn’t moved far, and he was turned slightly toward her, so just in case, she said aloud to no one in particular, “I didn’t feel like making choices tonight.”
Scotch Rocks ignored her and shifted away, so Lily refocused on the bartender. “Thank you,” she said and accepted the glass of chardonnay he handed over.
She took her first step toward the terrace doors when the baritone stopped her again. “We didn’t get introduced yet.”
Etiquette held her in place. She half-turned, looking for Scotch Rocks, when she saw a large tanned hand extended her direction.
“Aidan Cross,” the baritone offered.
She stared down at the hand for the span of two heartbeats, then followed the hand up a well-muscled arm to broad shoulders and finally to a brilliant, devil-may-care smile—mentally noting the man must be dangerous in the ladies’ competition with a smile like that, to say nothing of the blond-streaked curls and dark eyes.
She took the proffered hand intending to give it a swift shake and be on her way. “Lily Foster.”
Cross appeared to have other plans however. He kept her hand in a tight grip and tugged it up to his mouth where he brushed a light kiss across her knuckles.
“Very pleased to meet you, Lily Foster.”
She gently pulled at her hand, wanting to get free and not wanting to attract attention, and his dark eyes twinkled devilishly.
“Does that bit of gallantry normally work well with the ladies?” she asked lightly and tugged again.
He grinned and her breath caught for a second. That grin should be registered as a concealed weapon. Too bad she’d lost her heart once already that day. No way would she be fooled twice. These Island people were definitely out of her league.
“But evidently not with you,” Cross said and released her hand.
“Well, it was very nice to meet you, Mr. Cross,” she said and turned for the terrace doors.
“Please, call me Aidan,” he said and stepped alongside. “Headed out to the patio?”
She slammed to a halt. “Yes, I just wanted a quick turn through the gardens, alone. I’m into . . .” Careful, Lily. “. . . flowers and such.”
She didn’t look directly at him. If he turned that smile loose again, someone may think the two of them were flirting.
“Well, that’s blunt enough.”
She did glance at his handsome face then. Had she hurt his feelings? She hoped not. What she did find was genuine concern in those dark eyes.
“Are you sure you want to leave Rhett alone in here with Delia while you traipse about the gardens? Might not be wise.”
“You’re a good friend of Rhett’s?”
“I’m not so sure I’d go that far,” he said, the devilish twinkle reappearing in his eyes.
“How far would you go?” she asked, suddenly very curious about this guest.
“Now that’s a question you should be careful asking a single man.” He grinned. “Or any man for that matter.”
She huffed. “You know what I meant. You were talking about Rhett.”
“And I’m just teasing you. In answer to your question, I’m Rhett’s chief competition in most things.” His eyes sparked, and Lily suspected he meant more than business ventures.
“If you’re not friends, then how did—”
“I never said we weren’t friends. I’d like to think we are, but we’ve butted heads quite a lot over the years. As for you, I saw you two walk in together, and I also saw Delia make a beeline for Rhett the minute she spotted you.” Aidan laughed. “She must have had a heart attack seeing Rhett walk in with a beautiful woman on his arm.”
Lily opened her mouth, couldn’t think of a thing to say, and promptly closed it. Could this be more embarrassing? Bad enough Rhett had brought her to his girlfriend’s cocktail party, but everyone here knew it. The sooner she made her escape the better.
Aidan’s smile faded. “Aw, hell. You didn’t know about Delia, did you?”
Lily shook her head, refusing to look at him so he couldn’t see her flushed cheeks. She thought she heard him mutter, “Damn Rhett,” and wished a hole would open up underneath her, so she could just disappear.
“You know, if you’re determined to visit the gardens, me escorting you should bring Rhett along sooner rather than later,” Cross was saying.
He acted concerned, but could she trust any of these people? She doubted it.
“No, thank you. I just need a breath of fresh air.”
He stepped back. “If you’re sure.”
She slanted a quick glance at him. Did he know she planned to bolt? He stared at her as though he did. She moved toward the terrace doors without another word.
Cross called after her, “I’m glad I got to meet you, Lily Foster.”
What could she say? Good-bye? Good night? He’d surely know her plan then, and he obviously knew Rhett, so best if she kept silent.
“You really like it?” Delia cooed and tugged Rhett’s arm tight against her breast.
He didn’t even glance down. His eyes stayed possessively on the blonde as she maneuvered between guests near the bar.
Rhett used to watch me like that. Delia suffered a wave of fury for the woman who had temporarily usurped Delia’s place. Summoning her seductive wiles, she shifted slightly and eased his arm over her ample breast, then leaned in with the perfect amount of pressure.
“I’ve missed you,” she said in her most sultry voice.
He glanced down at her, an odd expression on his face. “Have you?” he said, his manner casual. “As I recall, you tossed me for that well-hung Argentinean polo player.”
“I didn’t toss you,” she protested, thrilled he’d mentioned Raoul as if the man mattered. “You just don’t like sharing your toys.”
She tugged his arm hard against her soft breast and narrowed her eyes. “Neither do I.” She shot a pointed glance at Lily taking her drink from the bartender.
Rhett removed his arm from her tight grasp. “Which is why we have never had a real relationship.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, we have used each other on occasion as the need arose,” he said evenly, “which suited our lifestyles perfectly.”
“I’ve never used you,” she insisted, feeling her hold on him slipping.
“Come on, Delia. We’re good friends who have slept together on occasion.”
“And we need to do that more often, like tonight.” She squeezed her breasts against his chest and reverted to her sultry voice. “Everything can get back to normal again.”
She peered up to check her seductive effect and found Rhett glaring toward the bar.
“What’s Cross doing here?” he growled.
“Trying to meet your date by the looks of it,” Delia said smugly.
“Why’d you invite him?”
Unfazed by Rhett’s glower, she snaked an arm around his waist. “Aidan’s a good friend, too.”
“Playing both ends against the middle, Delia?”
She pressed in tighter to hold him in place since he looked ready to bolt. “Aidan and Daddy have invested in a couple developments together is all.”
“I’ll just bet. Maybe I need to curtail my investments with Chester if that’s the case.” He shifted, but she managed to stay with him.
“Now, darling,” she cooed, but he wasn’t looking at her anymore.
She felt his hand ball into a fist at her side and followed his gaze back to the bar. Aidan Cross had just brushed a kiss across the hand of Rhett’s little slut, and Delia wanted to squeal with glee. Rhett’s chief competition after Rhett’s new girl.
He freed himself from Delia’s grasp, but the guest of honor, Grant Horning, chose that particular moment to step over to them.
“Good to see you, Rhett,” Horning said and extended a hand.
Unable to escape just yet, Rhett forced a smile Delia knew he didn’t feel, and she hid her own smug smile. She glanced toward the bar. Rhett’s blonde had escaped Aidan Cross, and Delia watched her slip out to the patio. A glance back at Rhett told her he hadn’t missed the blonde’s departure either.
Garrett rejoined them as soon as Horning approached, and after the usual pleasantries of weather, accommodations, and travel schedule, Rhett asked Garrett to give Horning a quick rundown on their new Boca Raton development and explain how Boca could be a model for their new San Antonio development scheduled for a construction start the following year.
Delia clung tenaciously to Rhett’s side. With any luck, the blonde would be with someone else by the time Horning was finished with Rhett.
Before she could finish the thought, Rhett nodded to Garrett and said, “Be sure to tell Grant about your eclectic tree collection.”
“I love specialty trees,” Horning gushed, suddenly all ears.
“I know,” Rhett said. “I make it my business to know the preferences of all my prospective business partners.”
Horning beamed. “You’re an astute executive, Buchanan. I think I’d like doing a project with you.”
“Glad to hear it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go round up my date. She appears to have slipped away.”
“Wait!” Delia objected and rather loudly. The three men turned to her.
“Let him go, Delia,” Horning drawled with a grin. “I saw Rhett’s date when they walked in, and so did every other man in the room. If he doesn’t corral that filly, someone else will steal her.”
Delia ground her teeth in frustration as Rhett slipped through the crowded great room. She would get Rhett back if it was the last thing she ever did. Her daddy was a city councilman and an important man in Jupiter. He could find out who the blonde was and get some dirt on her. Every woman had some dirt to hide. Delia intended to find the blonde’s dirt and spread it out for Rhett to see. He’d come running back, and Delia would be waiting.
And this time, she would play for keeps.
Lily paused at the edge of the brick patio and stared out over a moonlit replica of an English courtyard garden that stretched to the Intracoastal canal at the back of the property. Walkways lined with immaculately trimmed hedges were flanked by gazebos on either side and crossed by a series of arbors at critical design points. Subdued landscape lighting provided a romantic atmosphere for the guests though no one had bothered to venture out into the night. Lily would have complimented Ms. Armstead if she didn’t already detest the woman for finding and catching Rhett first.
She briefly studied the garden layout to determine the shortest escape route, then relinquished her drink to the wicker end table flanking a settee. She had to hurry. Rhett would eventually search out his date, right? But then she had insisted on meeting him at the party, so maybe he felt comfortable staying inside with the beautiful socialite instead of hunting for Lily out here. He certainly hadn’t minded the woman smushing her breasts up against him.
The thought made Lily’s throat ache as she swallowed the ridiculous hopes she had allowed herself today. Slipping down the brick steps and into the maze of hedges, she forced herself to focus on a soundless escape. A left, a right and a left, and she should reach the side walkway she hoped would lead between the separate multi-car garage and the east side of the house. She listened for sounds from the patio, but only silence reigned in the garden. Rhett hadn’t yet thought to search for his date.
She reached the side walkway, which did indeed wind between the garage and the house. The brick path fell in line with an eight-foot Podocarpus hedge on her left and a variety of shrubs and evergreens woven together along her right, creating a darkened corridor with the house floodlights turned off to promote the landscape mood lighting in the garden.
She concentrated on her footsteps in the deepening shadows, not wanting to trip and top off her humiliation for the night. A few more yards, and she’d be back out in the well-lit front drive. Intent on her steps, she missed the figure emerging from the shadows ahead.
A hand grabbed her arm. She yelped in surprise and lost her balance as her feet tangled up in the heeled sandals. An arm clamped around her waist and hauled her up against a rock-hard chest.
“Going somewhere, princess?”
Though too dark to clearly see his face, Lily knew the voice belonged to Rhett, and he didn’t sound happy. Her heart trip-hammered like the fledgling mockingbird she’d picked up in the nursery a few days earlier. Like the fledgling, all she had wanted was an escape flight.
She took a long, shuddering breath to slow her heart rate. Suddenly conscious of her body crushed against Rhett’s muscular form, she couldn’t manage a second breath and hung onto the first breath as long as possible. This, of course, rendered speech impossible.
Rhett slowly eased her down along the front of his chest, letting her feel every square inch of him as she slid down his torso. Her sandals eventually touched earth, and still he held her until her full weight was settled and her balance uncompromised.
“I have to tell you, this is a new one for me. I’ve never had a date try to run out on me before.”
Her own anger flared. “Maybe you never took one to your girlfriend’s house before.”
The full moon escaped a passing group of clouds, and she could see his eyes glitter dangerously. “Touché.”
He waited for her to speak.
“I-I was—” She gulped a very obvious and very loud lungful of air. It was that or pass out from lack of oxygen. “—g-going for a walk.”
Her cheeks flamed with heat, and she hoped he couldn’t see.
“A walk to your car?” he said flatly.
Hank always said, “If you don’t like your answer, ask a question.”
“How did you find me?”
He still had one hand cupped on her elbow as though to ensure she didn’t bolt. If she did, she’d surely lose her slipper, and then where would Prince Charming be? She choked back a half-sob half-laugh.
“Am I missing some humor here?” he asked gruffly.
“No.” The meager light around them dissipated when more clouds drifted in to cloak the moon. She could no longer see the expression in his eyes, but oddly enough she could feel his expression—the anger and the hurt. “I just thought it odd where you found me and wondered—”
“How I found you? I saw you slip out to the patio, and after you met Delia, I figured you intended to run, so I went out the front. If I figured wrong, I could always find you in the garden later. Evidently, I guessed right.”
The moon broke free, and Lily could suddenly see the anger and hurt in his eyes. But he had hurt her, too.
“Why did you bring me to your girlfriend’s house, to her party?”
“Garrett asked me that same question this afternoon,” he said reluctantly.
She raised her brows.
“Like I told him, I couldn’t get out of going to this party. Delia set this up as a favor to Garrett. There’s clients here Garrett needs to see—we need to see—and I wanted to be with you tonight. I couldn’t wait.” He sighed resignedly. “Not one of the smarter things I’ve ever done, but I’m here, and with you. So, I’m not completely sorry.”
“A favor to Garrett?” she asked, disbelieving.
“Yes to Garrett, and Delia is not my girlfriend.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“All right, she used to be my girlfriend, sort of.”
“Sort of?” Lily wanted to believe him, but he was swiftly digging a hole for himself.
“I do a lot of social events, comes with my job. When I needed a date on short notice, I usually called Delia. She was always willing to go.”
“The Palm Beach Post reports me in a serious relationship with every model or socialite I’m seen with. That too comes with the job.”
“Are there a lot of models?”
He grinned. “Well, I don’t like going out with ugly women.”
“That was a joke, Lily.”
“And Delia? What does the social page say about her?”
He sighed. “Some idiot wrote there were wedding bells in the picture, and she believed her own press.”
“Somehow I think she’s too intelligent to get that idea strictly from the newspaper.”
“However she got that idea, I didn’t give it to her. In fact, that’s why we don’t go out anymore. Delia just hasn’t given up.”
Lily raised her brows at that.
“It’s over,” he reiterated in a tone that brooked no disagreement.
She sighed. “All right, now what?”
“Let’s take a walk.” He took her hand and started for the garden.
She balked, and he tugged on her hand. “I’m not letting you go, Lily,” he said softly.
The carefully constructed wall around her heart shifted, and a flood of warmth escaped to seep down to her fingers and toes. She nodded and gripped his hand and could have sworn she heard an exhale of relief.
Rhett’s grip held firm as he guided her through the still-empty garden and down a path ending at a dock that stretched out over the Intracoastal canal. The dock widened to a landing at the end with a bench on each side. He guided her to a bench, and they sat down. Never once did he relinquish her hand, which perpetuated the comfortable warmth enveloping her. He said nothing and seemed content with her presence and the silence. The groupings of clouds had all blown past, and glittering stars peppered the darkened sky like tiny accent diamonds around the solitaire moon.
Lily almost said, “It’s beautiful here,” but here was Delia Armstead’s house, so she held her tongue.
“Why did you agree to go out with me?” Rhett asked suddenly.
Caught off guard, she said, “I didn’t know who you were.”
“And now you do.”
He let out a resigned exhale. “I wondered. Did you search on the Internet?”
“No, the nursery people told me,” she replied, without thinking.
He stared. “When? You left.”
She thought fast. “I went back for the brochure.”
“Would you have accepted the date if you knew who I was before?”
She peered up at him and wanted to be truthful, but was afraid to take the risk. Back on the dark walkway overwhelmed with hurt and anger, she had almost blurted out the whole deceptive scheme, not caring if she lost him or not.
Now all she said was, “I don’t know.”
“I’m the same man, Lily.” He lifted her chin with a finger and brushed a feather-light kiss across her lips.
Her lips sizzled, and she wondered if he felt the jolt, too.
He got to his feet and tugged her up. “Let’s get out of here. You’re uncomfortable here, and I’m not ready to give you up yet.”
“But what about your clients?”
“Garrett’s here. Come on, we’ll take your escape route to the front.”
She winced, and he kissed her cheek. “You were really going to leave, weren’t you?”
She stared into his eyes and promised herself to be truthful about everything she could. “Yes.”
Oddly, he smiled. “Then I’m glad I caught you.”
“Where are we going?” she asked, when they reached the front of the house and he retrieved both sets of keys from the valet.
“The beach.” He winked. “I’ll bring you back to your car later.”
Twenty minutes later, they peeled off shoes, socks, and stockings, and Rhett doffed his jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves and trousers. Grinning like kids, they waded into the low tide on the beach at Sea Turtle Park. The county park at the south end of Jupiter Island had closed at sundown, but Rhett had claimed he knew a back way inside. He had parked at the edge of a private residence and slipped them through a landscape barrier bordering the park property.
“The owner’s not at home right now, and this is the easiest way to the beach,” he whispered, as they slid along the inside of a tall Ligustrum hedgerow. “Sea Turtle Beach is deserted at night. We can be alone there.”
She chuckled softly. “We’ll be alone because we’re trespassing after hours.”
He grinned over his shoulder, and his teeth flashed bright in the shadows. “Don’t worry. I have team of lawyers who can bail us out.”
Sea Turtle Park was not where Lily had planned to end up on her date, but she couldn’t have been happier. Romantic moonlight brightened the deserted beach and glinted off the waves. The crashing surf created a melodious backdrop for their late-night stroll.
They walked for what seemed like hours, and Lily coaxed tidbits of Rhett’s past from him until he finally opened up. She found they had a lot in common: good grades, a dedication to their studies, and lots of student loans. When they graduated college, they worked hard to build their dream and never stopped.
Other tidbits had been hard to hear. The only child of parents killed in a late-night auto crash, Rhett had been sent at the age of ten to his only living relative, an alcoholic uncle living hand to mouth in Indiantown, Florida.
“I had to work hard,” he told her. “I owed it to my parents. They had wanted the best for me. I’m not so different than any other small business owner. I work all the time and try to make informed decisions.” He shrugged. “What about you? I’ve been doing all the talking. Tell me about Lily Foster.”
“My mother died shortly after I was born, and my father passed away three years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” he said and gently brushed his fingers across her cheek.
“I miss him so much.” She pressed her cheek into his palm. “I especially miss our trips.”
“You traveled a lot together?”
“If you call going to Walt Disney World traveling. Dad took me there for vacation every couple of years growing up. For me, going to Disney was like going back to Grandma’s house was for other kids.” She shrugged. “I’m a bit of a Disney freak, but we had so much fun there.”
“A mighty pretty freak,” he said and rubbed his thumb across her bottom lip.
She smiled and swallowed the lump in her throat. Hank would have liked this man. “Not much else to tell really. My story’s a lot like yours. Dedicated to my studies, lots of student loans, working to build my dream.”
She glanced up sharply, but he was smiling. “Design consulting. Mostly female clients.” It wasn’t a lie, just a stretch.
He seemed satisfied with her two-word explanation, which he no doubt assumed meant fashion designs, and she let him.
“Ah, sounds interesting.”
She smiled. “Liar.”
He gave a bark of laughter, then grabbed her and swung her in a circle.
She had guessed right about his assumption, and she had no intention of correcting him. She hadn’t really lied. She did landscape design consulting and ninety percent of her clients were women. If husbands showed up, they were usually dragged along. The landscape architects did their own designs and only bought plants at the nursery. She sighed.
Just one night. Just one night.
“Are you happy?” he asked suddenly.
“I like what I do, but I work too much.”
She laughed, suddenly feeling lighthearted. She’d had her perfect evening. Even while wading with no stockings or shoes in the Atlantic Ocean, she still felt like Cinderella.
She glanced up to find Rhett staring intently at her. “I don’t want to say good night to you, Lily.”
She stiffened and tugged out of his arms.
“What’s wrong?” He reached for her, but she evaded his hand.
“We just met. These things take time.”
“And?” He reached for her again and missed again when she shifted.
Lily took a deep breath. “And I won’t spend the night with you.”
He chuckled. “I didn’t ask. I just didn’t want to say good night.”
Good grief! Could I look more stupid, more naïve?
“I’m sorry. I thought—”
“I know what you thought.” Quick as a cat, he pulled her into his arms. “And on some level, you may have been partially accurate. Now don’t get all stiff on me.” He held her tight. “Wants aren’t necessarily deeds. I am a gentleman and not without honor. I would never press you.”
He grinned down at her. “I’m also a patient man.”
When she wriggled out of his arms, he let her go. She didn’t know whether she was relieved or disappointed.
“Rhett, when I said things take time, I meant . . . What I wanted to say . . .”
“What, Lily?” He wasn’t going to make this easy for her.
“Something that important has to mean something.”
“I agree and it would. It will.”
“No, I mean . . .”
“What? Am I confused again?”
His eyes twinkled in the bright moonlight, and she stared bleakly at him.
No hope for it, Lily. Out with it. Better now than later when you really, really like him. Or worse yet . . .
“I couldn’t sleep with a man I didn’t care about . . . a lot,” she blurted.
Now he stared. Long moments passed. Interminable moments for Lily.
“Fair enough,” he said finally. “I guess I’ll just have to make you care about me. A lot.”
“Please don’t joke,” she said and gulped. “If you don’t want to see me anymore, I’ll understand.” She turned toward the pile of clothes and shoes high up on the sand.
He stopped her. “Who’s joking?”
She shrugged. “Most guys—”
“Is that what you expect?” he said indignantly. “For me to bolt and take the high road if you won’t sleep with me right off the bat?”
She shrugged again. “Most guys do. Show their true colors, I mean,” she said, a bit angry and flustered to have him pin her down like that.
His eyes flashed in the moonlight. “I’m not most guys. Like I said, I’m a patient man.”
His irritation suddenly vanished, replaced by a slow, sensual smile that made her feel warm from the tip of her head to her toes.
“That smile works pretty well for you, doesn’t it?” she said.
“Maybe.” He tugged her back in his arms with little effort. “I’m not about to give up, Lily. I’ve wanted you bad, ever since I stepped in the Bloom & Grow office and saw you in that little yellow sundress.”
He pressed her tight against him and tucked her head on his shoulder. Her whole body tingled with his arms wrapped around her, but still she frowned. He hadn’t mentioned falling in love with her. Would she just be another seduction in a long line of seductions? Would she be like all the others? Or was she just a little bigger challenge?
“I hear the wheels turning, Lily.” The vibrations of his deep voice sent little sparks across her chest and arms.
He pulled back slightly, took her left hand in his, and wrapped his arm around her waist. For a moment, she didn’t understand and then she did.
They were dancing! In the moonlight. On the beach. And her heart ached with the romance of it as he hummed a little tune in her ear for accompaniment.
Their dance was over way too soon, and she realized Rhett had steered her toward the pile of clothes and shoes on the sand. Had he meant what he said or was this Cinderella’s only night?
“Can I see you again?” he asked suddenly.
“I’d like that.”
“You said you work too much. Why don’t you take some time off and play? With me.”
“How much time?”
He grinned and pulled on his shoes and socks. “Take a week off. Come to New York with me. You’re a consultant, so you can rearrange your clients. I have business meetings up there for the next week, and I don’t want to wait seven days to see you again.”
“Really?” Her heart thudded against her ribs.
“Yes, really. With the Internet and your cell phone, your clients may never know you’re gone.”
His long arm snaked around her waist, and he pulled her tight against his chest. His mouth claimed hers, and this time his kiss turned hungry as he teased her lips apart.
Lily couldn’t resist and slipped her arms around his neck. He deepened the kiss until she whimpered with the flood of sensation overwhelming her. His kiss aroused soul-deep sensations she hadn’t anticipated including a sudden knee-jerking panic.
She couldn’t go away with Rhett!
He’d want . . .
He’d expect . . .
She couldn’t . . .
She jerked back. “It’s too soon,” she said breathlessly.
He pressed his lips to hers. “No worries. We’ve already discussed this,” he whispered against her lips.
Yes, we discussed it, but were you listening?
Her spine sizzled with the feel of his lips hovering against her own, but she forced herself to pull back again through sheer panicked willpower. “Yes, but—”
Unrepentant, he nibbled at her lower lip with a tender kiss that nearly melted her restraint. “I’ll get a suite,” he said softly. “You can have your own room, and you can decide when we’re ready.”
Her knees buckled, and he pressed her close.
“You mean it?”
“I mean it,” he said, his voice suddenly hoarse. “I feel different when I’m with you, Lily, like the real me. I just want to spend every minute I can with you. I know we just met, but—”
“I feel it, too,” she said quickly. “Like I’ve known you for years, not hours.”
She slid her arms back around his neck and kissed him with all the emotion roiling inside her. She threaded her fingers through the curls on his neck and tugged him closer. With a growl, he cupped her hip and pulled her off her feet as through trying to absorb her into his skin. Oxygen deprivation eventually separated them, and he steadied her when her feet finally touched sand. Lily felt relieved his breathing sounded as labored as hers. They stared at each other wide-eyed.
“Damn,” he rasped, his voice uneven. “We fit—” He paused for a much-needed breath. “—perfectly.”
Lily felt as though she teetered on the edge of a precipice high above a beautiful valley, yet the imminent free fall didn’t scare her. She felt exhilarated. Did falling in love feel like this? Hank had said he fell in love with Lily’s mother at first sight and never looked back. Strangely, Lily felt no fear at the possibility. Maybe love at first sight was genetic—in her blood.
“You’ll come with me?” he persisted.
Not just one night?
His expression looked so tentative, she melted and reached for him again. “Yes.”
He grabbed her hands and pulled them up to kiss them both, then pressed a light kiss on her lips. “If I’m to hold up my end of the bargain we made tonight, I better take you back now. You can’t kiss me like that again, or I’ll lose control. I need some practice to build up my stamina.”
And she plummeted to the valley below.