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Wicked garden, p.1
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       Wicked Garden, p.1

           Lorelei James
 
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  Chapter One

  Eden LaCroix embodied sin. Wicked, sinful pleasures of the flesh that’d lead a monk straight into temptation.

  Billy Buchanan never claimed to be a monk, but how on earth had he ever walked away from her?

  Walked? Nice try, man. You ran away from her.

  He traced her outline on the glass partition separating them—slumberous hazel eyes, full lips, auburn curls—and was surprised his fingers didn’t come away scorched.

  Eden’s spine straightened. Before she turned and caught him gawking, Billy stepped from view.

  Way to act like a stalker, Buchanan. Real professional.

  Minutes later, her secretary found him calmly leaning against the wall in the reception area. However, calm was the last thing he felt when faced with the pleasures of Eden.

  “Ms. LaCroix will see you now.”

  Billy’s knees were knocking as loud as his heart when he finally opened her office door.

  “Financially unfeasible my ass,” Eden muttered. Not every decision had to be about money.

  She didn’t glance up from the spreadsheet when the door clicked open. Dammit. She wasn’t ready to listen to another “expert” regurgitate the same gloomy diagnosis: the building housing the community center couldn’t be salvaged. “Hang on. I’ll be right with you.”

  “No hurry. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

  A chill skittered up her spine. She’d heard those exact words before. In that low timbre, with that playful tone. Nah. Couldn’t be. Her ears were playing tricks on her.

  Weren’t they?

  Curiosity won out. Eden shoved the papers aside and looked across the desk. But the man’s zipper—not his face—was at her eye-level. Before she could discern whether he dressed left or right, her gaze traveled up the charcoal-colored suit pants, past a narrow waist and broad chest covered with a crisp white dress shirt. Wide shoulders. Strong neck. Square jaw. Big grin.

  A familiar big grin.

  Eden’s stomach knotted. “Say it ain’t so,” she half-whispered. “Billy Buchanan?”

  “In the flesh.” Billy spread his arms wide before his killer smile melted away. “Eden? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

  “A ghost from prom past, minus the baby blue tux.” She shook her head to get the blood flowing, never taking her eyes off him.

  “It’s been a few years,” Billy said. “You look amazing. Last time I saw you—”

  “—my prom dress was down around my ankles at Motel 6. I’m surprised you remember since the last time I saw you, your scrawny ass was high-tailing it out the door.”

  Billy allowed a sheepish shrug, which fell short of the endearing mark Eden suspected he’d been aiming for.

  “Although this trip down memory lane is fascinating…” she smiled—all teeth, “…I don’t have time to reminisce. I have an appointment.”

  Without waiting for an invitation, Billy plopped into the chair, watching her with an intensity that hadn’t dimmed despite the passing of a decade. “Feather Light Consulting, right?”

  That stopped her cold. “How did you know?”

  “Because I am your appointment.”

  Eden’s pulse spiked, but she managed a droll stare. “Still the consummate bullshit artist, I see.” The wheels on her office chair squeaked as she rocked back. “I’m supposed to believe you work for Feather Light Consulting?”

  “Yep. Since yesterday afternoon.” He clicked open a battered black briefcase, propping it on his lap. “Robert Light had a heart attack Saturday night.” When she gasped, he said, “Bob is recovering, but it’ll take time, time Feather Light doesn’t have in order to meet their current client obligations. Jim White Feather brought me here from Illinois.”

  Her gaze narrowed. “Why you?”

  “Robert gave me a great recommendation with the engineering firm I work for in Chicago. I owe him.” Billy reached into his briefcase, withdrawing a manila envelope. “Luckily I’d just wrapped up a job in Calgary. With freelance status, I’m assisting on this project with Feather Light.”

  “Guess it is a lucky thing for Robert.”

  “And for you.” Billy smiled, flashing a deep dimple. “Isn’t it great, us working together again? Just like old times?”

  “Marvelous.” The last time they’d punched a communal time clock at a local floral shop, any free moment between deliveries and customers her clothing had been askew and Billy’s eager body had plastered hers to the flower cooler as they’d played the FTD version of post office.

  Billy merely lifted his brows at her sarcasm.

  “Although I’d like to renew specific relationships—” his eyes moved from her eyes to her lips, “—I’m not interested in making friends, Eden. I’m here to do a job.”

  Eden chalked up the fluttering in her stomach to acid reflux, not anticipation, and certainly not from his predatory once-over.

  While he rummaged in his briefcase, Eden studied the changes ten years brought to Billy Buchanan. He was still undeniably sexy, and boy-next-door handsome. His hair had darkened from blond to tawny gold. His once lanky 6’3” frame filled out impressively. She imagined a toned athlete’s body under his custom tailored clothing. Yet the quick smile with deep-set dimples and his hypnotizing blue eyes remained unchanged. Blue eyes completely focused on her.

  “Jesus, Eden. You take my breath away.”

  The heat of his gaze evaporated every bit of moisture in her mouth. Not many things threw her, but one compliment from him and she reverted to a seventeen-year-old girl; her heart raced, her face burned, her blood pumped hot.

  “Sorry. I know that was out of line. Not a good way to start this.”

  “So how do we start this, Billy? Do I ask you how you’ve been? Do I ask to see your credentials?” Or do I ask why you ran out on me?

  Billy’s eyes didn’t waver as the locks on the briefcase clicked. “Sure. We could also discuss the weather, or whether my old boss Nathan and his wife Tate, have contributed to the population explosion in Spearfish.” He angled forward, settling his elbows on the briefcase, studying her carefully. “Or, we could skip all that crap and I could tell you why I left you and your virginity intact ten years ago.”

  “By all means, let’s revisit that stellar moment.” She lifted a hand, stopping his immediate objection. “You have one minute to get whatever guilt off your chest.”

  “See you’ve still got those rough edges.”

  “If I recall correctly, you were one of the few people who liked that about me,” she retorted sweetly.

  “Truth was, I liked everything about you.”

  “Funny way of showing it.”

  “Can you blame me? You were jailbait and at twenty-two I was a little old to be deflowering virgins.”

  “I knew exactly how old we both were. I chose you because I trusted you with something that mattered to me.” Snapping at him wouldn’t change anything. She picked up a pen and drummed it against the desk blotter. “At any rate, water under the bridge. I will admit you did do me one favor by leaving.” Her lips curved into a naughty smile. “Now I take my pleasure where and when I like.”

  “Got a steady boyfriend, do you?”

  “Don’t need one. There are plenty of motorized ways for a woman to stay satisfied that don’t involve a man. So, let’s cut to the chase. What do you know about this project?”

  He flipped through a binder. When Billy met her gaze again, his was all business. “The city hired Feather Light Consulting to assess whether this building can be updated with minimal cost. Or—”

  “—whether the city council should sign off on it so they can use the taxpayer’s dollars to build a brand new facility.”

  “Not a
big fan of city government?”

  “No, which is ironic since I am a city employee.” Eden pointed to the folder. “What else does that report say?”

  “The other two companies hired to assess the situation filed conflicting results. The first report suggested bulldozing the property. The second claimed it’d be cheaper to make the required updates.”

  “Feather Light was called in as the tie-breaker?”

  “Yes. Tell me why you’re so adamant about keeping the community center in this location.”

  She paused, trying to stay professional when this was an emotional issue for her on many levels too. “When I was growing up, if I wanted to hang out with other kids, or get advice from adults who didn’t see me as a pest, I could hop on my bike and be at the community center in ten minutes. This place still caters to kids like me, single-parent, mixed-race kids with little money.”

  Billy’s eyes softened. “Is this ‘save the building at all costs’ a personal crusade?”

  “No. This center is crucial to the community and the hundreds of kids who walk through the doors every day. The size of the building and the state-of-the-art exercise equipment won’t matter because few of the kids will be able to get out to the new building on their own.”

  “Meaning what?”

  Eden ticked the points off on her fingertips. “No bus service. Heavy traffic on the highway makes it impossible for kids to ride their bikes with any measure of safety. Too far to walk and few of them drive.”

  “But the proposed site is within the city limits, even if it is on the other end of town,” Billy pointed out. “The city is slated to provide transportation, connection to the bike path and other city services.”

  She shook her head. “Look at the preliminary report again. If the council passes the ordinance, they could take up to ten years to implement final stages of the required zoning. Ten years. The city is already considering doubling the yearly membership fee even before committing to a multimillion-dollar building. We have a mix of income levels here, most families struggle to pay the fees now.”

  “The fees are a non-issue if the building is deemed unsafe.”

  “True. Maybe the building needs a little TLC, but there are dozens of professional contractors volunteering to make it safe.”

  “Why?”

  “Because so many people see it like I do. This is a community center. We fulfill many needs. We have two counselors and a dozen senior citizen volunteers come in to help out with homework or just hang around to feel useful. I predict the number of kids in juvenile detention will increase dramatically, with no other outlet for their physical and emotional frustrations. Of course, the council members believe I’m exaggerating the potential problems.”

  “Are you?”

  “No. But I am frustrated.” Their eyes locked. “I’ll do damn near anything to keep the center right where it is.”

  Billy smiled. “Prove it. Take me on a tour, Eden. I want to see the center through your eyes.”

  Eden’s gaze raked over his clothing. “This isn’t a clean, sterile office environment. People sweat here and get dirty. You aren’t afraid you’ll soil your snappy suit?”

  Billy stood and braced his hands on her desk. “I have no problem getting down and dirty. Do you?”

  “None whatsoever.”

  “Good. Then let’s do it.”

  Chapter Two

  Two hours later, Eden peeled the damp silk shirt away from her overheated skin. She’d ended Billy’s tour in the basement boiler room. Pipes hissed and clattered, then quieted down to the occasional rattle and wheeze.

  Billy inspected every square foot of the building. He’d asked question after question, until his low, sexy voice echoed in her ears and throbbed through her bloodstream. His cool efficiency rekindled memories she’d tried to bury years ago.

  Eden might’ve been innocent in understanding the needs and desires that fuelled an adult physical relationship, but she and Billy had clicked on an emotional level. They’d dealt with deeper issues than where to spend Saturday night. His: the lingering effects of his father’s death and his need to finish college. Hers: dealing with her drunken mother, and trying to finish high school while working nearly full-time.

  In truth, it’d hurt Eden far worse when he’d run out of her life without explanation, than when he’d raced out of the motel room and refused to take her virginity. She’d counted on Billy’s stability, his support, his friendship.

  Eden’s gaze wandered to him as he dutifully made notes. His blond hair was tousled, his funky lime-green tie askew. The smart and sexy aspects of his persona hadn’t changed. But he’d honed his youthful intensity to a precise edge. She wondered if he still kissed with the same fire. Did he make love with an engineer’s attention to detail and single-minded absorption in the process?

  What she wouldn’t give for another chance to have those energies directed at her.

  Before Eden considered the implications, almost as if he’d read her mind, she became his sole focus.

  “Eden?” he murmured next to her ear, sending a delicious tingle down her spine. “You spaced out for a second. Where’d you go?”

  A naked trip down memory lane. “Nowhere special. Why?”

  He drew a fingertip down her sweat-dampened arm. “Really? Seemed special to me. Your eyes turned liquid and soft. You licked your lips.” His rapid exhalations teased the nape of her neck. “What were you tasting in your daydreams?”

  You. Your lips, your mouth, your skin. She stepped back and faced him, balling her hands into fists.

  His gaze dropped to her breasts and the nipples poking against her translucent blouse.

  Heat suffused her face. “It is hot in here.”

  “I’ll say.” Billy zeroed in on the bead of sweat dripping from her temple, wiping it away with a measured sweep of his thumb.

  The simple touch heightened her responsiveness and again she retreated. “Have you seen enough?”

  “No.” Billy started toward her, an animal stalking prey.

  Eden backed up until her shoulders met a low-hanging section of ductwork. “What else?”

  “I have two questions.” His Italian loafers bumped her sensible black pumps. They stood knee-to-knee, hip-to-hip and chest-to-chest, face-to-face, practically breathing the same air.

  Could he hear the rapid beat of her heart? Sense the fervor thickening her blood? “Ask away.”

  “Does this old heating system keep the entire building adequately warm?”

  “Yes.”

  “Are you seeing anyone?”

  “Not really.”

  “Good.” His notebook crashed to the floor. He slanted his mouth over hers and kissed her.

  At the warm insistence of his lips, the smooth glide of his tongue, Eden gave up both the internal and external fight. She might’ve leapt over the professional line, but she wanted him. The hard press of his zipper against her belly showed her how badly he wanted her too.

  For several glorious minutes, she reacquainted herself with Billy’s exhilarating taste; his masculine flavor flowed into her mouth and her memories. His harsh breathing, her throaty moans of pleasure and the rasp of clothing were the only sounds in the humid space.

  The ravenous kiss slowed. Billy murmured against her damp skin, trailing kisses down her neck to the swell of her breasts.

  His fingertips swept her hair from her face, drifting down her jawline to stroke the pulse beating in her throat. He traced her collarbones to the V of her shirt, testing the weight of her breasts in his large hands; his thumbs strayed to the silk-covered nipples.

  Once again heat exploded between them. Billy crushed her against the ductwork so completely she felt every twitch of his cock on her belly, every hard muscle of his body.

  The clatter of pipes startled them into breaking the kiss.

  Billy backed off, but his passion-darkened eyes never left hers. They stared at one another. He tenderly brushed a curl from her forehead, letting his palm linger
near her temple. “Don’t look for an apology. I’ve been wanting to do that for three hours.”

 
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