Chapters 1-3 The Winner Takes It All

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CHAPTER ONE

 

“We got the lead story.” Nathaniel Riley’s voice sounded over the car speaker.

The news didn’t surprise Cecilia. Reporters don’t shove a scoop like this to the back page, especially since it gave them another way to trot out the “senator recovering from a blackmail scandal” angle.

Cecilia stabbed the speaker’s volume button until it lowered to a reasonable level. “Then everything is going according to plan.”

“I trust you’re happy.” Her father’s purring tone made it clear that he, at least, was one satisfied cat.

She clenched the leather steering wheel.

Happy. Now there’s a word. When was the last time she’d been happy?

Stop. This was not the time to get philosophical. If she wanted a chance in hell at winning the congressional seat come election time, this was what needed to be done.

It was the smart move.

And she needed to win.

She’d get over the distaste curling into a knot in her stomach. She always did.

A green highway sign came into focus. Revival. Fifteen Miles. Where everything was sunshine, laughter, and genuine happiness.

Her skull throbbed.

“Cecilia?” Her father’s voice fractured her thoughts. “What did you think of the article?”

She didn’t read it. This morning, she’d thrown the unopened paper in the trash and deleted the Google alert links sitting in her e-mail. It was a fluff piece, carefully crafted by the senator’s finest. The first of many that would lead to a final press conference where she’d announce her bid for congress. It was all part of a perfectly planned public relations strategy, designed by her.

A fine sheen of sweat spread over her back. She punched down the air conditioner button in her understated Mercedes sedan and let the cool air wash over her face.

“Paul did an excellent job.” After years avoiding the truth, the evasion was smooth as silk.

“Since you were unavailable, Miles and I had final approval,” Nathaniel Riley said in his polished politician’s voice.

“Of course.” While her tone rang with a practiced strength, her stomach rolled. What was wrong with her? She needed to get it together. This was the price her dream demanded. She wasn’t losing anything really important. Nothing that mattered.

Life in politics was all she’d ever wanted. When other little girls were pretending to be princesses in faraway lands, she played at being president in the Oval Office. It was the only dream she’d ever known.

She’d been content putting her career aside for her father’s aspirations, but that ended when his scandal broke. She’d sat at her kitchen table, reading that dreadful headline, and saw her whole world crumbling under her feet.

The young woman who’d attempted to blackmail the senator had eventually been caught and her schemes exposed, but not without damage. Cecilia had managed the fallout to perfection, minimizing the whole sordid affair, publicizing how he’d been a victim of greed. It worked, the senator was well on the road to political recovery, but she couldn’t shake the worry.

This wasn’t the first mess she’d helped him escape. At some point his bad decisions would have to come back and bite him. And where would that leave her?

It had been a slap in the face. A wake-up call delivered by a five-alarm fire truck.

“I’m proud of you, Cecilia,” Nathaniel said, and she could practically see him sitting there in his office in Washington, scotch in hand, smug in his oversized leather chair.

Six months ago she would have lapped up his approval like a grateful puppy, but now she recognized the lie. He wasn’t proud of her. This latest plan helped him. How, she wasn’t sure and didn’t care, but it had nothing to do with her.

It never did.

The truth only made her more determined.

A speed limit sign whipped past and she checked her speedometer to see the needle creeping past eighty-five. Easing her foot off the pedal, she started to say thank you for his sparse compliment but instead blurted, “Don’t you have any reservations?”

“We talked about this,” he said in a patient tone that grated on her last nerve. “This is your best shot.”

Clammy sweat broke out on her forehead, forcing her to turn the air down to arctic levels. Wasn’t thirty-three too young for a hot flash? She swallowed the taste of the bile clinging to the walls of her throat. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“Why would it?”

Because I’m your daughter? The truth pained her, causing her voice to crack. That he hadn’t even noticed she was upset made the cut that much deeper.

She shook her head. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting out from under his thumb. She squared her shoulders. “Never mind. Is there anything else?”

A momentary silence fell over the car, filled with nothing but dead air. She prayed for a dropped connection (one would expect it in farmland Illinois), but the squeak of Nathaniel’s desk chair quelled her hope.

“Are you almost there?”

Her jaw tightened and her ever-present headache beat at her temples. “I’m about fifteen minutes outside town.”

“And your mother?” The question was clipped.

Part of Cecilia still wanted to believe that under all his bluster and power trips he genuinely cared for his wife of forty years, but she had no more delusions. “She’s already there.”

The green mile marker sign came into view. Revival. Twelve Miles.

She hadn’t been to the small town since her grandma’s funeral.

A sudden, unexpected tightness welled in Cecilia’s throat and she swallowed hard.

“I see,” he said and another silence descended.

She dreaded spending the next two weeks in a house filled with strangers, watching her brother fawn all over his bride-to-be. Not that she begrudged Mitch his happiness, she didn’t, but witnessing it caused a strange yearning she didn’t want to contemplate.

She gripped the steering wheel, tight enough her knuckles turned white. “I still think a couple of days before the wedding would have been plenty.”

“Cecilia,” Nathaniel said, in his patient tone. “Voters love a wedding and we need the family solidarity. This will help your image.”

The logic couldn’t be refuted, but she tried anyway. “And two or three days doesn’t accomplish that?”

“Under normal circumstances, yes, but with Shane Donovan already at his sister’s side and that football player on his way, it doesn’t look good if we’re not there.”

An image of Shane snapped through her mind like the lash of a whip. He was one of Chicago’s corporate giants, and his sister’s impending marriage to the senator’s notorious son had been a hot topic on a slow news day. If it wasn’t for him, she’d be home where she belonged.

“So you get to stay in Washington but I have to play nice,” Cecilia snapped.

“I’m in committee,” her father said.

The whole situation annoyed her and she spoke without thinking. “And God forbid the voters find out your wife and son aren’t speaking to you.”

“That’s enough. I’m still your father.”

Something tightened in her chest. Was he? He didn’t feel like it. She straightened her shoulders and modulated her tone to neutral. “All I’m saying is I’m not sure it’s necessary.”

“Trust me, it’s necessary.”

She laughed, a hard, brittle sound. “Trust you? You almost ruined your career.”

“But I didn’t,” he said, his voice cold as ice. “I’m doing what I need to do, and if you want to win, I suggest you do the same.”

She fought it—the pull that longed for his approval—but the habit was too old and her anger too new. She took a deep breath. “I understand.”

Sometimes it was best to concede the battle to win the war. Or at least that was the political spin she sold herself today.

“Good. Remember the plan.”

Ah yes, the plan. She ate, slept, and lived the plan.

Revival. Eight Miles.

Two weeks with Shane. Two weeks with his sharp, disapproving gaze. Two weeks of playing the ice queen he expected, pretending he had no effect on her.

She was exhausted just thinking about it. “I remember.”

“And on that note . . .” Nathaniel said, his voice rich and pleased.

Her stomach dropped with dread.

“I spoke with Miles and Paul this morning and we decided right after the wedding we’ll announce you’re running for office.”

She frowned. “What do you mean, ‘right after’?”

“At the reception. We’d call in a few reporters to cover the wedding. You could let it slip and have a press conference the next day.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. Was nothing sacred to him? “It’s Mitch’s day. Let him have it.”

“The timing—”

She cut him off. “No. This is my campaign, and I’m putting my foot down.”

She might not be close to Mitch, or have the slightest clue what to say to him, but she respected what he’d done and how he’d turned his life around after the senator had gone and fucked it all up. She wasn’t about to ruin his wedding to gain a few points in the polls.

“Cecilia, let’s be frank. You’re a long shot.”

Yes, the factors working against her were endless, but she was sick of him pretending he wasn’t part of the problem. Venom filled her tone as she spit out, “Thanks to you and that little intern I told you not to hire.”

He scoffed. “That’s easy for you to believe, but we both know your image needs work.”

Nausea roiled in her belly. “I didn’t get blackmailed, you did.”

“The voters forgave me. After all, I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Ha! You didn’t get caught. There’s a difference.”

“Perception is reality, my dear. You know that better than anyone.”

What did he mean by that? He sounded smug, as though he knew something she didn’t. “I’ll build my own perception.”

As soon as she figured out what she wanted that perception to be.

A long, put-upon sigh. “You can’t connect. You’re logical and pragmatic, which can be a benefit, but it doesn’t win votes. People don’t love you. You don’t inspire them to act, or empower them to believe that government is within their grasp. You have no voice. No vision.”

The truth. It was like a stab to the heart, but she refused, absolutely refused to give in to the tears that pricked the corners of her eyes. She did not cry. Ever. Instead, she steeled her spine and said sweetly, “Awww, you always give the best pep talks.”

Never show weakness. Never break.

“It’s up to me to tell you the truth.”

A cocktail of riotous emotions threatened to bubble to the surface, but she pushed them back down. “I will not let you ruin Mitch’s wedding so you can play father of the year in front of a few reporters.” Her training had served her well, because there wasn’t even a hint of a quaver in her voice. Her hurt was hidden down deep where it belonged.

And since he was so keen on truth, she’d dole out some of her own. “As your adviser, let me return the favor. If you want a chance in hell at winning your wife back before the next election, you’d better stop using your son to gain points in the opinion polls. You’re losing her. She’s starting to loathe you. Maybe because you had sex with an intern younger than your daughter?”

“Watch your mouth.” His voice filled with outrage. Unlike her, he’d never been a pro at hiding anything unless he had an audience. “I did not sleep with that woman.”

She laughed, the sound filled with rough, bitter edges. “Do you think I’m an idiot? You think I didn’t see how you fawned over her? How you preened at her ego-stroking?”

Fifteen seconds must have ticked by before he spoke. “Have you told your mother this?”

She scoffed, shaking her head. This was so like him. All he cared about was covering his ass. Another mile marker sign flew by. “Good-bye, Father.”

He hung up without a word.

She exhaled a slow, steady breath.

Well, that was ugly.

She’d held her own and scored her point, but the victory was hollow.

Revival. Next Exit.

She slowed to fifty-five and changed into the right lane. She had to block out this noise—her family crisis, Shane Donovan, the wedding—everything, and concentrate on what was important.

Winning the election.

It was the only dream she’d ever had and she couldn’t let it die along with everything else.

 

Cecilia had been banging on the front door of her brother’s farmhouse for five minutes and still no one answered. She glanced around the front yard filled with the same large oaks and weeping willows, but where her grandma had had shrubs, her future sister-in-law had lush hydrangea bushes in vibrant pinks, lavenders, and greens.

It was like stepping into an alternate universe where time stopped and reality altered just enough to make the familiar, foreign.

The breeze blew gently, sending the old porch swing swaying, and a burst of nostalgia filled her chest. How many summer nights had she sat there as a little girl, smelling of Off! and the river, curled up to her grandma’s side reading James and the Giant Peach?

She could still see her grandma sitting there in her housedress, looking like she was part of the earth. A tightness grew in her chest at the memory.

Would her grandma even like the woman she’d become?

She huffed out an exasperated sigh. Where was all this emotion coming from? She needed to shake it off and get it together. She turned away from the past and rang the bell, then rapped hard against the panes of glass.

Met with nothing but silence, she twisted the handle and found it unlocked. Since they expected her, she took a cautious step inside. Her heels clicked against original hardwood floors that gleamed with a richness that spoke of the care someone had put into restoring the wood.

“Hello?” she called out, peering around the empty foyer. The walls were different. The rose-patterned paper had been replaced with a soft, dark gray paint she’d never have picked because of the dark wood moldings, but it looked exactly right.

She called out again, “Hello?”

A distant male voice yelled back, “In the kitchen.”

Why on earth hadn’t he answered the door? She tossed her bag on the bench and walked down the narrow hallway leading to the swinging kitchen door that had been in this house since its creation.

The kitchen told another story, thrusting her out of the past and into the future. It gleamed with newness. With gorgeous, industrial stainless steel appliances, distressed white cabinets, and polished granite countertops in various shades of cream, gold, and brown.

Under the extra-deep double sink, a man sprawled across the floor, his head under the cabinet. “Can you hand me that wrench?”

That voice. It never failed to send an irritating trail of tingles racing down her spine. She ground her back teeth until her temples gave a sharp stab of protest. Of course, Shane Donovan had to be the first person she ran into.

He bent one knee, pulling the worn fabric of his jeans across powerful thighs. Her throat went dry as her pulse sped.

Why him? Out of every man she’d ever encountered—and in her line of work, she encountered plenty—why did it have to be him? For heaven’s sake, he even belonged to the wrong political party. She shuddered.

It was all so . . . embarrassing.

But her body didn’t care, hadn’t cared since the first time she’d met him at Mitch and Maddie’s engagement party. The second her palm had slid into Shane’s, a disconcerting jolt of electricity traveled through her fingertips and up her arm. She’d had to force herself not to yank away, to keep her face impassive.

It was a good thing he didn’t like her. It was the one thing working in her favor. If she stuck to her current strategy of nurturing his disdain, he’d stay away, and her exposure would be minimal.

She walked over to the box of tools and stood over him.

Half hidden under the sink, he fiddled with her brother’s plumbing. Annoyed at his pure perfection, she wrinkled her nose.

At six-four, his frame stretched beautifully across the hardwood. His hips were lean. His stomach flat. Shoulders ridiculously broad. Most of the times she’d seen him he’d been dressed in a suit, but today he wore a pair of beat-up construction boots, faded jeans, and a thin white T-shirt. It was a crime against nature that a man who spent most of his time in boardrooms had muscles like his.

She’d analyzed her attraction, and for the life of her, she couldn’t come up with a logical explanation. Sure, he was good-looking, but so what? Good-looking men weren’t impossible to find. He was nothing like the men she dated. She preferred, well, men like her. Men who were more interested in politics and strategy than carnal pleasures. She enjoyed a relationship where sex was secondary to their intellectual connection. Not that she had a problem with sex—she didn’t. Her past encounters were all pleasant and civilized.

But nothing about Shane Donovan was civilized. And somehow she doubted sex with him was pleasant.

She shouldn’t be attracted to him. Period. End of story. Only her libido didn’t agree.

A loud clang sounded under the cabinet followed by a grunted curse. He stretched out his hand. “The wrench.”

Without a word she reached down, grabbed the tool, and plopped it in his palm with far more force than necessary.

“Easy there, honey.” The warm tone of his voice clearly not meant for her.

Who was ‘honey’? A moment of panic washed over her. Oh no. Was she going to be tortured by watching him with another woman?

The thought bothered her so much, she blurted, “I’m not your honey.”

He stilled for a fraction of a second, before sliding out from under the sink like the teasing reveal in bad porn. His strong jaw tightened as his piercing green eyes met hers. “If it isn’t the ice queen herself.”

His favorite name for her. He’d never called her honey, not even once.

The fine hairs along her neck bristled as something she refused to name sat in the pit of her stomach. It didn’t matter. Even if he tried, she’d have to put him in his place on principle alone. Endearments were dismissive, every good feminist knew that.

She slipped into the role he expected, ignoring the jab to ask coolly, “Where’s the happy couple?”

He got up from the floor with much more grace than a man weighing at least two hundred pounds should, turned, and flicked on the faucet with the touch of his fingers. “Your brother’s out back.”

The muscles under his thin T-shirt flexed as he washed his hands.

She squared her shoulders. Good thing broad shoulders, muscular backs, and lean hips didn’t affect her. She was a sane, rational woman, not driven by hormones.

Her eyes locked on his ass.

Good thing she was above all that.

When the water ceased she snapped her gaze away and smoothed her expression into her most remote mask.

He turned around and gave her an assessing once-over. “I didn’t think you’d show until the rehearsal dinner.”

A muscle under her eye twitched. “I was invited. Mitch is my brother. Why shouldn’t I be here?”

“You Rileys aren’t much for family support.” He assessed her with a shrewd gaze. “So there must be another motive.”

Her spine bristled and she had the sudden urge to smack him across his smug face. Of course she didn’t, because that would be revealing and out of character. “I’m sure I don’t know to what you’re referring.”

He scooped up a beer bottle and raised it to his lips, taking a long, slow drink while watching her in that predatory way he had.

How could someone’s eyes be that green? So sharp and clear, it felt as though they pierced right through her.

The continued scrutiny gave her the urge to tug at her navy suit jacket and smooth her knee-length skirt, but she refused to fidget. “Is my mother here?”

“She went to the store with Maddie.” He placed the bottle back on the counter and rested his palms on the ledge of the granite that replaced the linoleum she remembered. “We’re out of Cheetos and Mountain Dew.”

She planted her hands on her hips and returned one of his long, disdainful glances. Her gaze settled meaningfully on his flat-as-a-board stomach. “Ah, that explains it. I’ve heard after thirty-five things go south rather quickly.”

His expression flashed with what looked like amusement. He straightened from the counter and took a step toward her.

The urge to retreat rose in her chest but she didn’t dare step back.

Never show weakness. Never break.

His eyes narrowed. “How’d you know I turned thirty-five?”

Damn it. See, this was why she ignored his barbs; she always said something far too telling. She shrugged one shoulder. “Oh, I hear things.”

“Investigating my background? How sweet. I didn’t know you cared.”

Of course they’d investigated all the Donovans when her brother became involved with Maddie. Just like Shane had investigated all of them, when his sister ran away to Revival. That’s the way it worked. Everyone knew that. Maybe she’d spent a little too much time on the oldest Donovan brother, but only because he was the most dangerous.

So yes, she knew all about Shane. Had a list of stats she could rattle off in her head in her sleep.

Occupation—CEO and owner of The Donovan Corporation.

Last significant relationship—one year ago with some tech genius.

High school grade point average—an abysmal 1.65.

College degree—none.

Arrests—one at sixteen, for underage drinking.

The list went on, and as many times as she went over the facts, the essence of him was missing. How did he beat such impossible odds? Overcome such dire straits?

All by his thirty-fifth birthday.

Which she should not know was three months ago.

One week after hers to the day.

At the memory of her own birthday, she frowned. It hadn’t been a good day.

She’d spent her birthday in strategy meetings concentrating on repairing her father’s tattered image. Other than a small fifteen-minute work break, when the interns shoved a cake under her nose, her mother had been the only person to call.

That night she’d sat alone in her Gold Coast town house eating Chinese takeout by herself. After a bottle of wine, she’d contemplated her accomplishments, trying in vain to pat herself on her back.

Only to realize the things she’d listed had nothing to do with her.

She’d done nothing for her own life.

Not a single damn thing.

CHAPTER TWO

 

Was that emotion on the ice queen’s face?

A frown curved the corners of Cecilia’s mouth downward, as she seemed to drift off and forget Shane was there. He’d never seen her look anything but distant and remote and the flicker of feeling transformed her classically beautiful face into something stunning.

He didn’t like it.

He preferred her inhuman. It helped cool the stab of irrational lust that kicked him in the gut every time he got within fifty feet of her. A lust he sure as hell didn’t understand but couldn’t seem to control. She was fast becoming an itch he couldn’t quite scratch, annoying as hell and impossible to ignore.

Those mysterious, blue-gray eyes of hers darkened. Her expression was tight, highlighting her high cheekbones and the hollows of her cheeks. Twin lines formed over her normally smooth brow. Wherever she’d gone, her thoughts were distressing enough that her customary mask slipped away.

Why was she unhappy?

He shook his head. It didn’t matter. It didn’t have anything to do with him.

He didn’t even like her. He liked his women smart, soft, and warm. While she was plenty smart, nothing about Cecilia Riley—from her patrician bone structure to her severe suits—spoke of softness or warmth.

Except for her mouth.

That mouth had been designed for a different woman. His gaze dipped to her full, pink lips. Lush and bitable, they looked like sex. Raw, dirty sex. The kind he was positive she didn’t have.

The back door banged opened and Cecilia’s expression jerked back into focus. She blinked, those stormy eyes of hers shuttering closed before he could decipher the emotions lurking in their depths. And just like that, the mask was back in place, leaving him to wonder if he’d imagined the whole thing.

She raised one elegant brow, crossing her arms and closing herself off.

He wanted to ask what she’d been thinking, but Gracie Roberts called out in a sing-song voice, “Oh Shane, where are you?”

Cecilia’s porn-star lips tightened.

“In here,” he called back, his gaze never leaving her face. That was twice now. When they’d first met he’d tried to rattle her and there hadn’t even been a flicker of awareness. But today, he’d seen more emotion on her face in the last ten minutes than in their entire acquaintance.

What was going on in that brain of hers? And why the fuck did he care? She wasn’t his business.

Mitch and Maddie’s neighbor waltzed into the kitchen, a stark contrast to the woman across from him. Unlike Cecilia’s golden-brown hair, cut razor sharp and falling in perfect place at her shoulders, Gracie’s curly blond hair was wild and carefree. Just like the woman. With a pretty face, dancing cornflower-blue eyes, and a body out of a teenage boy’s wet dream, she was a walking, talking fantasy come to life.

He couldn’t work up even the slightest interest.

Why couldn’t he be like any sensible red-blooded man and have the hots for Gracie? It was irritating as hell. He tried. Hell, so had she. And while they flirted like mad, there wasn’t a lick of heat between them.

Fucking annoying.

When Gracie saw Cecilia, she jumped, sending her Playboy-worthy breasts jiggling in a red tank top. “Ce-ce!”

Ce-ce?

Cecilia’s chin tilted to a regal angle, but she overplayed her hand when she ran a smoothing palm over her sharply cut navy business suit. A prim, contained nod. “Hello, Gracie, it’s been a long time. You’re all grown up.”

Gracie beamed, and in her normal exuberance, opened her arms and ran to Cecilia. Gracie locked her in a big bear hug and squeezed her tight. “It’s so great to see you.”

Cecilia’s brows furrowed as she patted the other woman awkwardly on the back. “Thank you.”

Gracie pulled back, still holding Cecilia by the shoulders, and gave her a through inspectioin. “Well, look at you. You haven’t changed one bit. You’re still all fancy.”

“I came from morning meetings,” Cecilia said, stepping out of the other woman’s grasp.

Gracie planted her hands on curvy hips encased in skintight white capris. “Every summer, Ce-ce would show up, all neat and proper in her shiny shoes and ironed clothes.” She winked at him, laughing. “But we managed to mess her up.”

“Did you now?” Shane cocked a brow at Cecilia, who stood with such perfect posture she’d have made a finishing-school teacher proud.

Her lips pressed together but didn’t speak.

Gracie nudged Cecilia with her elbow. “By the end she was as wild and dirty as the rest of us.”

He couldn’t imagine her wild and dirty. “That’s hard to believe.”

Cecilia tugged at her suit jacket. “I’m sure she’s exaggerating.”

That, he believed. “Ce-ce?”

“My grandmother used to call me that.” Her voice was cool, but something flashed in her eyes, darkening the gray.

The nickname didn’t suit the woman, but Shane couldn’t help wondering about the girl she’d been before the power suits. Apparently, she’d been wild.

And dirty.

He searched her face but couldn’t find any trace of carefree.

She sensed his gaze, turned and stared at him as though to say, What are you looking at?

“Well, come on, everyone’s out back.” Gracie waved an arm in the direction of the backyard.

He didn’t glance away. Instead, his gaze drifted to Cecilia’s mouth and his mind filled with illicit images.

Christ.

As though she read his mind, her gaze flicked scornfully over his before shifting her attention to Gracie. “I’m afraid I’m not dressed for a picnic.”

The other woman laughed and jutted her thumb to the swinging door. “Go change, silly.” Then she turned to Shane. “You, I need.”

Cecilia gave a sharp tug at her suit jacket, her shoulders squaring.

He slanted a wicked glance at Gracie. “What do you need, honey?”

Cecilia’s lips pressed into a firm line. She looked past him, out the window overlooking the backyard.

“Your expert advice. I experimented with a new recipe,” Gracie said, before blowing out an exasperated breath. “Maddie’s gone, Mitch likes everything, and your stupid brother refuses to eat one.” She gave him an adorable little pout. “That leaves you.”

A baker, Gracie had made one delicious concoction after another and his health nut younger brother refused to try a single thing. Shane grinned at her. “I told you Jimmy hasn’t touched refined sugar since the great Christmas of 2012.”

She threw up her hands and let out a scream.

Cecilia’s eyes widened.

“He’s impossible.” Gracie stomped a foot, her righteousness so cute he should have wanted to eat her up with a spoon, but Shane’s lust stayed stubbornly focused on the woman across from him.

“He’s training for the marathon. You’ll never break him, so don’t even bother trying.” Shane frowned as that ever present worry for his siblings niggled at him. It wasn’t healthy, James’s total self-control, but Shane didn’t know what to do about it. His brother was thirty-three, old enough to live his life the way he wanted.

“How does someone pass up dark chocolate cupcakes?” Gracie asked, pulling him away from his thoughts. “They’re filled with warm caramel and iced with salted chocolate frosting. How do you refuse that?”

Cecilia’s smooth brow furrowed.

Gracie placed an open palm on her chest, appealing mournfully to Cecilia. “I mean, can you imagine?”

“How many calories are they?” Cecilia asked, her tone so deadpan she had to be joking. Only, she wasn’t the joking type.

She was like his brother that way. All serious. No cupcakes allowed.

“Are you kidding?” Gracie’s tone indicating Cecilia belonged in a mental institution. “Who cares? It’s chocolate.”

Her shoulders slumped, her expression so dejected, Shane took pity on her. He pulled her close and kissed her temple. “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll eat all the cupcakes you want.”

In that split second, he saw what he’d been waiting for. She hid it very quickly, and if he hadn’t been paying such close attention he’d have missed it, written in big, bold letters all over her face.

Cecilia Riley was jealous.

And wouldn’t he just have to find out what that was about?

She was not jealous. She did not get jealous. Jealousy was a base emotion. Uncivilized.

So what if Gracie Roberts was ‘honey.’ It made sense; she looked sweet enough.

Good. Great.

This worked to Cecilia’s advantage. Two weeks watching Shane and Gracie fawn all over each other was certain to cure her of her fixation. Problem solved.

She forced a smile to her lips. Perfect. It was all going to work out.

She dropped her bags on the floor. The room hadn’t been changed since the last night she’d spent there. It was still the frilly girl’s room from her youth. Bright and hopeful in pale blue, white, and lavender. She ran her hand over the quilt her grandma had made for her, a soft white cotton with embroidered forget-me-nots that brought a sting to the back of her throat. She traced the flowers, quelling the ache in her chest, before moving to the white dresser.

There was a vase of vibrant pink Gerber daisies with an aged silver frame sitting next to it. She picked up the picture only Maddie could have put there. It was of Mitch and Cecilia when they’d been young kids. Skin tan from the sun, they wore matching grins. They sat on a thick branch of the tree that hung over the river, dressed in their bathing suits, their gangly limbs dangling. They looked happy. Carefree. Like brother and sister instead of the strangers they were now.

She traced the edge of the pewter frame and put it back on the dresser.

Maybe this trip would help bridge the gap between them. Or at least she could pretend she wasn’t an outsider. If even for a brief respite.

A boisterous round of laughter filtered in from outside. She walked over and peeked through the lace curtains. Down below, on a new brick patio, the light from the late afternoon sun streamed down on the group. Her brother was there, his long legs stretched out, lazy and relaxed. Nothing like the man he’d been back in his Chicago days. James, the quiet Donovan brother who didn’t eat refined sugar, sat there too, sipping what looked like a glass of iced tea.

She swallowed hard as her gaze drifted to Shane and Gracie. They were sitting next to each other, their blond heads golden halos in the bright sun, knees touching.

They were so . . . together. Comfortable and at ease with each other.

Gracie dangled one of her ten-thousand-calorie cupcakes under his nose, teasing him with her dazzling smile as he laughed and pinched her before grabbing it out of her hand. He took a huge bite, shoving half the treat in his mouth.

Did he devour Gracie the same way?

Cecilia appraised the woman, mouthwatering in her red tank top and white capris. She dripped with sex appeal.

Of course he did.

A dark emotion that was not jealousy sat in the pit of her stomach.

Shane draped an arm around Gracie Roberts’s chair and said something that caused her to throw her head back with laughter.

They were perfect for each other.

Cecilia’s fingers tightened on the lace curtains. She was happy for them.

Her eye twitched into hyperdrive and she covered it with a fingertip until it stopped.

Now she had no excuses and could focus all her energy on the campaign. She’d use this time to work. To plan. Craft her message—away from the advisers, her father, and Miles Fletcher—and find her voice. Because as much as she hated to admit it, her father was right: If she didn’t find a way to connect to the voters, it didn’t matter what she did. She wouldn’t win.

So she’d use this time to figure out how to connect.

The muscle under her eye spasmed again.

Cecilia’s gaze drifted back to Shane.

He belonged with a woman like Gracie. Lush and vibrant.

And she could cook. Cecilia didn’t even know how to boil water.

She remembered her summers with Gracie. How fun she’d been. After all the years Shane spent taking care of his family, he probably needed fun.

As though he sensed her, Shane lifted his head and peered up, his gaze locking on hers. Her heart rate sped, pounding against her ribs and she stepped back, moving away from the window with a jerk. Had he seen her?

She sank down on the bed, put her elbows on her knees, and rested her forehead in her open palm.

No. He couldn’t have.

She shrugged off her suit coat and flopped back on the bed to stare at the ceiling. She took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and vowed to stop thinking about Shane Donovan.

Ten minutes passed. She yawned and her lids grew heavy. It was so quiet here, still and peaceful. Her muscles uncoiled as though she’d unrolled an invisible carpet. A laziness she never allowed in her Chicago life crept over her and she drifted along in that perfect place between awake and sleep.

Her phone cheeped, signaling an incoming text and startling her from her doze. With a groan she glanced at it, expecting her father, but it was an unassigned number. She swiped her finger over the screen.

Stop hiding.

All traces of sleepiness disappeared as she shot straight up on the bed.

Was it—no, it couldn’t be.

She blinked, her cheeks growing warm. It was a Chicago area code—who else? She tapped the keypad. Who is this?

The phone beeped a second later. Now, Ce-ce. Don’t make me come get you.

An inappropriate shiver raced down her spine. It was Shane. But why?

Wasn’t he busy eating Gracie’s cupcakes? Alone in the privacy of her room, with nobody watching her, she didn’t have to hide her expression and a wide grin spread over her lips. Which was wrong. Schoolgirlish. And she didn’t care. There was nobody to see her. She typed, How’d you get this number?

When the phone beeped thirty seconds later her stomach leapt.

The same way you got my birthdate.

She knew it. He’d investigated her.

Another ding. One week after yours.

The room seemed to grow ten degrees hotter as she dropped the phone on the bed and covered her face with her hands. What did that mean? Surely nothing. She tried to suppress the wild rush of excitement, but it was impossible. It was like being fifteen all over again and for the first time getting a call from the boy you liked.

Okay, she needed to stay calm. It didn’t mean anything. More so, it couldn’t mean anything. She took a deep breath and grabbed the phone, determined to respond in the same manner she always did, as though he stood right in front of her. Don’t call me Ce-ce.

When the phone beeped she was embarrassed to realize she’d been holding her breath.

You have five minutes.

The comment was completely high-handed and entirely like him. A rush of warm tingles raced through her body and she shuddered. Alone, she didn’t have to pretend it didn’t thrill her. Not that she planned on letting him get away with it. She typed out I’m not afraid of you.

A beep. Four.

She grinned, buried her face in her hands, and laughed.

Shane half listened to the conversation swirling around him while keeping one eye on the time and the other on the back door. What exactly was the icy Cecilia going to do now that he’d bossed her around? He didn’t think she’d take it lightly, but he was almost positive he wouldn’t get the excuse to go get her.

Which was probably a good thing, because he wasn’t sure how he’d handle it now that she’d revealed she wasn’t as uninterested as she seemed. Her indifference had kept him in check on more than one occasion, but he doubted its effectiveness today.

Not after he’d seen her in the window.

He’d almost convinced himself the jealousy he’d read on her face had been an apparition. Until he’d spotted her in the upstairs window, her slim hand pressed against the glass.

Staring up at her, he knew he wasn’t going to let this thing with her go, despite his instincts to the contrary. He’d always been as stubborn as a mule that way.

He’d texted his administrative director and close family friend, Penelope Watkins, for the cell phone number sitting in the file he had on the Rileys. Two minutes later the number sat in his messages.

He didn’t know if it was smart or stupid, but he was going to push Cecilia. Ruffle her. And then he was going to do any number of unspeakable things to her.

Things that would probably shock her.

He glanced at the time on his phone. She had one minute left.

He narrowed his gaze on the back door.

Just how far did that propriety go? Was it real? Was she a good girl all the way down to her toes? Or did she have a hidden streak of wicked?

Could he break her? Make her scream? He suspected it would take a lot of torment—

“Shane.” Gracie shook his arm, startling him from his thoughts.

“What?” he asked, totally clueless.

His brother-in-law-to-be scratched the scruff on his chin and gave him an assessing look. “Maddie texted to make sure we don’t need anything from the store. They’re getting ready to check out.”

“No,” Shane said, and picked up his bottle of beer from the round teak table. He paused, remembering his conversation with Cecilia in the kitchen. “Wait, have her get some Cheetos and Mountain Dew.”

Mitch cocked a brow. “Interesting choices.”

“How can you eat that stuff?” In obvious disgust, James shook his head.

Shane rolled his eyes. “Do I have to hear a lecture every time I eat junk food?”

How had his brother turned out this way? Where had he gone wrong? Sometimes all the mistakes he’d made while trying to raise his three siblings kept him up at night. Shit, after his dad died he’d just been trying to keep them off welfare. He hadn’t thought about their emotional well-being. He’d barely been an adult himself.

Now he had James on one hand, his control so rigid he wouldn’t eat a fucking cupcake, and Evan on the other, who lived to take one stupid risk after another. He shook his head thinking of his youngest brother. Off surfing the Cyclops in Australia because he was running out of things that made him feel alive.

Shane shook his head. At least Maddie was back on the right track.

Although he couldn’t take credit for that one. His sister had done that all on her own without any help from him.

“You’re thirty-five now,” James said in that reasonable tone he had before taking a sip of his decaffeinated, antioxidant-rich black ice tea.

Shane frowned. What was the deal with his age? And why did everyone keep saying that? “Yeah, well you’re thirty-three. Live a little before middle age hits and it all goes to hell.”

Gracie pushed her plate of sinfully decadent cupcakes toward his professor brother with an overly sweet smile on her face. “If you’re going to live a little, have something actually good.”

James shot her a droll look. “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a food pusher?”

Gracie clucked her tongue. “Duh, I’m a freakin’ baker.”

Mitch chuckled, shaking his head at the lot of them before shifting his attention to his phone.

Shane checked the time: five minutes had come and gone. So she was calling his bluff, was she? Fine by him, not that he had a clue what he planned to do once he found her. But he was sure something would come to him. It always did.

He moved to stand, but the back door opened and out walked Cecilia. Disappointment had him settling back into his seat.

Damn, just when things had been about to get interesting.

Cecilia stepped out onto the patio looking like a magazine ad for Hamptons’ living. Dressed in what he supposed passed as her version of casual, she wore a pair of tan pants, a white button-down top that showed absolutely nothing, and a pair of ballet flats. Her shoulder-length hair had been twisted into a neat little bun that sat perched on top of her head. Inconveniently, her eyes were hidden behind a pair of dark tortoiseshell sunglasses.

She looked completely out of place with the rest of them. Hell, even Jimmy looked more relaxed than she did.

Mitch nodded at his sister. “You made it.”

“Yes,” she said, as though she spoke to a perfect stranger.

“Maddie will be happy,” Mitch said, making it clear he didn’t give a shit if she was there or not.

Cecilia’s lips pursed fractionally before she offered a courteous smile. “She made it quite clear when she invited me that no wasn’t an option.”

Mitch grinned and shrugged. “She’s small, but mighty.”

“Indeed,” Cecilia said, not even a hint of amusement lurking in her tone.

Shane didn’t understand one thing about the Rileys. They were so goddamn polite all the time. Like they had no connection to each other at all.

It baffled him. He’d lay down his life for his family. Had dedicated the last fourteen years to their survival. Worked his ass off to make sure they wanted for nothing. Even when they were total pains in the ass he couldn’t imagine not being close to them.

If you didn’t have family, what did you have?

He peered at Cecilia. What did she have?

“How is everyone?” Cecilia asked, sliding into the teak lawn chair, offering a courteous smile at his brother. “James, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“You too,” James said. “How was your drive?”

“Fine, thank you.” She folded her hands in her lap and while her eyes were covered, she hadn’t looked in his direction once. Chicken.

He, however, watched her unabashedly.

She turned her attention toward James. “Congratulations on your recent publication. I saw the Times picked up a piece of it. Your university must be very proud.”

Was she letting him know she kept an eye on the other members of his family? That it wasn’t exclusive to him?

James’s expression turned mildly surprised. “With TV the way it is, forensic anthropology is a trendy topic.”

Gracie gave a delicate little snort. “How can looking at a bunch of old bones be trendy?”

James was well respected in his chosen field and did consulting work with the FBI and law enforcement offices all over the US. He did a hell of a lot more than just look at bones, although it wasn’t clear if Gracie knew that or not.

James’s jaw hardened but he just shrugged. “Talk to the New York Times.”

Shane lost interest in their drama and concentrated on the mystery of Cecilia. He was sure she’d been jealous back in the kitchen, and he was positive something was going on with her. Could he get a reaction from her again?

He put a hand on the back of Gracie’s chair.

Cecilia stiffened, so slightly he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t his imagination.

Testing further, he twined a lock of Gracie’s hair around his finger.

Cecilia’s lips firmed into a thin line and she crossed her legs.

Of course, she still pretended not to watch him. He wrapped his hand around Gracie’s nape, his fingers massaging the curve between her neck and shoulder. Ever helpful, she moaned, tilting her head to the side to allow him better access. “God, that feels good.”

This time he was awarded a dark glare from his brother, and Cecilia’s foot started to bounce, giving him all the confirmation he needed.

She did not like his hands on Gracie.

Way more pleased than he had any right to be, he said, “Gracie, honey, maybe Cecilia wants a cupcake.”

Cecilia scowled. If he had to guess, she was glaring behind those dark, movie-star shades. She also placed a palm over her flat stomach, revealing her hunger.

Was she hungry for the cupcakes, or to throttle him? He was pretty sure he’d enjoy either.

Gracie pushed the plate toward Cecilia with a grin. “Well, I don’t know how many calories they have, but I can tell you it’s more than five.”

Cecilia’s chin lifted and she took one from the plate. “Thank you, I’m sure one indulgence won’t hurt me.”

Mitch assessed his sister. “I think you can afford more than one. You’re too skinny.”

“I hardly think so,” she said, putting the chocolate confection on a napkin.

“You’ve lost weight since I’ve seen you.” Mitch’s tone indicated this wasn’t a compliment.

She picked at the edge of the paper liner but made no room to eat the cupcake. “Not much.”

“At least five or ten pounds,” Mitch said, the words rubbing Shane the wrong way.

If her brother wanted her to eat, making a big deal about how crappy she looked wasn’t the way to go about it. She might be his sister, but it was pretty much Women 101.

“Things have been hectic,” Cecilia said, frowning at her cupcake.

Mitch narrowed his gaze. “You’re pale, and I bet you look just as tired under those sunglasses.”

Cecilia folded her hands in her lap, abandoning the cupcake, an overly polite smile on her face. “A pleasure as always, Mitchell.”

“Just calling it as I see it,” Mitch said.

Shane felt his blood pressure rise, although he didn’t know why. It wasn’t any of his business if the Rileys wanted to treat each other like crap. He was just about to open his mouth and insert himself where he didn’t belong, but Gracie beat him to it.

“Geez, what’s wrong with you?” She slugged Mitch in the arm then shook her head at Cecilia. “Don’t listen to him, Ce-ce, you look great.”

She didn’t actually. She looked pretty much as her brother described. Too thin, pale, and tired as hell. Which bothered him on some visceral level. She was a beautiful woman, and had the potential to be a complete showstopper, but there was something missing in her. A vitality.

He’d met plenty of women like Cecilia. Powerful, sophisticated women who played everything close to the vest for fear someone would exploit their weaknesses. Women who carefully planned every move they made and let nothing catch them off guard. He saw that in Cecilia. How she worked to cultivate her image, from the cool expression to her well-modulated speaking voice.

But he couldn’t get over the feeling it was an act. An act that didn’t quite work on him, although he wanted to believe the story she was selling. He’d been telling himself she was nothing but an ice queen, but he kept baiting her, prodding and poking, waiting for her to respond. And today, he’d finally gotten the reaction he’d been waiting for, making him all the more determined to find out what was under Cecilia’s smooth, oh-so polished exterior.

Because any woman who worked this hard at her facade was hiding something.

Too bad for her, he’d always been like a dog with a bone. Never give up. Never say die.

“How’s dear old dad?” Mitch asked, his voice so nonchalant Shane was sure it was feigned.

Cecilia leaned back in her chair and peered into the sun. It streamed over her pale skin and turned her hair to coppery gold. “Oh, you know, same as always.”

“He keeps calling for Mom, but she refuses to talk to him.”

She glanced around the table, shifting restlessly in her chair. “This probably isn’t the time to discuss it.”

Mitch waved a hand over the table. “They’re family. They know everything.”

Shoulders squaring, she went rigid, as though caught in a freeze-frame. “They might be your family, but they’re strangers to me.”

“At least tell me what happened.” Mitch continued to push the issue despite Cecilia’s protests.

“I don’t know.” Cecilia crossed her legs and folded her hands neatly on the table.

Shane had spent a lot of time in negotiations, and over the years he’d learned everyone had tells. Even Cecilia. She was controlling a desire to fidget. That much was clear by the white around her knuckles.

“You must know,” Mitch insisted.

If possible her spine grew even straighter.

Oh, she knew, but she wasn’t going to talk.

“Ask Mom,” she said.

“I did.”

“And?” Smart of her to turn the conversation back on Mitch. Too bad her brother was a shark of a lawyer.

Mitch’s gaze turned hard, and he stared her down for a long, awkward moment that increased the tension around the table tenfold.

Not that Cecilia broke; she just stared right back.

“Funny thing, she told me to ask you,” Mitch said.

Gracie shifted in her chair and James looked downright interested behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

Cecilia closed in on herself even more.

The conversation was distressing her, and Shane didn’t like it. Watching her was like watching a rubber band being pulled too tight, stretched beyond capacity, about to snap at any moment. “Let the woman eat before you start grilling her and telling her she looks like shit.”

Three sets of curious eyes turned in his direction. Mitch cocked a brow.

Cecilia’s chin jutted up. “I don’t need you to fight my battles. I can manage fine on my own.”

This wasn’t any of Shane’s business, but he’d made his stand and he wasn’t one to back down. He narrowed his gaze, pinning her with a look that sent grown men scurrying to carry out his command. “Eat your fucking cupcake.”

Cecilia straightened. “Excuse me.”

He sat forward, putting his elbows on the table. “You heard me.”

“Don’t tell me what to do, what to eat, or insert yourself where you don’t belong. Understood?” The words heated his blood despite her intended coolness.

Maybe another man would be thwarted, but to him, she’d just thrown down the gauntlet. After a long, slow appraisal, he said, “Somebody needs to, since you’re doing a shit job of it on your own.”

Her jaw hardened, as though she was grinding her teeth. “I can assure you that you are not the man for the job.”

His lips quirked. Well, they’d just have to see about that, now wouldn’t they? “Eat it.”

A small smirk ghosted her lips. “Make me.”

Challenge accepted. “You don’t think I’ll do it, do you?”

She scoffed and waved a dismissive hand. “No, I don’t.”

“You forget, Ce-ce,” he said, putting a mocking tone into the nickname. “I’m not like those civilized boys you’re used to dealing with.”

“And you’re forgetting I’m not like those simpering girls you’re used to.” She studied her pale pink manicure that seemed to be the staple of professional women. “I don’t need a big, strong man to make decisions for me.”

Goddamn, he was having a good time. He grinned and turned to his brother. “Jimmy, get the rope.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Cecilia had to force her jaw to remain tightly locked for fear of her mouth flapping open like a fish. Just who in the hell did he think he was? She worked on her righteous indignation, while ignoring that she liked the inappropriate things that came out of his mouth.

She parted her lips to speak, but nothing came out as a rush of illicit images flooded her brain.

Luckily her brother saved her.

“Whoa!” Mitch held up his hands. “Let’s not get carried away here.”

Shane still watched her, a knowing grin on his lips.

She didn’t understand it, but the man made her want to forget everything but the thrill of the battle. But poise had been beaten into her since she was old enough to walk, and with the composure she wore like a second skin, she put her elbows on the table and laced her fingers. “You come near me with a rope and you’ll be singing soprano for a month.”

Gracie laughed, but Shane didn’t even glance in her direction, making her wonder if she’d misread the situation between them. Would he be acting like this if he was sleeping with her? And would Gracie be so amused if her boyfriend had just threatened to tie another woman up? Cecilia didn’t think so.

His green eyes lit like he’d won a jackpot, but before he spoke, the back door flew open and Maddie came flying out, that long red hair of hers streaming.

Much more subdued, her mother followed and all Cecilia’s enjoyment disappeared, turning to lead in the pit of her stomach.

For the tiniest moment she’d managed to forget about the mess back home. She sighed and sat back in her chair, all the good-natured fight leaking out of her.

Maddie wore a little jagged-cut jean skirt and a white tank top, as petite and adorable as ever. She beamed at Cecilia. “You came!” She turned to Mitch, planting her hands on her small hips. “See, I told you.”

Cecilia’s heart gave a little lurch when her brother’s expression softened at the sight of his future wife. “Yeah, you did.”

No one had ever looked at her like that. Like the world was right because she was in it. It shouldn’t bother her. The last thing she wanted was for it to bother her. Not now, when she needed to convince herself those things didn’t matter.

But seeing her brother’s happiness, it mattered.

Maddie walked around the table toward her. Raised to be polite, she stood in greeting and outstretched her hand, but Maddie ignored it and wrapped her up in a big hug, squeezing tight. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Her future sister-in-law was always like this, warm and inviting, somehow able to ignore the awkwardness ever present in their family circle. No wonder her mom loved her. Cecilia was pretty sure Charlotte liked Maddie better than her. And who could blame her? Maddie was everything a woman could want in a daughter.

Cecilia patted her clumsily on the back and tried not to feel uncomfortable as she waited for Maddie to let go. At long last she did, stepping back to assess Cecilia. As her clear green eyes searched her face, her brow furrowed. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you.” Cecilia cringed at her overly cordial tone. Needing a distraction, she smiled at Charlotte, standing regal in a yellow blouse and tan walking shorts, her champagne hair in its customary neat bob. “Hello, Mother.”

“Cecilia.” Their greeting the equivalent of an air kiss.

Maddie plopped down on Mitch’s lap and he immediately curled his arm around her, his fingertips slipping under the edge of her shirt. He gave her a private smile. “What took you so long?”

Maddie threw an arm around his neck. “We stopped at that new bookstore in town. The owner saw my work at the library and wants me to do a mural for her.”

Mitch kissed her temple. “Good for you, princess.”

Cecilia marveled at the easy affection between them. She couldn’t even imagine sitting on a man’s lap. How did one accomplish it and still remain dignified?

Maybe this farmhouse cast a spell on people. Her grandparents had been like that too.

She peered down at the cupcake and her stomach growled. God, she wanted it—she glared at the offending treat—but now she couldn’t eat it, thanks to Shane.

Damn pride, and damn him, for making a big deal about it. It would be in her stomach right now, satiating her hunger if it wasn’t for him.

She glanced up and their gazes met. Those green eyes of his practically glowed, like a jungle cat that had its prey in sight. Something had changed, although she wasn’t sure what. Over the handful of times they’d interacted, Shane’s actions toward her ranged from mildly antagonistic to indifferent.

So why was he changing his game plan?

It wasn’t attraction. She was 150 percent positive she wasn’t his type, even if Gracie wasn’t in the picture.

So what?

All she knew was he’d better stop because she depended on his disdain to control her twisted fascination with him.

“What’s going on here?” Maddie asked, breaking Cecilia from her thoughts.

“Oh, nothing,” Mitch said mildly. “Your brother is threatening to tie Cecilia up.”

Cecilia jerked her head away from Shane and cursed the hot flush she felt crawling up her neck.

“Oh really?” Maddie looked back and forth between them. “How interesting.”

“It’s not interesting at all.” Cecilia crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to sink down in her chair like she wanted to. “Your brother is quite impossible.”

Maddie laughed. “Oh, you don’t know the half of it.”

Cecilia’s phone chimed and she pulled it out of her pocket. It was another text message from Shane. She frowned as the tiny thrill of excitement beaded her nipples. She swiped the screen and opened the message. I always make good on a threat.

A smile twitched at her lips. She resisted the compulsion to look at him, irrationally sure everyone would know what was going on if she did. She typed back, My knives are sharpened and ready for use.

After she hit Send, she paid elaborate attention to a conversation Maddie and Gracie were having, appearing to hang on their every word. Not that she had a clue what they said, because all her focus was on the man across the table.

Thirty seconds later she heard him chuckle. She held her breath, waiting, experiencing that desperate, schoolgirl longing for him to respond. She willed all her energy on the phone in her hand, waiting for it to beep.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder, and she about jumped out of her skin. Thankfully, she’d managed to repress the shriek. She twisted around to look into her mother’s somber expression. “We need to talk.”

The nausea that had plagued Cecilia on the drive, rolled through her stomach.

She slid her phone back into her pocket. The game was over and now she had to get back to work. She nodded. “All right.”

Maddie’s brow furrowed as she looked at Charlotte with concern. “Is everything okay?”

The older woman nodded, but she fingered the strand of pearls around her neck. “It’s fine, dear, I just need to speak with Cecilia.”

Bile rose in Cecilia’s throat and she pushed it back down as she stood.

She could feel Shane’s gaze on her. Watching. Studying.

But she didn’t look back. She couldn’t, not with her mother reminding her of what the future held, or how she wanted to escape it.

 

What in the hell was that about? Shane rubbed his jaw as Cecilia and her mother disappeared inside. He shifted his attention to Mitch and cocked a brow.

Mitch shook his head, and rubbed Maddie’s back. “Did my mom tell you what was going on while you were out?”

Maddie frowned. “No. I asked, but all she said was that I’d find out soon enough and it wasn’t her place.”

“What does that mean?” Mitch asked.

“I don’t know,” Maddie said softly. “But your dad called at least a couple times.”

Mitch’s shoulders stiffened at the mention of his father. The two had a crap relationship. Not that Shane blamed Mitch. Senator Riley was a brilliant politician but a horrible father.

The senator had been involved in some risky business deals, but when the finger was pointed at Mitch, he’d kept silent to save his own reputation, even though stepping forward could have saved his son’s career. Shane still didn’t understand how a father sold out his child.

It was light years away from how Shane had been raised. Patrick Donovan had always put his family first, even when he couldn’t afford to. His dad might be dead, but Shane was secure in the knowledge that his father would have done anything in his power to keep them safe.

A lesson Shane never forgot.

Maddie put a palm on Mitch’s chest, as though her mere touch would soothe him. “She cried a little but didn’t take any of the calls.”

Mitch sighed. “I’ll talk to her again and see what I can get out of Cecilia.”

Maddie’s heart-shaped face wrinkled with concern. “Okay, but be nice.”

“I’m nice.” Mitch squeezed her tight.

He’d better be.

Shane’s gut tightened at the unexpected burst of protectiveness. What was he thinking? The ice queen was more than capable of taking care of herself. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

She was different from the last time he’d seen her.

Shane stared off into the weeping willow trees hiding the river just beyond, trying to puzzle it out. The mild breeze blew softly, ruffling the long branches hanging from the trees, but no answers came to him. But he intended to find out. Sure, it wasn’t any of his business, but fuck it, he was making it his business.

Gracie yawned, interrupting his concentration. She stretched, her top riding dangerously low, before she stood and rolled her shoulders. “Break’s over, I need to get back to work.”

“Don’t forget, tomorrow Penelope and Sophie will get here at one,” Maddie said, still not moving off Mitch’s lap even though Cecilia had vacated a seat. “We have our final fitting at three.”

Gracie rolled her eyes. “Geez, I know, you only told me a thousand times.”

“I don’t want you to forget,” Maddie said.

“How can I with you yapping about it constantly?” Gracie said, but affection danced in her blue eyes.

Shane chuckled. “See, Gracie, you missed your chance. You should have been a bridesmaid the first time. Back then she’d run out of the room screaming if anyone mentioned the W word.”

“Hey! You know you’re not supposed to bring that up.” Maddie scowled, puffing out her bottom lip in a full-blown pout that used to get her everything she ever wanted from their father.

Shane suspected it worked equally well on her future husband.

Unconcerned, he shrugged. “If you weren’t the bride from hell we wouldn’t have to mention these things.”

“I am not the bride from hell.” Maddie straightened, perching herself on Mitch’s knee and gesturing at him. “Come on, tell them.”

“Well, yeah, you kind of are,” Gracie said, not waiting for Mitch to speak.

Maddie huffed and threw her hands up. “I can’t believe this.”

James sighed, looking dejected. “I’m going to have to side with Gracie here.”

“James!” their baby sister yelled, her notorious redheaded temper getting riled. “How could you?”

He rubbed his jaw, and then adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. “You handed out to-do lists over breakfast.”

Maddie had the decency to blush, but she squared her shoulders. “I just want everything to be perfect.”

Mitch tugged her wrist until she relaxed and leaned back against him. He kissed her temple. “We know you do, princess.”

Gracie snorted. “That’s easy for you to say, you’re the only one she’s nice to.”

Maddie snuggled in under his chin. “That’s because he’s working on his first big case and I don’t want him stressed.”

It was still odd for Shane to see his sister be so affectionate toward her future husband. She was always all over him, burrowing close, smiling at him like he hung the moon, pretty much being obnoxious about the whole thing. Shane would have missed the days when she barely tolerated her ex-fiancé’s presence if she wasn’t so damn happy.

“Lucky bastard,” Gracie said, shielding her eyes from the sun, looking off toward the lemon-colored house she shared with her brother, before scowling at James. “You’re moving into the apartment over the garage to make room for the wonder twins, right?”

The logistics of everyone coming in and out of the house were starting to get crazy and James was a man who liked order. Since the Robertses had a small garage apartment they’d offered to out-of-town guests, he’d claimed it for his own as soon as he found out Penelope and Sophie were staying in the main house.

He nodded.

She waved a hand in the direction of the garage. “Do you want to check and make sure it’s got everything you need?”

James stood. “I’m sure it’s fine, but I’ll check and let you know.”

Shane cringed. Bad move.

“See that you do, your highness.” Gracie turned and stomped off.

“I will never understand that woman,” James said in his normal, calm tone, shaking his head. “I don’t think she likes me.”

“Gee, what was your first clue?” Despite the sarcasm, Shane wasn’t so sure Gracie didn’t like his brother. It hadn’t escaped his attention that she flirted good-naturedly with every man she came in contact with—except James.

And there had to be a reason for that.

“It wouldn’t hurt for you to try some of her cupcakes,” Maddie said, sliding from Mitch’s lap and into the chair next to him.

“I’m training for the marathon,” James said, as though that answered everything. The guy had been running the Chicago marathon every year for the past three and kept trying to outdo his previous record.

His dedication to fitness was damn annoying.

Shane ran with him yesterday. After seven miles, James had gone on like a machine, leaving him behind hoping his lungs wouldn’t explode.

Maddie picked up said cupcake and peeled the wrapper. “I thought you were supposed to carb load for that.”

“Not with simple carbs and refined sugar.”

Maddie frowned. “I don’t think one is going to kill you. Can’t you just humor her to keep the peace?”

James stared off at the house next door. “Maybe later. I’ll go check the house out.”

After their middle brother left, Maddie tsked, speaking around a mouthful of cupcake. “I blame you and Evan.”

“What did we do?” Shane grabbed his warm lemonade from the round teak table and wished it was spiked with vodka.

“You guys used to tease him.”

“We didn’t tease him,” Shane said. “We toughened him up.”

“Well, he’s plenty tough now, isn’t he?” Maddie slipped her palm into Mitch’s, and their joined hands swung between the side-by-side chairs.

Damn, they were sickening. “Speaking of junk food, where are those Cheetos?”

Maddie jutted her chin toward the back door. “In the kitchen.”

“I fixed your leak.” Shane stood and started toward the door.

“Thanks,” Maddie called after him.

He walked into the kitchen expecting to find it empty, but Charlotte and Cecilia were there, standing on opposite sides of the table, arms crossed, faces tense. The conversation came to an abrupt halt as they both looked at him.

It was the first time he saw the resemblance between them and in that moment, with their gazes narrowed and mouths turned down, they looked like mother and daughter.

Cecilia tapped the toe of her shoe. “Can we help you?”

The question rubbed him the wrong way. He spotted the orange and red bag on the counter and walked over to stand next to it, propping his hip on the counter and ripping open the bag. “Nope.”
 
The Winner Takes It All

The Winner Takes It All

Series: Something New #2

Published by Kensington

Release Date: December 2, 2014

Genre: adult, contemporary romance

Pages: 368

Goodreads

Average rating on Goodreads: 4.02 stars

Number of Reviews: 81 (on Goodreads)

Order: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Kobo|iTunes|Google Play

For two stubborn people…

Corporate mogul Shane Donovan sees the ultra-cool, collected Cecilia Riley as an ice queen—even if he can't deny that, on the surface, she's a work of perfection his body can't ignore. Forced to spend two weeks in the same house for his sister's upcoming wedding, Shane senses that deep down Cecilia mirrors his need. And he's determined to draw her into a sexy game that will melt away her reserve…

Losing is not an option…

Career-driven Cecilia Riley has just enough free time in her schedule to head out of town for her brother's wedding. But her agenda is thrown for a loop by the presence of Shane. Though his over-confident attitude leaves a lot to be desired, his insanely hot body has kept Cecilia up nights. Unsure what game Shane is playing, Cecilia takes the bait, bent on resisting him at all costs.

But as Shane and Cecilia discover, temptation follows no rules…


 
I hope you enjoyed meeting Shane and Cecelia,

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