Nine

When Hunter had squeezed her hand in front of Kristy and Jack, down in the lobby and said, “See you in the morning,” Sinclair knew it was all for show. So she brushed her hair, put on fresh perfume, and changed into the purple negligee from La Petite Fleur. She’d even touched up her face with a few of the Luscious Lavender cosmetics.

So, when the knock came from the adjoining hotel room, she was ready. Pulse pounding, skin tingling, anticipation humming along her nervous system, she opened the door.

“Hey, sis,” sang Kristy. Then she tossed a command over her shoulder, “Avert your eyes, Jack.”

Sinclair’s jaw dropped open.

“I brought a nice Chardonnay.” Kristy waved an open bottle in the air. “You got some glasses?”

Kristy breezed past her, and Sinclair met Jack’s eyes.

“Jack,” Kristy warned.

“Sorry,” he called, lowering his gaze.

Sinclair turned to her sister. “What on earth-”

“You might want to shut the door,” said Kristy.

“Where’s Hunter?”

“We traded rooms.”

Sinclair swung the door shut, battling her shock. “I can’t believe you would-”

“It was his idea. He asked me to do it.”

Why would Hunter ask to trade rooms? “Did you threaten him?” Sinclair asked suspiciously.

Kristy poured two glasses of wine. “Yeah. I did, so he backed off. Does that sound like Hunter?”

“No,” Sinclair admitted. Hunter refused to back down from Jack and his grandfather. He sure wasn’t going to back down from Kristy.

Kristy rounded the small coffee table and flopped down on one of the armchairs. “He traded rooms, because he doesn’t want to hurt you. I admire that.”

“He’s not going to hurt me.” Hurting was the furthest thing from what would happen between Hunter and Sinclair tonight.

Kristy took in Sinclair’s outfit. “Well, he’d sure be doing something with you dressed like that.”

Sinclair glanced down. “What? So we bought a few things at La Petite Fleur.”

Dressed in a snazzy workout suit, Kristy curled her legs beneath her.

“And where do you see this thing going?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” Sinclair lied. She’d pictured everything from an “hasta la vista, baby” to a tear-stained goodbye, to a white dress and a cathedral.

“You work for him.”

“I know. Don’t you think I know?”

“Reality check,” said Kristy. “Hunter’s not a one-woman man.”

“Reality check,” Sinclair countered. “I’m not a one-man woman.”

“Not before now.”

“Do you honestly think I’ve fallen in love with him?” She hadn’t.

“Not yet,” said Kristy. “But you’re taking an awfully big risk. You’ll have to work with him afterward no matter what. With all the money he’s invested in Castlebay, he’s going to have to spend one heck of a lot of time at Lush Beauty. He needs this to work. And if your past becomes a problem, guess who’s going to be gone?”

“You think Hunter would fire me?” Talk about extrapolating facts to the worst-case scenario.

“I think he might have to make a choice.”

Sinclair took a long swallow of her wine, hating the fact that the scenario was possible.

She spun the stem of her glass around her fingertips. “What does Jack think?”

“Jack thinks Hunter’s playing with fire. He’s been reckless and impulsive before.”

Sinclair tipped up the glass for another swallow. Reckless and impulsive, everybody seemed to agree on that, including Hunter.

“And it was his idea to switch rooms with you?” Sinclair confirmed.

Kristy nodded.

Sinclair played around with that little fact. Switching rooms meant Hunter thought it wouldn’t last. Chivalrous of him to back off, really. Telling, but chivalrous.

“Did you get my message from last night?”

“I did.”

Sinclair couldn’t keep the hurt from her voice. “Why didn’t you call me?” At least then she would have known to give Hunter a heads-up.

“I’d already told Jack what you said.”

Sinclair watched her sister closely. “And Jack told you not to call me.”

Kristy hesitated, then she gave a nod. It was her turn to drain her glass.

“Men coming between us,” said Sinclair. “Who’d have thought?”

“He’s my husband. And Hunter’s his cousin. And this was family business.”

“And I’m not family.”

“Not the Osland family.”

Sinclair nodded. “Not the Osland family.”

Kristy tucked her blond hair behind her ears. “You sure you’re not in love with him?”

She wasn’t. Of all the things going on here, that, at least, wasn’t an issue. “We’ve known each other a week. We’ve slept together exactly twice.”

“I fell for Jack in a weekend.”

“Are you trying to talk me into loving Hunter?”

“I’m wondering if you should come back to New York with me tomorrow.”

“My makeover’s not done yet.”

She wouldn’t run away. But she could keep it professional. They’d finish the dance lessons, take the planned tours of Castlebay locations, then she’d return to the U.S. and normal life. Her career would get back on track, and Hunter would go out and make more millions.

No big deal. No huge goodbye. They’d settle into their respective lives, and he’d forget all about her.

The next morning, as arranged, Sinclair entered the hotel dining room for a goodbye breakfast with Kristy. The ma?tre d’recognized her and escorted her through the maze of diners, around the corner to a huge balcony overlooking the atrium.

There, the entire contingent of Oslands sat at a round table, heads bent together, talking rapidly and earnestly, frustration clear on Jack’s and Cleveland’s faces.

When Jack spotted Sinclair, he touched Cleveland’s arm. The man looked up and stopped talking. Hunter and Kristy caught on, and all four shifted back. Forced smiles appeared on their faces.

She’d never felt so much like an outsider in her life.

Kristy stood. “Morning, sis.” She came forward for a quick hug, gesturing to a chair between her and Cleveland.

Sinclair pointed to the way she’d come in. “I can…”

“Don’t be silly,” said Kristy. She shot a glance to the men.

They all came to their feet, talking overtop of one another as they insisted she stay.

She looked at Hunter, but his gaze was guarded. The intimacy was gone, and she couldn’t find a clue as to whether she should be here or go.

Hunter moved around Cleveland to pull out her chair.

Sinclair sat down.

“Where were we?” asked Kristy. “Oh, yes. We were talking about the cruise.”

Jack smoothly picked up on his wife’s cue. “Can you be ready tomorrow afternoon?” he asked. “The captain could wait in port until Tuesday morning, but it’s best if we keep the ship on schedule.”

Cleveland sat in sullen silence.

“Do you think I should pick up a few sundresses before we go?” Kristy chirped. “Or maybe do a little-”

“This is ridiculous,” said Sinclair.

Everyone looked at her.

She started to rise. “I’m going back to my-”

Reaching behind Cleveland, Hunter grabbed her arm. “You’re not going anywhere.”

She stared at him, then included everybody. “You have things to talk about. And it’s not Kristy’s sundresses.”

Jack spoke up. “I happen to have a passionate interest in Kristy’s sundresses. More so in her bikinis.”

“Sinclair’s right,” barked Cleveland.

“Thank you,” said Sinclair.

He swiveled in his chair to face her. “But she doesn’t have to leave.”

Sinclair didn’t know what to say to that. The hollow buzz of voices from the atrium washed over her while his piercing eyes held her in place.

“I understand you were involved in the Castlebay acquisition.”

“Gramps,” warned Hunter.

“Well?” Cleveland pressed. “Were you or were you not?”

Sinclair struggled not to squirm under his probe, excruciatingly aware that this man held controlling interest in Osland International, which held controlling interest in Lush Beauty Products, and he could end her career with the snap of his fingers.

“Yes,” she answered. “It was my idea.”

“It was my idea,” said Hunter.

“But-”

“Sinclair may have mentioned something about a single spa in New York. But I approached Castlebay. I did the research. I agreed to the price. And I signed the check. So, back off on Sinclair.”

Cleveland turned to Hunter. “I’m interested in how much influence she has over you.”

“None,” said Hunter. “It was a business decision, and it was a good one. You read the reports.”

Sinclair tried not to react to that statement. Of course it was a business decision. And she never assumed she had any influence over Hunter. But, somehow, his words hurt all the same.

Cleveland nodded. “I read the reports. The problem is cash flow.”

“I just told you, borrow against the Paraguay mines.”

“With currency fluctuations and the political instability? Do you want Osland International to fall down like a house of cards, boy?”

“Jack could give up the cruise ships he’s just acquired,” said Hunter.

“Jack cleared the cruise ship with the Board of Directors,” Jack drawled.

Sinclair was afraid to move. She wanted to speak up, to explain. But couldn’t summon the words.

Kristy leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Relax.”

“We have options,” Hunter spat.

“Are you kidding?” Sinclair hissed to her sister.

“They do this all the time,” said Kristy.

“Castlebay is going to turn Lush Beauty into a gold mine,” said Hunter with grim determination. “And that’s what you sent me to do there.”

“I sent you there to apologize to Sinclair.”

Sinclair couldn’t hold back. “He doesn’t need-”

“You don’t want a piece of this,” Hunter warned her. Then he set his sights back on his grandfather. “Next time you have a problem with my behavior, talk to me.”

“Why? You never listen.”

“And where the hell do you think I might have inherited that trait?”

“Insolent young pup,” Cleveland muttered.

“Wait for it,” Kristy whispered.

Cleveland squared his shoulders. “Don’t you forget who built this company from an empty warehouse and a corner store.”

“And you took exactly the same risks as me back then,” Hunter practically shouted. “You didn’t check with the Board of Directors, and you didn’t convene a thirty-person legal panel with six months’ lead time. You flew by the seat of your pants. That’s how you built this company.”

“Times have changed,” said Cleveland.

“Maybe,” Hunter allowed.

“And our current cash position is appalling.”

“I’m not returning the cruise ships,” said Jack, his arm going around his wife. “Kristy’s buying a sundress.”

“You’re not returning the cruise ships,” Cleveland agreed. “Hunter’s going to fix this.”

Hunter stared stonily at his coffee mug.

“I think we can join one of the ships in Fiji by the day after tomorrow,” said Kristy in a perky voice that was completely at odds with the conversation.

Jack stroked her hair. “You’ll look great on the beach,” he cheerfully told her, clearly picking up on her lead.

Kristy elbowed Sinclair.

“Uh…What color bikini?” Sinclair tried, unable to take her eyes off Hunter.

“Purple,” said Kristy. “And maybe a matching hat.”

“Did you put any hats in the spring collection?” asked Cleveland. “I think we should start a new trend.”

Hunter drew a deep breath. “Hats were up across the board at Sierra Sanchez last fall. Gramps may have a point.”

Jack took a drink of his coffee and signaled for the waiter to bring refills, while Cleveland picked up his menu.

Sinclair glanced from person to person in complete astonishment. That was it? The blowup was over, and they were all having breakfast?

Hunter’s family was insane.

Hunter could handle his family.

What he couldn’t handle was his growing desire to be with Sinclair. When Gramps left and Jack and Kristy checked out of the Ciel D’Or Hotel yesterday, Hunter gave up the room adjoining Sinclair’s, keeping the one on the top floor instead.

It didn’t help.

Or maybe it did.

He still wanted to hold her, talk to her and laugh with her all night long. But being ten floors away made it harder for him to act on those impulses.

Before she left, Kristy had given him a lecture. Telling him in no uncertain terms to put Sinclair’s interests first. Office affairs never ended well, and it was Sinclair who stood to get hurt. So, if Hunter cared for her at all, even just a little bit, he’d back off and let her get her career under control.

Then, just in case the lecture didn’t take, Kristy had pointed out that things generally went bad for men whose cousins-in-law were gunning for them, as well. While Hunter was willing to take his chances with Cleveland and Jack’s wrath, he didn’t want to cross Kristy.

Plus, he cared for Sinclair. He cared for her more than just a little bit. Although he’d never admit it, she had influenced him in the Castlebay deal. Every time his instincts had twitched, or when Richard had pointed out a potential weakness in the deal, Hunter had seen Sinclair’s smiling face, and he’d imagined the rush of telling her they owned the spas.

Castlebay wasn’t a bad deal. But it wasn’t a “pull out all the stops and get the papers signed in forty-eight hours” deal, either.

Yes, he cared about Sinclair. And he wanted her happy. And sleeping with her wasn’t going to make her happy in the long run-even though it would make him ecstatic, short term.

Right now, he heard her heels tap on the hardwood floor. He glanced over to see her cross the dance studio in strappy black sandals and a bright, gauzy blue dress that flowed in points around her tanned calves. The skirt sections separated to give him glimpses of her thighs as she walked.

The dance instructor cued up the music, and Hunter braced himself.

“Ready?” Sinclair asked, her eyes sparkling sapphires that matched the brilliance of the dress.

He took a breath and held out his arms.

“You need to remember,” he told her, watching them together in the big mirror. “From the minute you walk into the ball to the minute you leave, you’re on stage. Roger will be watching what you do and how you do it.”

“You’re making me nervous again,” she complained. But she glanced into the nearest mirror, then pulled back her shoulders and straightened her spine.

Hunter splayed his palm flat against her back. “Don’t be nervous. Look into my eyes. Pay attention to my hand. We’re in this together.”

She met his gaze, and longing catapulted within him. Other than a chaste peck on the cheek, he’d kept to himself since Kristy’s lecture. But now Sinclair was fully in his arms. The back of her dress dipped to a low V, and his thumb brushed her bare skin.

He felt her shiver at the touch, and her reaction ratcheted up his own desire. Damn. He had to get his mind on the dancing.

Hunter led her through the opening steps.

“Go back, Sinclair,” the instructor said. “Now left foot. Shoulders parallel. That’s good. Get ready for the turn.”

Hunter turned her, and Sinclair didn’t stumble. Hunter smiled at her achievement.

“Promenade,” said the instructor, and Hunter slipped his arm around Sinclair’s waist, settling his hand above her hipbone.

“Good start,” said the instructor. “Now, take it away, Hunter. Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”

“Watch out,” Hunter smiled at Sinclair, pulling her with his fingers, then pushing with the heel of his hand. She moved to the right, then the left, then backward, then into a turn. And she stumbled.

“Again,” said the instructor, and Hunter started over.

She got it right. Then nailed it again.

After four times through the pattern, Hunter altered the ending and caught her by surprise.

“Hey,” she protested.

“Stick with me. It’s boring if we never do anything new.”

“We never do anything at all, anymore,” she muttered under her breath.

He didn’t think he could have heard her right. “Excuse me?”

“Nothing.”

He switched her to a cuddle position. He leaned down, intending to murmur in her ear. She wanted to flirt? He was there.

“Head high,” the instructor called.

Hunter corrected his posture and caught her smirk.

He went back to the basic pattern, then changed it up, then whirled her through an underarm turn, her skirts flaring around her knees.

“You are absolutely gorgeous,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” she said on a sigh. “But I’m tired of being gorgeous.”

The song faded to an end.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

She fingercombed her hair. “Restaurants and dances and fancy clothes are all well and good. But I want to kick back. Maybe hop into sweats, watch a sappy movie and cook something for myself.” She pouted prettily. “I miss cooking.”

“I don’t miss cooking.”

“That’s because you’re spoiled.”

“I’m not spoiled.”

She looked pointedly around the big, mirrored room. “We’re having a private dance lesson.”

The music started, and he took her into his arms once again, not fighting his feelings so much anymore.

“That,” he said as he squared his shoulders and checked their lines, “is because I’m spoiling you.

She seemed to contemplate his words as the notes ascended. “That is also true.”

Hours later, Sinclair glanced around at the huge arched windows, the kitchenette and the overstuffed leather furniture. “All this time you’ve had a kitchen?” she asked Hunter.

Hunter set two grocery bags down on the marble counter in the small kitchen alcove while Sinclair checked out the other rooms.

“Jack likes nice things for Kristy,” Hunter called.

“Kristy doesn’t need a four-person whirlpool,” Sinclair called back. “I’ve been camping with that woman.”

“The whirlpool’s nice,” said Hunter, meeting Sinclair in the main room.

She trailed her fingertips along the leather-accented bar. “So, you basically traded me in on a whirlpool and a veranda?”

She’d missed him.

She’d lain awake at night wishing he was there beside her. It would be nice to make love, sure. But she also wanted to feel his warmth, hear his breathing, even read the morning paper side by side.

“Don’t forget the microwave,” he said, and picked up one of the hotel phones, punching in a number.

“Well, then. No wonder. I can hardly compete with a microwave.” She kicked off her high-heeled sandals and eased up onto a bar stool, arranging the gauzy skirt around her legs. She’d had fun dancing tonight. It seemed as if it was finally coming together. She was reading Hunter’s signals, and she found herself looking forward to meeting him on the dance floor at the ball.

Of course, she’d have to dance with other people. But she’d savor the moments with Hunter, even though it would signal the end of their personal relationship. She couldn’t see them spending much time together once they were back in New York.

She tried not to feel sad about that. Instead, she gazed at him across the room, taking a mental snapshot of his relaxed posture and smiling face.

He spoke into the telephone receiver. “I’m looking for some ladies’ sportswear.”

Sinclair turned her attention to the gilded mirror and the assortment of liquors behind the bar. In the meantime, she knew how to make a great mushroom sauce for their chicken breasts, if they had…there it was. Calvados brandy.

She slipped down and padded around the end of the bar. She doubted she could compete with the chefs who must cook for Hunter, but she’d give it her best try.

“Ladies’ sweatpants,” said Hunter. “Gray.”

Sinclair grinned to herself, snagging the bottle of brandy. As he’d done so many times, he was giving her exactly what she’d asked for.

“Maybe a tank top?” He looked at her, and she nodded her agreement.

“Size small,” he said while she headed for the kitchenette, scoping out the few cupboards for dishes. They were going to have a relaxing evening. Just the two of them. She hadn’t felt this relaxed in weeks.

“Great,” he said into the phone. “No, that should do it.”

“A baking dish,” Sinclair called, finding plates, silverware and glasses.

Hunter relayed the message.

“Oh, and a pot,” she said. “With a lid.”

“One pot and one lid,” Hunter said into the phone. Then he looked to Sinclair. “That everything?”

She nodded, closing the cupboards and removing the groceries from the sacks.

“Thank you,” Hunter said into the phone. Then he hit the off button.

“Wine?” he asked Sinclair.

“You bet.” She’d worked hard today. In fact, she’d worked hard all week. Glamming up was no easy business.

“Red or white?”

“You pick.”

“Mouton Rothschild,” he decided, retrieving a bottle from the wine rack and snagging the corkscrew from the bar top.

“What’s the occasion?”

“You,” he said, slicing off the foil cover. “In gray sweatpants.” Then he twisted the corkscrew.

“If that doesn’t cry out for a fine beverage, I don’t know what does.”

“Me, neither.” He popped the cork and poured the dark liquid into two wide-mouthed wineglasses. Then he carried them to the counter where she was working.

“Know how to make a salad?” she asked, setting out lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and cucumber.

“Nope,” he answered, sipping the wine.

“Know how to eat a salad?”

“Of course.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a chopping knife and set it on the counter. “Then wing it.”

“Hey, you were the one bent on giving up luxury.”

“And you get to help.”

“I bought the sweatpants,” he grumbled.

“Don’t forget to wash everything.”

Hunter stared blankly at the assortment of vegetables. “Maybe I should call the chef.”

“And how would that be a home-cooked meal?”

“He’d be in our home while he cooked it.”

Sinclair pulled in her chin, peering at him through the tops of her eyes. “Shut up and start chopping.”

“Okay,” he agreed with a tortured sigh. “It’s your funeral.”

She removed the butcher’s paper from the chicken breasts. “You can’t kill me with a salad.”

“I have never, I mean never, cooked anything in my life.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “Don’t you ever get hungry, like late at night?”

“Sure.”

“And?”

“And I call the kitchen.” He looked doubtful as he unwrapped a yellow pepper.

“You seriously need a reality check.”

“I seriously need a chef.”

“Peel off the label, then wash the pepper, cut it vertically and take out the seeds.”

Hunter blinked at her.

She rattled into one of the bags, looking for spices. “That’s not going to work.”

“What’s not going to work?”

“That, oh-so-pathetic, lost-little-boy expression.”

He gave up and peeled off the label, then turned to the sink. “It’s tried and true on about a dozen nannies.”

“You must have been incorrigible.”

“I was delightful.”

“I’m sure.”

She spiced the chicken breasts, then chopped up the mushrooms, while Hunter butchered a number of innocent vegetables beyond recognition.

“Did you get cream?” she asked, peering into the bottom of the sack.

“Over here.” He reached around her, and her face came up against his chest. His clean scent overwhelmed her, while her breasts brushed his stomach. Everything inside her contracted with desire.

“Here you go.” He set the carton of cream on the counter in front of her. If he’d noticed the breast brush, he didn’t let on. She, on the other hand, was still tingling from the contact.

She turned away and set the oven temperature. It was too early to make the sauce, so she put the cream in the half-sized fridge and moved to put some distance between her and Hunter.

“Can we get a movie?” she asked.

“There’s a DVD library behind the couch. Or pay-per-view if you want something current.”

“A classic?” she asked, skirting the couch.

“It’s your night,” he responded. “If it was mine, the fantasy would include waiters.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask for details about his fantasy night, but she quickly realized that would take them down a dangerous road.

A knock sounded.

“The sweatpants,” said Hunter from where he was running the cucumber under cold water.

Sinclair left the DVD library to go for the door.

She took the sweatpants and tank top into Hunter’s bedroom, stripping off her dancing dress and hanging it in the closet. The V back of the dress hadn’t allowed for a bra, so she wasn’t wearing one. The sweats were loose and rode low on her hips. While the pale-purple-and-gray-striped tank top left a strip of bare skin on her abdomen. But the cotton fabric was soft and cool, and she felt more relaxed than she had in days.

“You should take off your tie,” she said to Hunter as she reemerged into the living room.

He glanced up, and his gaze stopped on her outfit for a few seconds.

“Good idea.” He dried his hands then worked open the knot. He unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up the sleeves.

She crouched in front of the DVD rack. “Notting Hill?” she asked. “Or While You Were Sleeping? Sweet Home Alabama?

“Is that the chick-flick shelf?”

“How about Die Hard?

“Now that’s a movie.”

“Fine, but nobody ever got lucky watching Die Hard.

“Am I getting lucky?”

She ignored him. “Here we go. The Last of the Mohicans.

He nodded. “Good compromise.”

She pulled it from the shelf. “Action, adventure, emotion and romance.”

“Sounds like a winner to me.”

“It’s not very funny.”

“Apparently, we can’t have everything.” He stepped back from the counter. “However, we have achieved salad.”

She walked over to check it out. The lettuce pieces were too large, the peppers were practically pureed, and there was a puddle of water forming at the bottom of the bowl.

“Good job.”

“Thank you. But I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

She snagged a crooked slice of cucumber and popped it in her mouth. “Then I’ll be sure to savor it.”

He looked down into her eyes. “Excellent idea,” he said, and her breath caught at the tone of his voice. “Savoring those experiences that are rare.”

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