Seven

Anna spotted the golf cart Naldo’s father always used to get around the estate-painted burgundy with RDL emblazoned in cream letters-just off the dirt road at the end of a row of newly transplanted trees. He must be out barking orders at the poor peons in his employ.

She tried not to let the sweet rich orange scent dissipate her mood of raw indignation as she strode through the grove. At last she came upon a knot of men digging evenly spaced holes to accept a truckload of new transplants.

She squinted in the bright sun, trying to spot that unmistakably imperious profile amongst the suntanned workers. Then she saw him.

Naldo knelt in the sandy soil, an expression of rapt concentration on his hard features. His broad hands patted the dirt into place around a fragile young transplant. As she watched the tender care with which he treated the plant and the freshly turned earth that held it, her breath caught in her lungs.

The trees are family to us.

She steeled herself against a wave of sappy emotion that would not help her in any way. “Naldo.”

“Anna.” He sat back on his heels. A perplexed frown crossed his forehead, then his eyes narrowed. “You’ve come to apologize.”

“Apologize?” Her blood pressure shot up. “Are you kidding me?”

He looked past her, to where she could still hear the sound of shovels moving the soft soil. “Let’s walk.” He rose to his feet, dusting off his pants.

Dressed all in black, shirtsleeves rolled over his broad forearms to accommodate the afternoon heat, Naldo looked effortlessly elegant. She wore a pretty white sundress she’d found in her mother’s closet. She couldn’t help thinking they must make rather a dashing couple, strolling down the lush rows of perfectly maintained orange trees.

An illusion. Black and white, opposites in every way, she and Naldo had nothing in common other than a vested interest in one dusty acre of land.

“No one will come down these rows,” he said, once the thunking of shovels was no longer audible. He turned to face her.

“You know why I’m here,” she said. “I think it’s pathetic that you sent your sister to talk me into selling out. I wouldn’t have thought that was your style, Naldo, sending a woman to fight your battles. I guess you’ve changed.”

A line appeared between Naldo’s dark brows. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Isabela. She paid a visit to the cottage. I especially enjoyed the part where she appealed to me out of sisterhood.”

Naldo looked at her like she was crazy. His eyes narrowed to black slits. “Sisterhood?”

“She warned me about you. She told me you’d stop at nothing to get the land, and I’d better watch out.”

Naldo laughed, long and hard. “She knows me, all right. Are you scared?” His face creased into a grin that brought out his dimples.

“I’m not scared of anyone or anything.” She held her head high.

“I believe you. It’s one of the many things I like about you.” His infuriating grin persisted.

Anger bubbled in her chest. “And, Isabela happened to mention that your father did give my mother the jewels legally.”

Naldo’s smile vanished. “Yes. He paid the gift tax. They were hers, and now they’re yours. I apologize for not telling you myself but I only learned the news this morning and I’ve been out in the groves ever since.”

“So.” She cleared her throat. “I have a proposal. I’d like to sell you the jewels, and keep the land and cottage.” The idea had occurred to her almost at the moment she said it. It didn’t mean she had to stay in the cottage, but it would be there for her, a home to come back to, and she’d still have money to get her life back on track.

She held her breath.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“All or nothing. I must have that land back.”

“That was a nice touch having Isabela pretend she wanted it for herself.”

Naldo’s forehead furrowed slightly. “I had nothing to do with Isabela coming to visit you. If she tried to buy it from you it was for her own reasons.”

“She said she wanted to live there.”

“Did she now?” His mouth hitched into a wry smile. “Since that is about as likely as me wanting to live there, she has some other plan. As you know, she’d love me to sell the whole estate. No doubt she planned to sell it to developers or something to force my hand.”

“She couldn’t do that. There’s no road easement.”

“I know.” His satisfied smile irked her. “But I’m disturbed that you checked. It seems that all the women around here are trying to sell off a piece of my private paradise. You can’t trust anyone.” He lifted a brow.

“I already know I can’t trust you. You’ll stop at nothing to get what you want.”

“Spoken like someone who knows me well.” His eyes sparkled with amusement. “And since we’re on the subject, how about three million five hundred thousand dollars for the land, the cottage, the jewels and the cookbook.”

Anna’s lips parted and a tingle of astonishment sneaked up her neck.

“I can have the money for you today. In cash, or wired into the account of your choice.” His expression had turned more serious. “I’m sure we both want to get this resolved.”

“Yes.” Her word emerged as a breathy whisper.

Three and a half million dollars.

They’d walked out of the grove of newly planted trees into an early-season grove now in full white-petaled bloom.

The thought of all that money in her overdrawn bank account…freaked her out. Suddenly shaky, she inhaled a deep lungful of the rich sweet fragrance. The bright blossoms shone like stars among the dark, shiny leaves.

“These trees will set a lot of fruit this year,” she murmured.

“They will.” His forehead furrowed and he looked at her curiously.

Three and a half million dollars. It was more than enough to do anything. Or nothing. She’d be independent, free of obligation to anyone. She could walk out of here and never look back.

The thought punched her in the gut like a blow. If she took the money she’d never see this place again.

She hesitated as the blossom-scented air filled her senses. All around her, miles of trees in various stages of blooming and fruiting dug their roots down into the rich soil, drawing life, giving nourishment and strength.

“You would give me the money and I would just…go.” Without planning to, she spoke the painful thought aloud. The anguish she heard in her voice made her heart seize tighter.

“Yes.” Something odd flickered in Naldo’s eyes.

Naldo wanted to sever her roots. To cut her adrift in the harsh world that had bruised her like a tender fruit in the wrong hands.

She couldn’t breathe right. Maybe it was the orange oil in the air, or the bright sun in her eyes, but she couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen to her brain to say the word yes.

Naldo stood like a statue, regal and imposing, his black shirt open at the neck to reveal his bronze throat. She watched his Adam’s apple move as he spoke. “Four million.”

His voice emerged low. Not a question, not even a demand. There was something odd in his tone that further hindered her ability to form a coherent thought. There was something even stranger in his eyes as he took a step forward and seized her hand.

The warm, firm touch of his long fingers made her catch her breath. She dug her feet into the sandy soil, trying to get a grip on something, anything. His hand closed around hers and he took another step that brought his chest within inches of hers.

She struggled to find words but the beating of her heart was too loud and the blood rushed to her brain. Naldo took hold of her chin between thumb and forefinger and tilted her face to his. His brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed as he studied her face. She moved her lips, hoping that some sensible words would find their way to them, but no sound came out.

Naldo’s gaze dropped to her mouth, his eyelids lowered a fraction and he inhaled…then took her mouth in a deep, penetrating kiss that made her belly quiver.

Her fingers clawed into his thick hair as he tipped her head back. His mouth devoured hers hungrily, his face pushed against hers, skin on skin, the rich, musky scent of him mingling with the fragrant blossoms to overpower her senses.

As he deepened the soul-stealing kiss, she ran her fingers over the roping muscles of his back and tugged at his shirt, sneaking her fingertips down his spine and into his waistband.

Instantly she felt him thicken and harden against her. He let out a low groan and a broad hand roved down her dress to cup her breast, then lower to test the curve of her rear. He squeezed her against him and she gasped. So big and powerful, yet so gentle and tender, Naldo took her breath away.

She tore at the front of his shirt, pulling the buttons roughly from their holes, scratching at the firm, tan skin beneath. Naldo unzipped her dress in one swift motion, and they both shoved it and her panties down over her waist and legs, urgency building in the orange-scented air.

She fumbled with the front of Naldo’s pants, and he unzipped them and shucked them, letting them fall as he gathered her in his arms. Naked.

A fierce, wild shiver ran right through her like a breeze in the windless air.

Naldo lowered her gently to the soft sandy ground carpeted with scented orange blossom petals. He lay down beside her, his eyes dark slits of desire, as he ran his fingertips over the curve of her waist and along the length of her thigh, triggering painful arousal-until he stopped.

“I don’t have a condom.” Agony creased his brow.

“I’m on the pill,” she murmured, barely able to talk as her body throbbed with longing. “Don’t stop.”

His middle finger pushed between her thighs and into her moist heat. She moaned as he touched her, her hips lifting to meet his hand. Her nipples ached and her skin hummed with a craving to be to be skin to skin with Naldo De Leon.

With Naldo De Leon.

What was she doing?

He’d offered her four million dollars, and instead of taking the money and running like any sensible person would do, she’d jumped on him and torn off his clothes.

Surely she should-?

His finger tripped a hotwire inside her. She bucked against his hand and let out a strange, animal sound. Naldo silenced her with a hard kiss, his big body moving over hers, muscle heavy on her as his tongue tangled with hers.

She lifted her hips as he entered her, taking him deep. A shudder of profound relief rippled through her. Naldo cupped her head with one hand and kissed her greedily as he plunged deep inside her, driving her further and further into a paradise of sensation.

She writhed against him, moaning and murmuring his name as she climbed higher toward the peak of the most intense emotion she’d ever felt.

I love this man.

Again the thought stole into her mind and this time she didn’t shove it away.

Powerful, passionate, fiercely loyal to his proud family and the estate he loved, Naldo was a man like no other.

He dove into her one last time and her climax took her. Like a roller coaster plunging from the highest point, she sped down, screaming, into an abyss of shocking pleasure. Naldo held her tight, his groans echoing in her ears, as she crashed back to earth on the petal-strewn sand.

It was some time-she had no idea how long-before she managed to open her eyes. She met Naldo’s black gaze.

I love you.

She crushed the thought back into her brain. No sense making a fool of herself. At least not more than she already had.

She became uncomfortably aware of the gritty ground under her hot, sweaty skin.

Um, what just happened?

Naldo’s dimple appeared. “You have a strange effect on me.”

“Yeah.” She frowned. “I’ve noticed that.”

“And apparently the feeling is mutual.” His wide, sensual mouth tilted into a half smile.

“I wouldn’t say that…” She feigned a serious expression until Naldo tickled her belly and she broke into a giggle.

“Did I scream?” The thought of the workers one grove over made her clap a hand over her mouth.

“Yes. Most definitely.” Humor twinkled in his eyes.

“What if someone heard?” Her eyes widened.

“The trees provide excellent sound insulation. Do you hear anyone rushing to your aid?” He raised a brow.

“No.”

“So, as you can see, you’re at my mercy.” His smile broadened.

“Even if they could hear, I bet your faithful employees would just whistle and pretend they heard nothing.” She narrowed her eyes. Her mouth fought a grin.

“It’s nice being the boss.” He winked. “But then you’d know that.”

Anna swallowed. He still had no idea she was penniless, bankrupt…a failure.

“Though I don’t know how you run a business if you don’t like money.”

“I like money just fine.”

“You could have fooled me.” He tilted his head, smiling at her. “I keep trying to give you some, but I can’t get you to take it. I guess you have too much already.”

If only.

“It’s not that I don’t want the money…” Her voice trailed off.

“But you’re too proud to take it?”

She hesitated. Was it pride? Maybe a little. But it was something else, too. Mushy sentimentality for a place she’d once called home.

An indulgence she couldn’t afford.

“I just need to be sure I’m being fairly compensated.” She grasped at the first straw that came to mind. “I’m a businesswoman, as you said.”

“If you run your business anything like the way you…” he regarded her steadily with those penetrating black eyes “…play tennis, I’m in a very dangerous position on the other side of a bargaining table from you.”

Her nipples tingled at the suggestion in his voice and she stretched, trying to look casual. “I only want what’s fair.”

“I suppose there is the matter of the cookbook.” He stared at the ground for a moment, then met her gaze again.

“Is that the red leather book I found in Mom’s kitchen?” She thought of those carefully written creamy pages with their lovely drawings.

A line appeared between Naldo’s brows. “Yes. That’s the one. My father illustrated it.” He looked up, gazing into the trees behind her. “He always liked to draw.”

Oh. So that’s why she didn’t remember her mom being artistic. The book was a joint effort. A labor of love. The image of them working on it together made her bite her lip to stem a surge of emotion.

“I can’t picture your father drawing. I always saw him in action, striding about the place.” It was hard to imagine the dynamic Robert De Leon taking the time and care to make those intricate and carefully observed illustrations.

“Oh, yeah. He painted, too. Usually early in the morning, before the day got rolling. He loved to go out to the orchards with an easel and capture the trees in bloom.”

An orange blossom petal drifted down from the tree above them and landed on Anna’s belly. “I don’t think there’s a more beautiful sight on earth,” she murmured, looking up at the white clustered branches.

“There isn’t.” Naldo looked at her. “I’ve traveled enough to know that. This is heaven, right here. My dad knew he lived in paradise and he lived every minute of it to the fullest.”

Anna chewed her lip. She’d once been so keen to get away, to get on with building a “real life.” Real life had turned out to be a crushing disappointment compared to life here in Paradiso.

“What’s the matter?” Naldo brushed a strand of hair off her face.

“I didn’t realize how much I’d missed this place.”

“It seeps into your blood, doesn’t it?” He stroked her cheek with his thumb. “Wraps itself around you, and doesn’t want to let you go. I guess that’s why the De Leons have been here so damn long.”

And why I don’t want to leave again.

Overcome by a wave of panic, Anna shook her head, tossing her hair. Naldo pulled his hand back.

You have to leave. You have no choice. This isn’t your home anymore.

“I guess that’s why I can’t stomach the idea of parting with even one acre.” Naldo’s dimple appeared. His words, spoken so casually, made her gut twist with anguish. A simple reminder that he wanted her to take the money and give his land back.

She sat up and reached for her dress, trying to maintain a veneer of calm. Think business. “I still don’t understand why the cookbook was mentioned in the will. Because they did it together?”

“It’s not the book that’s important, so much as the recipes. I guess he wanted to acknowledge that they were your mom’s.” Naldo shifted onto his elbow, frowning at the dress in her hand. “They’re the foundation of the retail business.”

She froze. “The marinades and dressings that you sell in supermarkets?”

“Yes.”

“The products that netted three million dollars in profits in their first year of production?” Her thoughts, spoken aloud, made that now familiar furrow reappear between Naldo’s brows.

“Your mother developed the recipes as an employee of the estate.” His tone had turned professional. Cold.

“Of course.” A surge of fresh hurt mingled with fury and stung her. “She came up with ideas that generate millions in cash for the estate, while earning a cook’s salary.”

“She was compensated in other ways.”

“The jewels.” Anna’s blood chilled. “Your father bought her off. Kept her quiet.”

Naldo blew out an exasperated burst of air and sat up. “What happened to you, Anna? What made you so bitter and untrusting? My father loved your mother. They were a team-much as it pains me to say it-and they did almost everything together. He gave her an acre of the estate, for crying out loud. Do you have any idea how extraordinary that is? It’s never happened before in the history of the De Leon family.”

“The estate. That’s all it comes down to, isn’t it? Preserving the estate, building the estate, growing the profits. The idea of that one acre not being under your control is a real burr under your saddle isn’t it? Did Ricky tell you I didn’t want the acre mowed?”

Naldo raised an eyebrow. “Yes, he told me. Why don’t you want it mowed? Are you raising hay? Or just raising hell?”

This woman was crazy, no doubt about it. She knelt across from him on the sand with her dress fisted in her lap. Light and shade filtered through the blossom-covered tree and made tracery patterns on her stunning, slender body.

Her bright eyes shone with the fire of her passion. Anna Marcus was passionate in every possible way.

He hid a smile that wanted to sneak across his mouth. Yes, he wanted his acre back, and he’d get it, but not without going through that fire some more. Lucky thing he didn’t burn easily.

“Just making sure we all know where we stand.” On her own cue, she stood and shook out her dress. “I think you should bring the gems back to the cottage.”

A swell of naked lust rolled through him at the sight of those long legs that wrapped around him so perfectly, climbing back into the white cotton dress.

“Need help with the zipper?” He didn’t try to hide the evidence of his arousal.

“I’ve got it.” She zipped up the back without a hitch.

“You would. You don’t need anyone, do you? No wonder marriage didn’t suit you.”

That stopped her in her tracks. She shoved a lock of hair awkwardly off her face. “You don’t know anything about my marriage.”

“No. I don’t. Anything I should know?”

Damn. On the one hand, he was curious. On the other, he didn’t want to know anything at all about Anna and another man. He shifted in the sand, uncomfortable.

“He left me.” She said it quickly, and for once her fire seemed to dim. “I guess you’re right. He left me for someone totally different. Said he wanted someone quiet and nurturing. More submissive.”

“I’m sorry.” The hurt in her eyes tore at his chest. “He was the wrong man for you, because you sure aren’t cut out to be submissive.”

“I guess, like you said, marriage doesn’t suit me.”

“Hey.” He reached for his pants. “Don’t let a bad experience get you down. You just need someone who appreciates you for who you are.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone that crazy.” She tried to sound lighthearted, but it didn’t fool him.

“You’re a woman in a million.”

“Yeah?” She tossed her hair and narrowed her eyes. “Is that why you’re willing to pay four million to get rid of me?”

He couldn’t help laughing. She was right, of course.

At this point he was offering her far more than what the gems, the cookbook and the land were worth. What would it take to make this woman see sense?

It might help if he could keep his damn hands off her for a whole day.

Why was he making love to the daughter of his father’s lover? She was the last woman on earth he should be interested in.

He shook his head. Anna Marcus was definitely having a disturbing effect on him. He’d actually experienced a surge of relief that the jewels were legally hers, otherwise he’d have felt like he was cheating her out of them. And the cookbook, too. He’d originally intended to gloss over that, to have her leave without knowing what the clause in the will really meant.

But he couldn’t do it.

Since he’d gotten to know her again he had a powerful urge to protect her interests and safeguard her rights, even at the expense of the estate-not to mention his own sanity.

No doubt it was just his sense of honor. His father had raised him to do the right thing.

She slipped her feet back into her sandals. Pink soles peeped at him for a tantalizing second as she put them on, before he dragged his eyes away.

He needed to back off and play it cool. The more he came on strong, the more she fought him.

The worst part was how much he enjoyed that. Anna’s fire lit an inferno inside him in a way he’d never experienced with any other woman. He loved the way she stood up to him. That she didn’t fawn and simper and pander over him like so many women who saw him as some kind of trophy, not as a man.

Anna saw him as a man, all right.

And despite his duty to the estate, he couldn’t help seeing her as a woman. A savvy businesswoman who refused to be cheated, a loyal and caring woman who wanted to see her mother’s memory honored, a passionate and sensual woman who called to something stronger than principle and pragmatism.

He could tell she loved the estate, too, that she felt a deep connection to land and the trees.

He snapped his attention away from the hot burst of feeling rushing through his chest.

It was time to be practical. “I’ll send Tom over with the gems when I get back. Then the ball is in your court.” He settled back in the sand with his hands behind his head, trying to look like he didn’t care much one way or the other.

“Good.” She shot him a dirty look that only tickled his libido.

As she stalked back down the row of trees in her unsuitable shoes, he heaved a deep sigh, which brought him no relaxation whatsoever.

He just wanted to put things back the way they should be. The estate whole and entire. The family secrets buried safely where they belonged.

Why did it have to be so hard?

If he didn’t get rid of Anna soon, rumors really would start to fly, and once they got out there’d be no putting that genie back in the bottle. He should be doing everything in his power to make her leave-right now.

Instead, all he wanted to do was run his hands over her silky skin and trace the proud angle of her chin with kisses. To make bone-shaking, earth-tilting love to her again.

And again.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, inadvertently getting a bunch of gritty sand on it. He had sand all over him from head to toe and was lying naked and alone in his own orange grove.

What was wrong with this picture?

Relax. It’s a fair offer. More than fair. She’ll come to her senses, take the money, and go.

The thought made him more uncomfortable than ever.

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