She was his sister’s best friend and his dirty little secret.
Twenty years later, it’s all about to explode.
David Farris has been a widower for almost a year. He should have been able to handle Tricia Connelly walking back into his life. After all, it’s been over twenty years. But now that she’s here, she’s the embodiment of his greatest desire…and his worst guilt. Keeping everything between them strictly business is the only way to preserve his sanity.
Tricia wants nothing more than to make David totally crazy with need for her. When she realizes they’ll be working side-by-side, day in and day out, her heart clamors for this second chance to make the one man she’s always wanted fall for her. But David can’t let go of the past.
Her only choice is to seduce him with steamy kisses and delicious caresses to show him how perfect they could be for each other.
Can David forgive his past sins? Or will he sacrifice their future?
She sat three rows in front of him, on the groom’s side of the garden wedding. Her dress was a satiny blue that draped her curves, no ruffles or frills, just spaghetti straps that left her shoulders bared to the late September sun and his gaze. Her short blond hair kissed the nape of her neck, silky and touchable.
Not that David Farris would ever think of touching Tricia Connelly.
He thought about her when his guard was down. Jesus, he dreamed of her when his subconscious mind took over in the middle of the night. Hot, sexy, sweaty dreams he couldn’t quite banish when the alarm blared to wake him.
So it was safer to say that he would never act on any of his thoughts. Tricia Connelly was off limits. For so many reasons, but mostly because of their mutual past that he couldn’t forget and couldn’t forgive himself for. Because of his dead wife, as if her cancer was a manifestation of his guilt as well as his penance for all the wrong things he’d done.
God, yes, there were too many reasons, but the opening bars of the wedding march allowed him to shove them all from his mind. Everything except the sight of her.
Holt Montgomery’s back garden had been transformed into a chapel, with an arbor trimmed in flowers and ivy on a raised dais which would be converted to a dancefloor once the ceremony was over. White folding chairs had been set out for the guests with a center aisle the bride would walk down, all in a very traditional setting. Though Ruby Williams was anything but traditional.
The guest list wasn’t large, considering the fact that Holt was a Silicon Valley CEO with a huge contact base. Mentally cataloguing the seats, there was room for only fifty, and they were occupied mostly by employees from West Coast Manufacturing, including the executive team, a smattering of senior management, and the chairman of the board. Ruby and Holt had probably kept the number to a minimum in order to have the wedding in Holt’s backyard.
He would have expected more show from Ruby, five hundred attendees, a rented hotel ballroom, ice statues, and fountains of bubbling champagne.
But Ruby walked down the aisle with no escort and no entourage, wearing a magnificent cream confection David knew Cassandra Montgomery, Holt’s daughter, had designed. The halter-style dress tied at Ruby’s nape and dipped deep into her cleavage. The beaded bodice trimmed in lace ended in an arrow over her stomach, while the satin hugged her hips, finally flaring halfway down her thighs. Her dark hair pulled up in an elegant knot, she’d allowed a smattering of curls to artfully fall free.
No matter what David thought of her personally, he had to admit Ruby was stunning. Her face was radiant with a smile that could only be called happiness, though that had never been a word he’d used to describe Ruby. Yet as she walked down the aisle alone, as if she were the one giving herself away, she had eyes only for her soon-to-be husband. And her gaze was literally alight. Holt was a fine figure, CEO all the way, as commanding up on the dais in his formal tuxedo as he was in the boardroom. Ruby Williams had never been a woman that inspired the word love—she was too aggressive, too calculating, too predatory—yet love radiated from the look Holt graced her with. Somehow they’d found a way, the most unlikely couple.
Just as Ruby was without a maid of honor, Holt had no best man. David could only presume it was because the logical choice, Clay Blackwell, had lived with Ruby before taking up with Holt. Talk about complications. West Coast Manufacturing had turned out to a hotbed of sexcapades. Ruby and Clay, then Clay and Jessica Murphy, who’d become Jessica Blackwell only last month, then Holt and Ruby.
Yes, the Blackwells had been invited to the wedding. Though they were seated in the second row, Ruby glided past them without a glance, as if she didn’t care, as if marrying Holt made up for all that had gone before. When Ruby was a step ahead, Clay raised Jessica’s hand, bending slightly to kiss her knuckles. It could have been reassurance, yet the way Jessica smiled in return, her face and her blond hair as bright as a beam of sunlight, she had all the assurance she could ever desire.
The music hushed as Holt took Ruby’s hand, and he helped her onto the dais amid afternoon birdsong. For endless seconds, he looked down into her face, his gaze speaking to her. The moment was almost too intimate to watch. It kindled vestiges of David’s own wedding day, his fears, his duty, the love he’d told himself he felt for his bride, the other feelings he’d denied. He’d been denying them ever since.
His eyes fell on Tricia. Always back to Tricia. She was his past, she was his guilt. He’d never thought to have her in his present, and he could imagine no future that included her.
Except in his dreams.
A minister in traditional robes began the vows—David had no idea where Ruby had found him since he didn’t believe she’d ever stepped inside a church.
There were no embellishments, no personally written vows that seemed to be the rage these days. Yet somehow, with her hands clasped in Holt’s, Ruby’s declaration, murmured in her husky, sexy tone, was touching. “I take you as my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day on, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, till death do us part.”
David had expected her to remove the word obey, yet Ruby said the word with more force than all the others, giving it weight and meaning.
With his vows, Holt added his own stress on “Till death do us part,” as if it were a message that this marriage would be different. Especially since his ex-wife and her husband sat next to Holt’s daughter in the front row. Cassandra turned slightly, whispering into Ward Restin’s ear, then leaning her head on his shoulder. Ward was the company’s VP of Research, and Cassandra had been living with him almost since she’d moved up from L.A. five months ago to open her own fashion boutique. She was to have a spread in the Sunday social section of the newspaper, featuring Ruby in her magnificent dress. There might be only fifty guests today, but Ruby would have her limelight tomorrow, and so would Cassandra.
Short and sweet, the minister closed in on the end. “I pronounce you husband and wife.” He beamed widely, his smile another wrinkle in an already wizened face. “You may now kiss the bride.”
Ruby wore no veil, and Holt placed her hands on his chest then cupped her face with such tenderness it opened a wound in David’s chest, though God only knew why. Ruby blossomed for her new husband like a night-blooming flower, and that first kiss was both gentle and carnal, tender yet deep, as much an exchange of vows as their words had been.
God help him, his gaze came to rest on Tricia once more, his heart tearing right down the center.
That first kiss. She’d been so young. He remembered her tears, remembered how they’d slain him.
Why doesn’t anyone want to kiss me? What’s wrong with me, David?
She’d been sweet sixteen, and the boys she knew were too young to see the beauty she would become. But he was a man, ten years older, and she was his little sister’s best friend. He’d understood what the boys his sister knew never could, that Tricia was on the cusp of blooming into something extraordinary. He’d wanted only to prove to her that she was gorgeous no matter what the boys said. He’d wanted only to dry her tears and reassure her. Words could never have done it, only actions. So he’d kissed her.
And changed both their lives.
The depth of desire he’d felt floored him. That night destroyed him. It haunted his marriage. It consumed all his feelings for his wife. It burned him up with unquenchable guilt and irresistible desire. He hated himself for taking advantage of Tricia, hurting her, and yet it had been his pivotal moment, affecting everything that came after, even his dreams.
Because Tricia had lived in his nocturnal fancies, where she’d grown into the beautiful, stunning woman he’d known she would eventually become.
Until a few months ago, when she’d walked out of his dreams and back into his life, fulfilling his prophecies for her.
He shuddered, a slight movement of his shoulders as if he could shake off all the memories.
His fantasies had to end now, especially with Tricia so close and the endless hours of budgeting that loomed ahead. In the past, he’d spent the equivalent of days with Greg Stevens working on yearly forecasting. Tricia had taken over Greg’s position as Finance Manager when Greg was promoted to Controller.
David would never survive the year-end budget process unless he got himself under control.
He came out of his fog to find Holt and Ruby had descended from their dais. Instead of a procession back down the aisle and a receiving line, they greeted all their guests in a slow walk, stopping at each row.
Cassandra hugged her father, holding on tight for one long moment. They’d never been demonstrative, and in fact she called him Holt rather than Dad, yet there was a special bond in that hug. She’d gotten her red hair from her mother and her gorgeous features from her father, as well as his commanding aura. Ward had his work cut out with Cassandra if he wanted to wear the pants.
Then Holt shook Ward’s hand and bussed his ex-wife’s cheek while Cassandra gave Ruby a restrained hug. She might have designed the wedding dress but the two women weren’t suddenly BFFs. Unconventional, Cassandra wore a flame-red dress that absorbed the color of her hair rather than clashed with it. In any other circumstances, these two women would be rivals. Maybe they would be tomorrow.
When they turned to the other side of the aisle, David became aware of the silence as every breath was suddenly held.
“Cat fight,” Spence Benedict muttered in his ear.
David hadn’t been aware of Spence’s arrival, let alone that Spence sat right behind him. A guilty flush spread up David’s neck. He’d been watching Tricia too intently, and he wondered how much Spence had picked up on.
Instead of acknowledging that, he gave his own low murmur back. “They’ll be on their best behavior.”
That’s exactly what Ruby and Jessica did, smiling politely at each other, Jessica saying something, probably congratulations, Ruby thanking her, while the male parties exchanged handshakes and backslaps.
“Jesus, I think he’s going to hug her.” Spence’s laughter was cut off at a snort when Zoe elbowed him.
“Shh,” she hushed him, though he’d spoken softly enough that no one but she and David had heard.
The hug didn’t happen. Instead Clay kissed Ruby’s cheek, as chaste as a father or a brother.
With the moment over, the chatter started again as Holt and Ruby moved on down the aisle, receiving handshakes, hugs, and congratulations.
“You look marvelous,” David told Zoe.
“Thank you.” She was a pretty woman with long dark hair, and she’d made Spence happy.
Spencer Benedict had always been good for a laugh, always found the joke in everything, and yet he’d never seemed quite as…what was the word? Complete? Yes, that was it. Zoe completed Spence. If David didn’t miss the mark, he’d say Zoe would soon be making them a complete family, too. There was the slightest bump beneath the summer dress she wore. The problem, David knew, was that Zoe’s divorce wasn’t yet final.
“Okay, come on.” Spence took Zoe’s hand in his. “I gotta give Ward some crap and see when he’s going to follow in Holt’s footsteps and marry that girl.” He pulled her to the far end of the aisle, obviously skipping the congratulations for now.
“Don’t hold your breath,” David muttered, though they were now out of earshot. He didn’t believe Cassandra Montgomery was the marrying kind. Then again, he had to admit she seemed to adore Ward.
Everyone else was merging toward the center aisle to await Holt and Ruby’s greeting, while the staff began at the sides, moving chairs and bringing out the cocktail tables for mingling, beginning the garden’s transformation from chapel to reception. They set aside the trellis and unlocked hinges on the dais that allowed them to extend it to make a larger dancefloor.
David shifted back to the front, judging the newly married couple’s progress down the aisle, gauging how long before he could make his escape.
And turned right into Tricia’s sky-blue gaze. Her eyes were focused, as if she’d seen every thought he’d had about her, every wet dream painted on his face like prison stripes.
The guests, the minister, the bride and groom, they all seemed to fade. Except her. His breath constricted in his chest, his heart lodged somewhere in his throat, and his stomach plummeted to the ground he stood on, shaking it beneath his feet.
Over the last few months, since she’d started working at West Coast, Tricia had tried to talk to him. Christ, she’d actually cornered him a couple of times. How he’d shut her down, he couldn’t even recall. He’d probably run like a coward or a fool.
Her gaze was so direct, so straight, lancing him.
Yes, he was a coward. Eventually, they would need to have the confrontation. But not today.
Holt saved him, reaching Tricia’s row. She shook hands, no hugs, no pecks on the cheek.
To the left of David’s row, the wait staff carefully placed the wedding cake on a side table. A three-tiered confection, it was topped with a Day of the Dead bride and groom. Despite the emotions roiling inside him, he chuckled. It was so un-Ruby. But then he had to wonder about all the things he didn’t know about her. Didn’t know about Holt. Or about their relationship.
Every relationship wore a different face behind closed doors. Every relationship had a surface hiding its depths. There was what you wanted people to see versus the actual truth.
It was his turn now and Holt grabbed his hand in a hardy shake.
“Congratulations,” David said. His smile felt forced. It had been a mistake coming. The wedding was a reminder of his dead wife, his dead marriage, and Tricia was the embodiment of his guilt, of all his mistakes, of the harm he’d caused. And a token of the things he desired but could never have.
He shook off all the memories. He was here. He had to act. He took Ruby’s hand in both of his. “You make a stunning picture, Ruby. I wish you all the best.”
She smiled without artifice, even though Ruby always had artifice. “Thank you, David.” She poked him in the chest. “Now, I want you to get out there and dance once the music starts. Be the life of our party.” She elbowed Holt fondly. “He says he’ll only do the first dance so I’m going to need lots of partners.”
Ruby had definitely had her share of partners.
“She’s teasing, David.” Holt wrapped a proprietary arm around her, pulling her close and tight, staking his claim. “But we want you to enjoy yourself.”
He saw the words between their lines. He saw the last ten months since his wife’s death where he seemed to be living in a world of grief. And there were the endless months before that, the diagnosis, the treatment, then when the doctors finally destroyed all their hope. He’d been aware of the thoughtful gazes at work, the worry, the desire to help, the inability to do so. Now they all wanted him to move on, to get better, to be the man he’d been before the cancer.
His son and daughter wanted it, too. They missed their mom, but they were both in college now and starting their own lives, creating new priorities.
What none of them knew was that the genesis of his guilt came long before the cancer, before his kids were born, before he’d married Marie.