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AIDEN'S BAYOU

Venturing out alone for a short boat ride on the Louisiana bayou hadn’t seemed like such a bad

idea, not when it meant escaping the pressure her parents were putting on her to marry a man she

didn’t love. But that was before the storm blew in and the motor went out and the boat took on so

much water she’d been forced to row to land where hungry crocodiles were milling around

hoping for a midnight snack. Rescued from certain death by the mysterious Quinten Hawke

seemed like a Godsend…until he informed Aiden she’d have to spend the night in his bed.

Chapter 1

So she wasn’t exactly a virgin. It wasn’t as if she’d robbed a liquor store or committed

some other heinous crime like pawn the family jewels or divulged the fact that her mother had a

tummy tuck and fanny lift last year. Aiden didn’t know too many women her age who were

virgins, but that didn’t mean she was promiscuous or that she engaged in casual sex like a lot of

her friends.

In all her twenty-four years she’d had precisely two lovers, although she couldn’t really

consider Giovanni Augostino a lover since they’d only spent one night together. And what

would her parents have to say about that little liaison, she’d like to know. Or maybe she

wouldn’t, Aiden grimaced inwardly.

She’d been a starry-eyed teenager when Giovanni seduced her into sleeping with him, her

young heart as innocent about love as it was about men. At seventeen, Aiden still hadn’t quite

shed what her sainted mother referred to as her adolescent chubbiness, so she was surprised and

extremely flattered by Giovanni’s sudden interest in her. Eight years her senior, he seemed so

suave and worldly compared to the boys she knew from school, not to mention incredibly

handsome.

With that same dark, Italian mystique that followed her own father around, Giovanni

could have had any woman he wanted. What a naïve little fool she’d been to believe he’d

actually chosen her because he desire her as a woman and not just as a way to ingratiate himself

to her parents. For an entire summer he’d followed her around under the pretext of keeping her

safe from the non-existent hoards of horny teenage boys who were dying to take advantage of

Demetrio Lucisano’s only daughter.

She didn’t realize until it was too late that the position he really craved was Head of

Security for her father’s corporation, Lucisano Trading. Aiden could laugh about it now, but

she’d been utterly crushed when she first realized Giovanni had only been using her. His

seduction had been subtle; a touch here, a compliment there, and eventually a stolen kiss or two.

She was sweet and pretty, he’d told her, so unlike the powered and perfumed women that usually

tried to worm their way into his bed.

That’s when she’d first become aware of herself as a woman and had taken a good, hard

look at the way she’d neglected her appearance. Giovanni had encouraged her to ride her horse

more often and spend time doing laps in the pool to help melt the pounds away. But it was the

long walks through the winding trails surrounding the Lucisano estates that she enjoyed the

most, especially once he’d started holding her hand whenever they went and even more so after

he’d taken it a step further and introduced her to the thrill of making out.

What a glorious summer that had been. She’d fallen madly in love with Giovanni and

had even learned to like herself. Under his tender administrations, the shy wallflower

disappeared and its place a wild rose had grown. She’d trimmed down and gotten her hair cut

into something stylish and easy to manage, and learned what a difference just a little bit of

mascara and lipstick could make. Giovanni had complimented her endlessly and their trysts in

the woods began to stretch out longer and became decidedly more arduous as the summer

dragged on.

Her parents were delighted that Giovanni seemed capable of keeping their daughter out

of trouble, especially since their friends were recounting tales of horror about their own

children. Rebellion seemed to be the number one complaint followed by the use of alcohol and

discovering their once prim and proper daughters were engaging in sexual activity before they’d

even graduated from their teens.

She'd thrived on the sudden praise she was receiving from her mother who had always

been so cold and distant in the past. Even her father occasionally set aside his newspaper or

stopped talking business long enough to tell her how pretty she’d grown and that he was proud of

her for conducting herself like a lady.

Aiden let out a snort that would have earned a frown from her mother. She certainly

hadn’t been very ladylike when her legs had been wrapped around Giovanni’s thighs, or when

she’d begged him for more, more, more with each heavy thrust. He’d taken her three times that

night and had sneaked out of her room early the next morning after professing his undying love

for her.

His timing was perfect, of course, because it was that very morning that Demetrio had sat

at the breakfast table and shocked Aiden by asking her opinion; something he’d never done

before.

“I will be replacing Esteban at the end of this year,” he said to no one in particular as he

buttered his toast.

Christof, the oldest of her four brothers, was the first to comment. “Esteban has been

Head of Security since before any of us was born, why would you want to replace him?”

“It was not my choice. He has decided to go into business with his brother and will be

relocating to New York. He has given me a six month notice and generously agreed to train the

man I select as his replacement.”

“Selecting someone as good as Esteban could take months,” the youngest of her brothers

replied.

“Under normal circumstances I would agree with you, Vincente, but he has already given

me a recommendation that I am seriously considering.”

Enzio and Gastone, who had remained silent until then, were suddenly very attentive.

Aiden knew what they were thinking and fervently prayed their father hadn’t decided to press

one of them into the position because neither of them had any desire to quit college or to become

a lackey in Demetrio Lucisano’s corporation. For once, she was glad she was a female and

wouldn’t be forced to make a career move that suited her father rather than herself.

“Is it anyone we know?” Enzio fished.

“Actually,” Demetrio continued, “it is the young man who has been watching over your

sister.”

Aiden’s eyes widened. “Giovanni?”

“He seems very competent and if Esteban thinks highly enough of Giovanni to

recommend him for the position, it would be wise of me to follow that recommendation, don’t

you think?”

“Yes,” she’d readily agreed.

“You think I should offer him the position then?”

Aiden glanced at her brothers who looked just as shocked as she was that their father was

seeking her opinion. Demetrio Lucisano deferred to no one for his decisions and though he

listened to his sons when they offered their advice, he never asked for it. She turned back to her

father, feeling extremely grown up and important even if it was for only one miniscule moment.

“Giovanni would be a wonderful replacement, father. He’s very devoted to his job and I

know he’d consider it an honor to be elevated to such a high position in your company.”

“I imagine an ambitious young man like Giovanni would have risen to the top in time

anyway,” Demetrio said. “It must have been very difficult for him, wasting his skills by

following a teenage girl around all summer when he was meant for much greater things.”

“He’s never complained,” Aiden replied stiffly.

“And that, my darling daughter, is precisely why I am going to offer him the job. He did

as he was asked without question or complaint and that is exactly the type of man I want working

for me.”

“How…how soon would he leave here?”

Demetrio polished off his coffee and stood up. “I see no reason to delay his training. Be

a good girl, Aiden, and go find him for me so I can speak to him in private.”

Aiden had been in tears by the time she reached the stables where Giovanni had told her

he’d be waiting. He must have thought she was upset about losing her virginity to him because

he’d gathered her in his arms and assured her there was nothing wrong with two people sleeping

together when they cared for each other as they did. Then he’d wiped away her tears and kissed

her until she’d nearly forgotten what had brought her there in the first place.

Even after she’d told Giovanni that her father wanted to see him and had allowed him to

coax the reason for the summons out of her, she hadn’t suspected that had been his game plan all

along. He hadn’t looked surprised, he’d looked triumphant but Aiden was too upset about his

leaving to wonder why that was.

“I’ll never see you,” she said tearfully. “You’ll be as consumed by your job as Esteban is

and won’t have any time for me.”

“You are behaving like a child,” Giovanni chastised. “Of course I will need to focus on

taking over for Esteban but that does not mean I wish for our affair to end.”

Aiden drew away from him. “Affair? But I thought…”

“I know what you thought,” he cut in sharply. “Perhaps it is time you grew up and

realized that love and sex are two very different things. Last night was one of most satisfying

sexual encounters I have ever experienced; do not spoil it by demanding more than I can give

right now.”

“You said you loved me,” she choked out. “You said…”

“Aiden, I am very fond of you but you are so young and I know how emotional girls of

your age are. It was your first time and I just wanted to make it easier for you to accept the loss

of your virginity without any regrets.”

“So it was just sex to you?”

Giovanni shrugged. “To be brutally honest, yes.”

Pain speared through her and she’d lashed out at him. “When my father hears about what

you’ve done you’ll never work in the security business again, let alone at Lucisano Trading.”

Giovanni gripped her arms, his face a mask of fury. “If you breathe one word of what

happened last night I will swear on my life that you were not a virgin and that you have been

begging me for months to sleep with you. What do you think he will say when I tell him of the

numerous rumors I have heard about how easy you are, that you have slept with at least half a

dozen men?”

Anger overrode the other turbulent emotions churning inside her. “He’d never believe it,

and even if he did he’d demand to know who these men are. What will you do then, Giovanni?”

His laugh was as cold as his heart. “You really are just a child, my sweet Aiden. Money

will buy just about anything, including men who will not only confess to their sins with you but

happily divulge the sordid details. Do not attempt to go head to head with me, quello piccolo, I

have spent too much time and patience these past few months to win your father’s approval only

to lose it over the wounded pride of a little girl.”

That’s when Aiden realized just how badly she’d been used, and the self-confidence

she’d so recently gained was whisked away leaving her feeling cold and empty inside. In a voice

that was devoid of all emotion, she’d told him she would keep quiet about their night together

but on one condition; that he never touch her again. For one fleeting moment, she’d seen

remorse flicker across his face before he’d agreed then left her standing there all alone while he

strode up to the house to reap his rewards.

Giovanni had packed and was gone the next day, for which she was grateful because she

didn’t think she could bear to look at him without falling to pieces. Aiden had done her crying in

private, mostly at night when there was no chance anyone could witness the misery she was

going through. It was another three months before she’d seen him again at some charity ball her

mother was sponsoring but by then she’d felt nothing but contempt for him.

He was on duty of course and couldn’t very well approach her, though it was obvious

he’d wanted to. His eyes had followed her around the room and she’d felt victorious because

during his absence Aiden had matured in more ways than one. That adolescent chubbiness her

mother had belittled her about was gone and she’d developed a shapely figure that turned more

than a few heads when she’d walked into the room.

She’d worn a pale teal colored gown that accentuated her newly acquired feminine curves

and revealed just enough cleavage to be enticing without seeming indecent. The gown also

complimented her auburn hair which had been swept into an elegant French twist, and was

almost a perfect match for the blue-green tint of her eyes. Aiden had glided across the room with

grace and dignity, something she was sure hadn’t escaped Giovanni’s attention because he’d

suddenly lost his ability to focus on anything but her.

She offered a demure smile when she’d gotten close enough for Giovanni to see it was

directed at him. It worked like a charm; just as he took a step forward, Aiden latched onto the

arm of Lance Beaumont, a young man she knew from previous events her mother insisted she

attend. She’d flirted outrageously and was not only successful in igniting a jealous rage in

Giovanni, but also found a cure for her broken heart. Lance had been completely captivated by

her and had swept Aiden off the dance floor and into the gardens where he’d proceeded to kiss

her senseless.

That was the beginning of a rebellious streak that had continued until just a few short

weeks ago when she’d been summoned back to the Lucisano estates by her father. She’d entered

into quite a stormy, albeit secret, affair with Lance that lasted six months before it ended abruptly

after she’d let herself into his apartment one day intending to surprise him. And, oh boy, had she

ever accomplished that one. She’d planned on having dinner ready for him when he came home

and had brought along a black lacy nightie to slip into afterwards.

She’d dropped the grocery back on the kitchen counter and headed down the hall towards

the bedroom to stash the nightie and had gotten the shock of her life when she opened the

bedroom door and found Lance in bed with one of her girlfriends. They were going at it like a

couple of rabbits, doing the big nasty between the silk sheets Aiden had bought him a few weeks

into their relationship. For a moment she’d just watched in stunned fascination as the words

Giovanni told her came floating back; it is time you grew up and realized that love and sex are

two very different things.

Aiden had backed out of the room and shut the door with just enough firmness to let the

cheating rat know that he’d been caught. She practically ran down the hall, angry with herself

for not seeing that Lance hadn’t felt any more for her than Giovanni had. Was it so much to ask

that someone have genuine emotions for her? Or was she expecting too much out of a

relationship? After all, her own parents barely showed any affection towards her so maybe there

was just something about her that made it impossible for anyone to truly love her.

Aiden had made it to the foyer and was just slipping out the front door when she heard

Lance call out her name. She supposed she could have stayed and argued it out with him and

demanded to know why he’d done it, but what would that accomplish except to make her even

more miserable. It wasn’t worth the effort or the heartache so she’d stepped outside without a

word, closing the door behind her.

Looking back on it now, Aiden realized that’s when she’d shut the door on her heart too.

She’d been so young, so naïve, but she was smart enough to figure out that she never wanted to

get burned like that again. Having her heart shredded to pieces once was bad enough, but she’d

foolishly offered it up a second time with the same disastrous results. She’d steered clear of men

ever since and resigned herself to the fact that she simply didn’t have it in her to risk her heart a

third time.

Having made the decision to live her life alone rather than suffer that kind of pain again,

Aiden had to wonder if she’d lost her mind to even consider getting married. Yet here she was,

back in her father’s home and still trying to please her parents by entertaining the idea of

marrying a man she had no feelings for other than a mild attraction. They’d make the perfect

couple, her father assured her, because the successful and wealthy James Champagne was as

serious minded as Aiden was frivolous.

“It’s not that I don’t have the greatest respect for James,” she’d spoken honestly, “it’s just

that I’m not quite sure why he would approach you about marrying me when he could have his

choice of women. And you said yourself that our personalities are in total opposition so how can

you even suggest that we’d complement one another?”

Giselle Lucisano arched an elegant brow at her daughter. “You should be elated that a

man like James is interested in making you his wife. He’s even agreed to let you continue with

your…hobby.”

Aiden instantly bristled. “It’s not a hobby, mother, it’s a career, and I wouldn’t even

consider giving up my business.”

“Aiden, darling,” Giselle drawled, “repairing furniture is not a career and certainly not

something a Lucisano should demean herself by doing.”

“I don’t repair furniture,” she replied heatedly, “I restore antiques and I’m very talented

at it, not that you’d know since you’ve never even stepped foot in my boutique.”

“Call it what you will…”

“Giselle, we are getting off track,” Demetrio gently rebuked her. “The point is that James

has confided in me that he has had his eye on you for a long time, Aiden. Of course I felt

compelled to tell him of this wild streak you seem to have developed late in your teens, but for

some odd reason that only pleased him even more.”

Aiden’s defensive hackles went up. “What wild streak is that, father? Just because I

chose not to work for you in order to pursue a career of my own doesn’t make me a rebellious

child who needs to be reined in.”

“Perhaps I should have used the word independent,” Demetrio said. “Regardless, James

admires that in you and has asked me to broach the subject of marriage. He realizes, of course,

that this would be a marriage of convenience at the beginning but hopes that in time you will

grow to love each other.”

She wondered what her brothers thought about it or whether they’d even been told. They

were fiercely protective of her, each and every one of them, so she highly doubted they’d be

thrilled with the idea that their father was trying to coerce her into a loveless marriage. If it

weren’t for her brothers, Aiden didn’t think she would have been able to endure the lack of

affection from her parents, so she knew she’d have to talk to them before making any final

decisions.

She’d placated her parents by telling them she’d give it serious consideration. Her father

seemed quite pleased that she was taking some time to weigh all the pros and cons while her

mother had left the room in a huff, obviously convinced that her daughter was a fool for not

grabbing at the chance to become Mrs. James Champagne.

Maybe she was a fool, Aiden sighed. James really was a nice a man and he’d treat her

with kindness and respect. She wouldn’t have to worry about getting her heart broken again, and

she’d be able to have the children she’d always dreamed of. Of course she’d have to make sure

he was sincere about letting her keep the boutique because she’d worked too hard to make it the

success that it was. And there would be other things to discuss, like the fact she was never going

to be one of those high society wives that thrived on dining at the Country Club with the rich and

bitchy just so she could show off her latest designer dress or brag about her husband’s massive

wealth.

Oh, what was she doing? Why was she even thinking about getting married when she’d

just established her own identity and had come to terms with the quiet life she led? Because you

miss the intimacy of being with a man. Because as hard as you try, you still long to be held and

kissed and made love to.

But it wouldn’t be like that with James, she reminded herself. She wanted the fire and

passion that Giovanni had first ignited in her and the nights of hot, uninhibited sex she’d had

with Lance, but she also wanted something neither of them had given her; a true and abiding

love.

“Grow up Aiden,” she chastised herself, “this is not a fairytale and you’re definitely not a

beautiful princess.”

Which meant there was no Prince Charming out there searching for her either, she

thought despondently. With a heavy sigh, she curled up on the window seat and watched the

horses prancing around in the pasture, idly killing time until her brothers arrived.

***

Christof was normally a very level headed man, but what his father and mother were

doing to Aiden was archaic. “You can’t let them bully you into this marriage,” he said heatedly.

“I have nothing against James personally, but he’s already confessed that he doesn’t love you so

what does he have to offer that you don’t already have?”

“He could give me children,” Aiden offered meekly.

“Even you don’t sound convinced that this marriage would work,” Enzio accused.

“That’s why I asked all of you here. And no, I’m not entirely convinced a marriage

without love could survive, but there’s every possibility we would grow to love one another

and…and I wouldn’t be alone anymore.”

Gastone went to her then, lightly gripping her shoulders. “You have us, Aiden. If you’re

lonely, all you have to do is pick up the phone and we’ll be here for you.”

“I know that, but it’s not the same.” She pulled away from him and dropped down onto

the window seat, her eyes moving from one brother to the other. “Is it so bad that I want to be

married and have a family of my own?”

“But at what expense?” Christof demanded. “Aiden, you’re a beautiful, intelligent

woman and I don’t doubt that James is sincere about wanting to marry you for just those

reasons. But you have so much love to give and I’d hate for you to marry this man only to

discover he’s not capable of making you happy.”

Vincente, who hadn’t stopped pacing from the moment they’d all gathered in her living

room, turned to her with a worried frown. “At least let us check him out before you make any

decisions. He seems to be a decent guy but none of us run in the same circles he does so it’s

impossible to know for sure what he’s really like.”

Aiden’s lip twitched. “Are you going to question his past lovers personally, Vincente?

Will you ask if he has ever raised his voice or struck out at them in anger? Or will you be

looking into his business affairs to see whether he has amassed his great wealth through hard

work or shady dealings?”

“That is precisely your problem,” Enzio jumped in. “You don’t look before you leap and

end up getting yourself in trouble. This is nothing to be glib about, Aiden. You know how

mother and father feel about marriage. If you go through with this and realize it was a mistake,

there will be no divorce without dire consequences.”

She arched a brow. “By dire, I assume you mean being cut out of father’s will.”

“Or possibly out of his life,” Enzio said. “He’ll take it as a personally failing that he

raised a daughter who couldn’t hold onto her marriage, and rather than endure the shame and

embarrassment of it every time he saw you, he’d disown you completely.”

Aiden waited for her other brothers to tell Enzio he was wrong, that it was ludicrous to

suggest their father would cast her out like yesterday’s trash if she disgraced the honorable

Lucisano name, but it never happened. An uncomfortable silence fell over the room and for a

moment she couldn’t breathe. Did she really mean so little to him?

All her life she’d known her father was disappointed he’d had a daughter instead of

another son, it was obvious by the preferential treatment they received and the way he puffed up

with pride whenever he talked about them. Aiden had accepted that she would never measure up

to her brothers, though it didn’t lessen the sting any. But she never would have believed her

father was capable of dismissing her from his life altogether.

It wouldn’t matter what any of her brothers did, Demetrio Lucisano would never deprive

himself of his sons while a losing a daughter probably wouldn’t even faze him. There was only

one way to get her father to look at her with pride and maybe even forgive her for the sin of

being born female.

Aiden stood up with a determined lift of her chin. “Thank you for putting everything in

perspective for me, it’s made my decision so much easier.”

Christof narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What exactly does that mean, Aiden?”

Her smile was as frosty as her voice. “What it means, big brother, is that I’ve decided to

accept James Champagne’s proposal to become his wife.”

Chapter 2

Aiden eyed her reflection critically and decided there wasn’t much she could do if James

was displeased with her appearance. If her parents had given her some warning that he was

coming for dinner she might have had time to get her hair cut and done something about her nails

but they’d sprung it on her allotted a whopping two hours to make herself presentable.

She’d been so consumed with her budding antique business this past year that she hadn’t

paid much attention to things like keeping her hair styled and it had grown well past the middle

of her back. The untamed curls framing her face made her look like a gypsy but the varying tints

of red shimmered like fire and brought out the green in her eyes so she left it down. Besides, she

thought with a mutinous smirk, her mother would hate that she hadn’t swept it up into something

a little more chic and that was reason enough to wear it loose.

She’d had no choice on which dress to wear though, her mother made sure of that by

having one of the maids lay it out on her bed while she’d been in the shower. A small but

irritating way of controlling Aiden because she preferred shorts or slacks over dresses, but in this

particular instance she couldn’t find fault with her mother’s taste.

When she’d lived at home, her closet had been filled with frilly feminine things that had

magically appeared and more often than not went untouched until they were taken away and

replaced with similar items. Apparently, Giselle Lucisano had finally figured out her daughter

was never going to conform to the life of a socialite because the dress Aiden had on was simple

but elegant and didn’t have an ounce of lace on it.

She descended the stairs slowly, not because she was nervous exactly but because she

wasn’t quite ready to jump into what amounted to a blind date. She’d met James before of

course, and she’d even carried on her share of idle conversations with him but she didn’t really

know him. What was she supposed to talk to him about? How was she supposed to act? Did he

expect her to be flattered by his proposal? Honored? A little bit timid? Why, why, why had she

agreed to do this?

Because you don’t think things through just like Enzio said, she chided herself. And

wasn’t that the God awful truth? She hadn’t even considered the idea that Giovanni could be

using her to gain a better position in her father’s company, and she’d certainly never spared a

single thought about jumping right into a relationship with Lance. If she had, she might have

found out that he had a reputation for cheating on his women and that he never had less than two

or three rotating in and out of his bed at one time. It made her stomach turn to think she’d been

sleeping with him at night after he’d already bagged some other woman in the same bed earlier

that day.

At least she hadn’t made a total commitment to this marriage yet, though her mother was

going to go ballistic if she didn’t go through with it. But she couldn’t think about that right now,

it would drive her crazy if she did. She found them out by the pool, enjoying the tail end of a

breezy summer day but instead of joining them right away, she stood back and watched them.

Her mother was all poise and grace, looking positively elegant in a white lacy dress that

conformed to her slim figure flawlessly, and her father was as handsome and forbidding as ever

though he was dressed in khaki slacks and a simple white short sleeved shirt. They made quite a

striking pair; Giselle with her French heritage and Demetrio looking every bit the ruthless Italian

tycoon that he was.

James seemed perfectly relaxed with both of them, a feat she had to applaud him for

because her parents had to be putting him through the wringer. Whether either of them truly

loved her or not didn’t matter, she was a Lucisano and they wouldn’t allow her to marry a man

who hadn’t been thoroughly checked out before accepting him into the family. She studied his

face as he talked and thought he was even better looking than she remembered, especially when

he smiled. James had a nice smile, one that he turned on her when he happened to glance over

and see her standing in the doorway.

He rose immediately and came to her, taking both her hands as he pressed a soft kiss to

her cheek. “Aiden, you’re as beautiful as ever,” he said with a husk in his voice.

“Thank you,” she mumbled.

“Lunch won’t be ready for another twenty minutes. I thought maybe you and I could

take a stroll in the gardens together while we wait.”

She smiled gratefully, happy to stall the barbs her mother was sure to throw at her for

wearing her hair down. He looped one arm loosely around her waist and told her parents they’d

be back shortly then propelled her down the garden path until they were no longer visible from

the house. They stopped beside a bench, but instead of asking her to sit with him, James gently

pulled her into his arms.

“I want to ask you something, Aiden.”

Her stomach did a complete somersault and lodged itself in her throat. Oh God, he was

actually going to propose right here, right now? She thought they’d have time to talk first, to get

to know one another a little better, discuss the future and what they were both looking for in a

partner. He must have seen the panic stricken look on her face before she could mask it because

his own expression softened.

“I know this may seem a little awkward at first but I promise to take it as slow as you

need me to so we have time to get to know one another better. If it’s too soon to ask for a kiss,

I’ll understand.”

“A…kiss?”

“I’ve wanted to kiss you for a very long time, Aiden, but if you’re not ready…”

“No, I…I mean, yes…that would be nice,” she finished lamely.

A kiss she could handle, she thought as he drew her closer and lowered his mouth to

hers. As kisses went, it was pleasant enough but she was a little disappointed by the serious lack

of chemistry. Not that she’d expected there to be fire and passion but she would have thought a

man who’d supposedly had his eye on her for quite some time would be bit more amorous. Still,

she could hardly fault him for being gentle with her, though it did make her hesitant to offer

more than a timid response.

“My sweet Aiden,” he sighed, pressing his cheek to hers. “When Demetrio warned me

that you had no experience with men, I have to admit I had my doubts. After all, you’re a

beautiful, desirable young woman, but it’s obvious by your shy little kisses that you really are as

innocent as he claimed.”

Aiden drew her head back. Guilt speared through her when she looked into his adoring

eyes because it was evident the poor man was completely besotted with the idea of taking a

virgin for his bride. She should have said something but how exactly did you confess to

something like that? Um, James, my father may have overstated that virginal thing? It was

embarrassing to say the least and she could feel the heat in her cheeks burning hotter the longer

he gazed at her. It was her misfortune that James took that as yet another sign of her

inexperience with men.

“You’re blushing,” he said with smile. “Don’t worry, my darling, I promise not to ask

for anything more intimate than kissing until our wedding night.”

The air was sucked from her lungs when she realized he’d taken that one simple kiss and

construed it as acquiesce to his marriage proposal. How could she tell him that she’d felt nothing

at all when he’d kissed her or that the mention of their wedding night filled her with dread

because she didn’t love him and didn’t think she ever could, no matter how kind he was. And

James was a kind man; she could tell by the careful way he held her, as if she was a delicate

flower that could easily be crushed by his strong arms.

“James, I…I think there’s something you need to know about me.”

“It’s okay, Demetrio told me all about it.” He smiled warmly. “He was afraid that telling

me about your struggle for independence might make me change my mind but it did just the

opposite.”

“You don’t understand…”

“I do understand, Aiden, and I admire your fighting spirit. When he told me how you’d

defied him and enrolled in college for business courses instead of coming to work for him, I was

pleasantly surprised. And then when I learned you’d actually started up your own business and

were doing quite well at it, that just made even more determined to marry you.”

“It really doesn’t bother you that I run my own business?”

“Not at all. Aiden, you’re perfect for me. You knew what you wanted and had the

courage to stand up to Demetrio to get it in spite of your docile nature.”

Docile? Dear God, what had her parents told James to make him believe that? Just

because she chose not to challenge her father every time she disagreed with him didn’t mean she

was a puppet on a string. At any rate, the only reason he’d given in and let her pursue her own

career was because he had four strong sons to help run his business. What asset could a daughter

possibly be to the great Lucisano Empire?

“My own business consumes a lot of my time,” James continued. “Of course I’ll want

you to be there when I get home and to be at my side when there are social functions, but I don’t

expect you to sit around the house waiting for me. Having something to occupy your time,

something that fulfills you and makes you happy will be good for both of us.”

Aiden’s eyes moved over his face. Thick brown hair, sky blue eyes, strong chin,

sensitive lips. He really was a very handsome man. Good looking, kind hearted, wealthy; James

Champagne was every woman’s fantasy. So why wasn’t she attracted to him? Why did she still

think that marrying him would be the biggest mistake of her life? He could give her everything

she’d ever wanted; love, security, a home that wasn’t ruled by a hard-headed, unyielding man,

and eventually James would give her children.

A serene, uncomplicated life, that’s what he was offering her, and for years Aiden truly

believed that’s what she wanted. But now that it was within her grasp, she was afraid to hang

onto it, afraid that she’d never again feel completely alive if she settled into a marriage where

there was no passion. She couldn’t do that to herself and she couldn’t do it to James. He

deserved better than that.

Aiden reached up and touched his cheek. “James, I…”

“I’ll be a good husband,” he promised. “You’ll never want for anything, Aiden.”

The diplomatic protest she was about to launch died on her lips when James drew her

closer and kissed her again. She felt like a horrible, heartless person for even considering hurting

this wonderful man, but wouldn’t it be more hurtful to marry him when she knew she couldn’t

make him happy? She had every intention of telling him the second James stopped kissing her,

she really did. There were only two things that prevented her from doing it.

The first thing was the incredible warmth she saw in his eyes when he drew his head

back. She’d experienced rejection up close and personal and didn’t know if she had the heart to

do that to him, not when he was looking at her like she was the sun and the stars and everything

in between. Even then she might have had a fairly good chance of braving it out and telling him

if the second thing hadn’t happened. Aiden groaned inwardly when the soft rustle of material

warned her someone else had strolled up the garden path and seen them kissing.

“Well,” Giselle Lucisano beamed at them, “it looks like I have a wedding to plan.”

***

She’d had some awkward moments in her life but this one took the cake. Aiden turned

ten shades of red and was actually grateful that for once she’d been rendered speechless because

James handled it so much better than she could have hoped to. He seemed to understand that

Giselle thought nothing of railroading over her daughter’s feelings, dismissing them as

inconsequential because Aiden couldn’t possibly run her own life as well as her mother could.

Tightening his arms wound around Aiden’s waist, he gently but firmly told her mother

they weren’t ready to make any plans at the moment beyond getting to know each other better.

Giselle looked at Aiden as if it was somehow her fault James didn’t jump at the chance to let her

take over, but he was quick to come to her defense.

“Marriage is a big step,” he smiled down at Aiden. “I think it’s important that we learn

more about one another before making that kind of a commitment. I’ve asked Aiden if she

wouldn’t mind taking it slow and she’s generously agreed.”

Giselle smiled but couldn’t refrain from taking at least one small jab at Aiden in the guise

of a compliment. “I’m delighted to see you making such a mature decision, Aiden, especially

since you’re so prone to acting before thinking.”

“She’s young,” James said, once again turning a warm smile to Aiden, “and I admire

someone who chooses to follow her heart rather than always doing what is expected of her. It’s

a form of courage that not all of us have, don’t you think Giselle?”

Aiden could almost feel the air turn brittle when her mother was more or less forced to

agree. Protocol demanded it, and Giselle Lucisano was extremely rigid when it came to the rules

of etiquette. One simply did not contradict a guest, especially not when that guest was the man

who would take Giselle’s disappointment of a daughter away so she could focus on her sons.

After informing them lunch would be served in ten minutes, Giselle hastily retreated so there was

no chance they would offer to walk back with her.

“You’ve made her angry,” Aiden sighed.

“She made me angry.”

She couldn’t help but laugh. “You don’t look it. As a matter of fact, it probably upset

her more because she thinks she hasn’t ruffled you in the least.”

“Good,” he said with a grin, “then you and I can secretly gloat over it all through lunch.”

Aiden laughed again. “I’m beginning to like you very much, James Champagne.”

“The feeling is mutual, Aiden Lucisano. Would you care to join me for lunch now?”

“I’d be delighted,” she mocked her mother’s regal manner, which set them both to

laughing.

Maybe it was because Aiden had her arm looped through his or because they were still

sharing the light hearted mood when they returned to the table that made Giselle greet them with

a genuine smile. She seemed so pleased that she hadn’t driven James off with her derisive

remarks about her daughter that she actually managed to make it through the entire meal without

any more disparaging comments. By the time Aiden walked James to his car, she was almost

convinced her parents were proud of her.

“I’ve decided you’re my knight in shining armor,” she told him when they got to his car.

“Who’s come to save you from the fire-breathing dragon?”

“And the tyrannical ogre,” she grinned.

James tucked a stray curl behind her ear, his expression sobering. “It really has been

somewhat of a prison for you here, hasn’t it?”

“I sound like a spoiled little rich girl, I know. It’s awful of me to complain when I was

raised in such grandeur and been afforded every conceivable luxury a person could dream of.”

“Love isn’t a luxury,” he said softly, “it’s an essential need that your parents have

deprived you of, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.”

Aiden shrugged. “I was born female. As such, I’m incapable of carrying on the great

Lucisano name and therefore serve no real purpose.”

James studied her face for a moment. “Is that why you agreed to marry me, so you could

escape this place?”

She didn’t remind him that she hadn’t actually accepted his proposal. “I don’t live here

anymore, but I suppose you could consider it a form of escape.”

“From the loneliness?”

Aiden nodded. “I’m sorry, James. You must think I’m a horrible person.”

“No, my poor darling, I don’t think that at all.” He gathered her in his arms and just held

her for a moment. When he finally spoke, his voice was filled with tenderness. “I could give

you the love you long for Aiden…if you’d only let me.”

She pressed her cheek more firmly against his chest, blinking back the unexpected

misting of tears. It would be so easy to say yes, to let him fall in love with her and carry her off

into the sunset, but she was still so uncertain about her own feelings. Oh why was she being so

feeble minded when she knew in her heart that James was sincere and would do everything in his

power to make her happy?

“I don’t know what to say,” she managed to choke out.

“You don’t have to say anything right now. Aiden, I meant it when I told your mother

we’d take it slow. All I’m asking is that you give me a chance, can you do that?”

She tipped her head back and offered him a tremulous smile. “I’m an emotional train

wreck, are you sure you want to get involved with me?”

James leaned down and brushed a soft kiss to her lips. “I’m sure.”

“You’re a very nice man, James. I hope I don’t disappoint you.”

“You couldn’t if you tried. Do you mind if I drop by after work tomorrow? We could

take a walk or go for a drive, whatever you want.”

“A drive would be nice.” Any place as long it was away from here.

“It’s a date then.”

He hesitated for a moment and Aiden knew it was because he wanted to kiss her again

but was afraid he was pushing too hard. Dear, sweet James, how could she deny him such a

small thing? She slipped her arms around his neck and was rewarded with a smile that would

have melted her heart if she’d felt anything more than warm affection for him. The kiss was

slow and tender, just as she’d expected it to be, but it was nice and she was glad that she’d done

it because he’d driven away sporting an even broader smile than before.

Aiden took her time going back into the house, hoping that by now her mother would be

in her sitting room and her father safely sequestered in his study. The lunch had gone well and

she didn’t want anything to ruin it. She wasn’t in the mood to be chastised for stalling the

wedding or answer the probing questions her mother was sure to hit her with. She’d nearly made

it to the grand staircase leading up to her bedroom when Giselle’s voice sounded from behind

her. Damn.

“I’d like to speak to you for a moment,” Giselle said, then disappeared back into her

sitting room.

Aiden gritted her teeth and did an about face. She should have raced through the front

door and up to her room but it was too late now so she might as well suck it up and get it over

with. Giselle was poised gracefully on the elegant sofa and though Aiden knew she was

expected to take a seat next to her mother, she purposely planted herself in the chair opposite the

sofa.

Giselle arched one perfectly shaped brow. “Why do you insist on being such a difficult

child, Aiden?”

“I’m not a child, mother, and I wasn’t aware that I was being difficult.”

“Shall we begin with your hair?”

“What’s wrong with my hair?”

“You know very well what’s wrong with it. I’m surprised James didn’t ask for a copy of

your birth certificate to prove he wasn’t marrying a teenager. He’s almost ten years older than

you are and though he doesn’t seem to mind the age difference, I’m sure he doesn’t want people

thinking he’s yanked you out of high school. You might want to consider wearing a little make-

up too.”

“But mother,” she said with wide-eyed innocence, “I thought you wanted me to look the

part.”

“And what part would that be?” Giselle asked icily.

“Why, the sweet, young virgin just ripe for the picking.”

“Don’t be so crude, Aiden. James is not out to corrupt your innocence. He has very high

moral standards and expects the same from the woman he intends to marry, but the fact that you

haven’t been with another man is only going to go so far if you talk like that in front of him.”

Shame washed over her in waves. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to infer James was anything

but honorable.”

Giselle seemed surprised by the sincerity of Aiden’s apology. “Good…I’m glad you

recognize that. I hope this means you’ve come to your senses about putting off the wedding.

Trust me, a man like James doesn’t come along often and I’d hate for you to delay it so long he

loses interest.”

Aiden’s hackles went up. “James is perfectly content to take it slow, but if it makes you

feel better he’s going to come by tomorrow evening and take me for a drive.”

“Your suggestion no doubt,” Giselle said dryly. “Honestly Aiden, couldn’t you at least

invite him to dinner like an adult instead of asking him to drive around with no particular

destination in mind? He’s not going to cater to these adolescent whims of yours forever, it will

bore him to tears and then where will you be?”

Stuck here with you nagging me for all eternity, Aiden thought morosely. “You’re right

of course,” she sighed. “I’ll ask him to dinner.”

“I’m glad we have that settled. Oh, there is one more thing,” Giselle said just as Aiden

was heading toward the door. “I’ve set a hair appointment for you tomorrow morning at ten.

And for God’s sake don’t be late; you know how temperamental Andre is.”

Aiden managed to close the door quietly behind her in spite of the fact she was seething.

She started for the stairs then changed directions and stomped outside instead, not quite sure

where she was going but damn sure she wasn’t going to stick around for anymore lectures.

She’d been sorely tempted to announce she had no intention of ever marrying James just

so she could enjoy the melt down that would undoubtedly ensue but she was afraid her mother

would call him the first chance she got and repeat every word she’d said. Even if she wasn’t sure

whether she could go through with it or not, she’d promised to give him a chance and couldn’t

bear the thought of seeing James hurt at the hands of her spiteful mother.

Aiden stopped short when she found herself standing on the dock. It had been a long

time since she’d braved taking out a boat on her own, mostly because her dear mother had put

the fear of God in her about being eaten alive by a crocodile or drowning in the swamplands of

the bayou. She gnawed at her bottom lip, eyeing all the boats at her disposal.

The airboats were used by the staff because it was faster than driving into town whenever

one of her parents required something that couldn’t wait for the weekly run for supplies. They

were perfectly safe she knew, but because the seat was so high she always felt a little uneasy

about riding in one.

Her eyes migrated to a shiny new Swamp Ghost. It was a one man watercraft that was a

cross between a boat and canoe and was made mostly out of aluminum so it only weighed about

a

hundred pounds. Tipping in it was nearly impossible but what she liked most about it was that

it

had an electric engine which meant it was steered by using pedal controls. More importantly,

the engine was quiet enough it couldn’t be heard from the house.

She could take a nice troll through the swamp for an hour or so and they’d never even

know. And if they did happen to miss her, she’d simply say she’d gone for a walk in the woods.

It was perfectly safe, Aiden told herself as she stepped into the boat and untied the rope. Using

the oar, she paddled out a little ways before starting up the motor.

As the wind whipped through her hair, she forgot all about her parents and the path they

were trying to push her down. She didn’t think about the dangers of the swamp or what could

happen if the boat capsized or the fact no one even knew she’d gone out on her own. The only

thing on Aiden’s mind was how good the warmth of the sun felt on her face and the incredible

sense of freedom that filled her heart the farther away she got from the Lucisano Estates.

Chapter 3

The first droplets of rain water barely roused Aiden from the blissful little nap she’d been

taking. She’d started feeling a little sluggish, partially because of the lunch she’d eaten and

partially because of the humidity, so she’d stretched out on the bottom of the boat with the seat

cushion propped under head and just let the boat drift.

She’d only meant to close her eyes for a few minutes but the peace and quiet combined

with the warmth of the sun had knocked her out. Still feeling groggy, she opened her mouth and

let a few raindrops fall on her tongue before it dawned on her there was no longer any light

filtering through her eyelids.

Aiden sat up abruptly then let out a startled yelp when the boat wobbled from side to

side. Moss draped cypress trees lined both sides of the swamp and the eerie silence sent a shiver

racing up her spine. Her stomach cramped as fear began to curl in a tight ball, not only because

it was so dark she could barely see her hand in front of her face but because Aiden had

absolutely no idea where she was. She couldn’t even be sure how long she’d been asleep

because the dark skies could very well have been the result of the thunderstorm that was brewing

rather than because nighttime had fallen.

Thank God the boat had running lights, Aiden thought as she started up the motor then

nearly burst into tears when she realized the rain was beginning to come down harder and all but

obscured her view. Still, it was better than being surrounded by complete darkness; if you could

discount the fact the lights reflected off the eyes of the swamp’s inhabitants, that is. Namely,

alligators.

Inanely, she recalled her science teacher explaining that their eyes reflect orange at night

due to the pigment color in their rod retinas. Most of them seemed to be sticking close to the

land, probably so they could catch other unsuspecting swamp critters when they came down for a

drink, but that did little to comfort her at the moment.

The temperature was dropping fast and the rain was coming down in sheets, chilling her

to the bone. She was soaked clean through but the summer dress and sandals would have

afforded very little protection anyway. At any rate, dying of hypothermia at this point was

preferable to becoming a midnight snack for a crocodile and that’s exactly what was going to

happen if the rain didn’t let up because the bottom of the boat had already collected a good half

inch of water. When exactly she’d started to cry, Aiden wasn’t sure, but the warmth of her tears

assured her that she was indeed crying.

She kept the boat as close to the middle as possible but even then she had to veer off

occasionally to avoid bouncing over a crocodile. The size of the boat made it easy to negotiate

the twists and turns, she just wished she knew for certain she was heading out of the swamp

instead getting in even deeper. She’d been gliding through the murky water for what seemed

like hours and still nothing looked familiar, but who could really tell when the down pouring rain

made it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of her?

It crossed her mind that the smartest thing to do was to stay in one place and hope

someone came looking for her, but the thought of remaining in one spot while the water in the

bottom of the boat got deeper and deeper was enough keep her moving. Oh God, she didn’t want

to die like this!

Aiden mentally shook herself. It wouldn’t do any good to lose her head now. She

needed to remain calm until such time panic was unavoidable. Like when the water in the boat

reached a critical level, or when her feet were so cold she couldn’t operate the pedal, or when the

damn crocs began to sense her fear and moved in for the kill, or when…

“No, no, no,” Aiden howled when the engine suddenly died along with the lights,

immersing her in darkness once more.

Splashes from both sides of the banks alerted her to the fact she’d stirred some interest in

the alligators. She clamped her hand over her mouth to keep herself from screaming as her eyes

darted back and forth in an attempt to discern if they were getting close to boat. A clap of

thunder followed by a bolt of lightning squashed any hope she had that they’d gone back to

patrolling the banks. A muffled cry filtered through her fingers when the boat was nudged from

the right and then from the left, turning the boat so it was facing the land.

Aiden blinked, rubbed at her eyes then blinked again. A light! It was difficult to see

exactly where it was coming from or even how far away it was, but this deep in the swamp it had

to be the lights from a house. Feeling around the bottom of the boat, she fished out the oar and

started rowing towards land. Her fingers were numb and the stiff muscles in her arms screamed

in protest as she alternately paddled on one side and then the other to keep the boat moving in a

straight line.

She tried to ignore the feeling that she was being stalked and focused on the beacon of

light that was now her only hope for survival. The storm was only getting worse and she had

nothing to dip the water out of the boat even if she’d had the strength to do it. What little energy

she had left was being expending just rowing the boat but it was dwindling fast and it was only

sheer determination that kept her going. Aiden had never been so cold or so scared in her life

and she’d have given just about anything at moment to be sitting next to her mother being

lectured on what abominable offense she’d committed this time.

Aiden was so intent on keeping her eyes fixed on the light that she wasn’t even aware the

boat had actually hit land until she’d made several swipes through the water with the oar and

realized she wasn’t getting anywhere. Using the oar as a brace, she pushed herself up on wobbly

legs and made her way to the bow of the boat. Leaning over the side, she jabbed at the ground

with the oar to make sure it was solid then let out a shriek of terror when the oar was snatched

away by a pair of powerful jaws.

Aiden instinctively jumped back but lost her footing in the ankle deep water at the bottom

of the boat and landed on her rear end. She grabbed at the sides of the boat but the momentum of

the fall combined with the slippery surface beneath her threw Aiden backwards. There was a

sharp crack when the back of her head hit the aluminum seat followed by an explosion of stars

behind her eyes.

For several minutes, she was too stunned to do anything but lay there while the rain

mercilessly stabbed at her with icy fingers that seemed intent on finding every inch of exposed

flesh. It hammered away at her until her skin was raw, the stinging pain of it giving Aiden the

incentive she needed to force herself to sit up.

Her stomach lurched when she gingerly touched the knot on the back of her head and felt

the warmth of fresh blood against her icy fingertips. The sudden stir of activity all around the

boat told her the gators had smelled it and were trying to figure out where it was coming from.

Slowly, she lowered herself back down so they wouldn’t see her and come lunging over the side

of the boat. Her heart was pounding furiously in her chest, her breathing shallow and labored as

panic began to overwhelm her.

Think. Think or you’ll never make it out of here alive.

Aiden closed her eyes and tried to remember what she knew about alligators. Normally

they were ambush predators but the smell of blood had them all worked up. She could feel them

bumping against the sides of the boat but so far they hadn’t figured out it wasn’t some protective

armor and that the juicy entre was completely vulnerable just inches away.

If she leapt from the boat and made a run for it, there was a good chance she’d catch them

by surprise and be able to avoid the snapping jaws of the ones milling the closest. But in the

dark, how would she know if she was heading towards a whole slew of them lurking beyond the

more ardent hunters?

The light would guide her away from the bank, but it wouldn’t do any good if she

couldn’t see well enough to get past the hungry crocs. Aiden lifted her head, fighting the nausea

first then forcing back the groan of pain that speared through her. A small whimper escaped her

lips when something bounced against her cheek and started to float away. She reached out for it,

her nearly useless fingers curling around the small waterproof bag and dragging it up onto her

chest. Somehow she managed to peel the airtight seal off and pull out the contents.

Aiden clutched the small flashlight in her hands, murmuring a heartfelt thanks to God

before feeling inside for anything else that might be useful. The small bottle of water was

quickly discarded but she tucked an army knife she found down the front of her dress and inside

her bra where it nestled between her breasts. It would be of little help since she didn’t think she

could pry one of the blades out even if she wanted to and it was hardly an effective weapon

against a crocodile, but she might need it later to fend off other swamp creatures.

There was a small plastic box that rattled when she shook it; matches she assumed and

tucked them beside the army knife. A cylinder shaped tube she surmised was a signal flare was

too large to fit inside her bra but Aiden decided it wouldn’t be coming with her anyway. If she

was going to get around those evil beasts she’d need something to distract them with and the

flare was the only thing that would work. Maybe. If she could set the flare off. If the torrential

downpour didn’t put it out as soon as it hit the ground. If the gators followed the bouncing light

instead of the scent of blood.

Shivering so bad she could barely hang on to the flare and flashlight, Aiden grimaced at

the renewed activity not a foot away from her on either side of the boat as she struggled to get on

her knees and inch her way to the bow. The dilemma now was that turning on the flashlight

would immediately draw their attention but without it, how could she set off the flare? And once

she set off the flare, would it fizzle and die immediately or give her the precious few minutes

she’d need to dodge the gators?

If only she’d held onto the waterproof bag she could have put the flare inside and bought

a little extra time, but she hadn’t and by now it was filled with water and completely useless.

Aiden suddenly remembered the bottle of water. Holding both the flare and flashlight in one

hand, she twisted around and frantically felt around for the bottle. A strangled cry of frustration

gurgled in her throat when it bobbed against her fingertips then skirted off when she tried to

grasp it. After a few more seconds of skimming her hand through the rising water at the bottom

of the boat she finally got a firm grip.

There was another agonizing struggle to twist the top off because she had to use her

chattering teeth or chance dropping the flashlight and flare. Her mother would have thrown a fit

if she’d seen Aiden jeopardize the years of costly braces and dental work it had taken to gain her

perfectly even teeth but under the circumstances she was more than willing to risk a chip or two.

After emptying the contents, she slipped the flare inside the mouth of the bottle. She only hoped

the two or three inches that still protruded out would burn long enough so the rest of it would be

protected from the rain by the bottle.

Sending up one last silent prayer, Aiden drew in a lungful of air and rose to her feet.

She’d been prepared for the rocking motion because she expected the gators to really go crazy

once they could actually see her. What she hadn’t expected was that her legs would feel like

lead weights and that her fingers would be so frozen she could barely depress the button to flick

on the flashlight. How the hell was she supposed to set off the flare, toss it far enough to draw

the alligator's attention, leap over the boat and dodge around half a dozen snapping jaws without

falling on her face? But that’s exactly what she did.

The only thing that kept her going was the sight of that blessed light in the distance.

Aiden had stopped running as soon as she was sure none of the gators were giving chase but it

wasn’t because she had no strength left. The rush of adrenalin she’d experienced from her

perilous escape hadn’t made the inevitable crash landing yet so she was fine on that score, at

least for the time being. What was slowing her down was the slippery ground beneath her feet

and the flimsy sandals that were doing little more than inviting a twisted ankle or worse, a fall

that would result in a broken bone or two.

Tangled tree roots covered in slimy moss made it almost impossible to keep her footing

and it didn’t help that the skirt of her dress had to be hiked up so she could step over them. She

hadn’t realized just how much that little scrap of material protected her from the slicing rain until

she had the unpleasant experience of it drumming down on her exposed hinny. Every time she

had to duck a low lying branch or straddle a particularly high root she got a cold slap on the

bottom. If the owner of the house had a toasty fire going, Aiden was going to stand with her

backside to it until her cheeks turned red.

It took forever to reach the overgrown pathway leading up to the porch and another

eternity to haul herself up the stairs. Exhausted and half frozen, she had just enough energy left

to rap on the door with the flashlight a few times before her arm dropped to her side. She heard

the pounding of heavy footsteps just before the door was flung open, accompanied by a man’s

deep voice demanding to know what the hell she wanted.

It took her a moment to realize that it wasn’t a wall in front of her but a massive chest.

Her gaze traveled up and up until they locked on the dark eyes of a very angry man. His large

frame filled the doorway, all six foot four of him, give or take half an inch. Even so, she could

feel the inviting warmth from behind him, though his glacial stare should have been enough to

stop any heat from passing by him.

Aiden tried to muster up a smile but the rattling of her teeth probably made it look more

like a grimace than anything. She started to explain to him that she’d gotten lost and the horrible

events that followed, but to her extreme consternation and his obvious irritation, the only thing

that came out was a few squeaks and what could only be described as gibberish. When she

finally gave up and clamped her mouth shut, the man just stared at her for a moment. Then he

took a step back and slammed the door in her face.

Despair and then shocked disbelief were quickly followed by outrage. He did not just

shut the door and leave her standing out here to die of the elements! And she had not survived

hours in the pouring rain in unfamiliar bayou territory and escaped being eaten alive only to be

turned away by a man who was cranky because of an uninvited house guest. She was tired and

cold and hungry and whether he liked it or not, Mr. Sour Face was going to let her in right this

instant or she’d stand on his porch and scream like a banshee until he did.

Aiden didn’t bother with a few polite taps; this time she used the handle of the flashlight

to hammer at the door. At some point she realized she was hollering at the top of her lungs and

using some very colorful language she was quite certain would have caused her parents to

permanently exile her to a foreign country. She was just drawing in another lungful of air so she

could launch into a second round when Sour Face yanked the door open again.

“I want in,” she croaked.

He looked past her as if he expected to find someone else lurking about before returning

his hostile glare back to her. Aiden would have been scared half out of her wits to be scrutinized

in such a manner if she hadn’t just gone through the most terrifying experience of her life. As it

was, the only thing that really frightened her was that she could feel the incredible heat radiating

off his body and it made her want to lean into him and envelope herself in his warmth.

“Look lady,” he growled, “I’ll give you credit for originality but I’ve seen just about

every trick in the book so your damsel in distress routine isn’t going to get you anything but a

boot in the ass if you don’t get off of my land.”

“Damsel in…” Aiden shook her head. “I d-don’t know what trick you think I’m t-trying

to p-pull but…”

“Let me guess,” he said caustically, “you were out taking an evening troll through the

swamp when you got caught in the rainstorm. Fortunately, you just happened to see my light

and thought you’d drop in to see if you could use my phone.”

“There’s a l-little more t-to it,” she stammered. Good Lord, she was shaking so bad she

could hardly get the words out from between her chattering teeth. “J-just let m-me use your

phone t-to call m-my father…”

“Your father?” His expression twisted into something that looked suspiciously like

disgust. “Oh, sweetheart, you should get an academy award for your performance.” He dipped

his head so that his face was just inches from hers. “You’re nothing but a conniving little

snoop,” he snarled, “and if you think that showing up on my doorstep looking as if you’ve been

dragged through the swamp will elicit any sympathy from me, you’re even more lame-brained

than the little stunt you’re trying to pull.”

Aiden was sure she looked like an open-mouthed bass because her jaw had dropped the

moment he’d started in on her. In spite of the dire situation she was in, she had an overwhelming

urge to give his arrogant face a good, hard smack before telling him she’d rather die than spend a

moment longer in his company. Sanity, of course, returned to her only a second later because

she most certainly would die if she remained outside much longer.

“Y-you’re not going t-to l-let me in?”

He let out a derisive snort. “Lady, you can lay down on this porch until hell freezes over

and even then I wouldn’t let you in.”

Aiden’s chin jutted up. “Fine,” she retorted, then promptly dropped down onto the

ground and stretched out at his feet.

He gaped at her for a moment before his dark scowl reappeared. “You are one crazy ass

broad, you know that?”

She pressed her lips together and refused to respond. He’d have to give in now, she

thought, but to her amazement he just stood there shaking his head. Never in her darkest

nightmares had she envisioned her life ending like this; lying prone on the porch of an insensitive

ogre who seemed content to just hover over her until she drew in her last breathe.

She squeezed her eyes shut against the sting of tears and prayed he’d go away before any

of them escaped. Unfortunately, he seemed to be thinking along the same lines because a few

seconds later he stomped back into his house and slammed the door shut behind him.

She didn’t move. What was the use? If she pounded on the door again he’d just come

outside and badger her some more before going back inside. It wasn’t so bad really. At least

she’d stopped shivering so he wouldn’t see her flopping around like a fish out of water if he

decided to peek out a window to see if she’d expired yet. Aiden’s mind started to drift.

She wondered inanely if he’d bury her on his land somewhere or just toss her body in the

swamp and let the gators have their snack after all. Obviously if he didn’t have the decency to

help save her life, he certainly wouldn’t try to find out who she was so he could return her corpse

to her family.

A single tear seeped from beneath her lashes. Would her parents even grieve for her? Or

would they just think she’d run off as an act of rebellion for trying to pressure her into marrying

James? And poor James, would he think she’d been so appalled at the idea of being his wife that

she’d rather vanish forever rather than commit herself to him? For his sake, she hoped James

believed her disappearance had nothing to do with him.

She saw it all so vividly in her mind. Despite her parent’s assurance that she was fine

and would come back when she was ready, her brothers would be frantic with worry. They’d

never stop looking for her, nor would they ever forgive themselves when they didn’t find her. At

least she could die knowing they loved her as much as she loved them. Another tear leaked out.

No more, the thought whispered through her head. No more tears, no more unhappiness, no

more…

The door creaked open. “You’re going to catch pneumonia,” he snapped, thoroughly

irritated that she hadn’t moved a muscle in the past twenty minutes. “Did you hear me?” He

took a step outside and then another. “Mon Dieu,” he muttered.

She was so incredibly pale and for one heart stopping moment he thought she really was

dead until a soft moan sifted through her lips. He went down on one knee and reached out to

touch her cheek then drew it back as if he’d been shocked. She was ice cold and probably a hell

of a lot closer to death than life at the moment. He leaned down and scooped her up in his arms,

grimacing at how frigid her whole body was. As he turned to take her inside the house, a dark

stain on the porch caught his eye and he muttered another oath. Blood.

Okay, so he’d been a calloused bastard to her. How was he supposed to know she wasn’t

just another rag reporter trying to pry into his private life? Or maybe she was, he thought with a

frown. She looked incredibly young so maybe her boss had sent her out here without giving her

any warning as to the dangers she’d face trying to reach his house. And she’d come alone, he

was sure of it, but that didn’t make him any happier about her being her. He’d just have to warm

her up and patch whatever cut the blood was stemming from then send her little ass packing.

Quinten had spent the last two years trying to bury his past and he wasn’t about to have it

drudged up again, especially not by a smart mouthed, mule-headed woman who didn’t have the

sense to turn around and go back where she came from as soon as the storm threatened to hit.

The bayou was no place to be for a woman on her own and he hoped this would serve as a lesson

to her that it was just plain stupid to risk your life for a story. A story she wasn’t going to get no

matter how beautiful she was. Or sexy.

He stole a quick glance at her face and swallowed back a groan. Even covered in mud

and looking like a drowned rat he could tell she was quite a stunner. It was hard to tell what

color her hair was but judging by her light complexion it was probably red. Quin studied her

face; high cheekbones, a spattering of freckles across a cute little nose, and perfectly sculptured

lips. Her mouth was made for kissing. But not by him, he thought grimly as he carried her into

his ensuite bathroom.

He needed to get control of his libido because this was definitely not a woman he wanted

to get involved with. No, the sooner he got rid of her, the better.

Chapter 4

Aiden let out a small whimper. She’d been awakened from a blissfully peaceful sleep by

a stinging sensation that began in her hands and feet and had slowly worked its way through her

entire body. It was only mildly annoying at first but as the intensity of it continued to escalate,

she tried to will herself back into the serene darkness she’d been in, but something kept dragging

her back.

“It hurts,” she mumbled, as the stinging morphed into a million tiny pin pricks.

“It will pass, chéri.”

Aiden’s brows drew together but she still couldn’t seem to open her eyes. The man’s

voice was familiar yet…different somehow. And he’d obviously mistaken her for someone else

because he’d called her chéri, a French endearment that she thought meant darling. Whoever he

was, she was furious with him for waking her and held him personally responsible for the

stabbing pain that was threading its through every miniscule muscle, tissue, and fiber in her

body.

Vaguely it registered that she was being held up by two strong arms and that she’d been

taken back out into the rain. But the weather must have shifted dramatically because the water

sluicing over her skin seemed almost scalding. A small frown tilted the corners of her mouth. It

was that awful man. He was the one who’d roused her from her sleep and now he was deriving

some sick sort of pleasure by torturing her while she was too weak to fight back.

“Let me go,” she squirmed in his arms.

“Not until you’ve warmed up,” he replied firmly.

Warm?” Her head fell back and she managed to eke her eyes open enough to glare at

him. “Is this your morbid way of paying me back for showing up at your doorstep, boiling me

alive?”

He arched an amused brow. “If I wanted to pay you back I would have left you outside.

And it only feels hot because your core temperature dropped so low but it’s actually luke warm.

Now stop wiggling around before I lose my grip.”

“I don’t like you,” Aiden muttered as he pulled her closer, but even as she was thinking

of some horrible name she could call him, she couldn’t help being drawn to his body heat.

How long she remained plastered against him, she couldn’t be sure. Time didn’t matter;

nothing seemed to matter except enveloping herself in the warmth he provided. Gradually,

Aiden became conscious of a few disturbing facts. One; she wasn’t outside in the rain, she was

standing beneath a shower which meant she was inside the man’s house. Two; she was naked as

the day she was born. Three; even while her brain hadn’t registered that Prince Charming was in

the buff too, her body was obviously acutely aware of it.

Aiden suppressed a groan. Even if she could ignore the way her breasts responded to the

friction of his skin against hers, it was highly unlikely he hadn’t noticed how hard the peaks had

grown. She could only hope that he attributed it to how cold she was, except…she wasn’t

anymore, not really. An internal heat had sparked to life the moment she realized she was

pressed up against his incredibly masculine body and it warmed her from the inside out.

Oh, this was bad, very bad. Aiden mentally shook herself. She couldn’t allow this

irrational sexual attraction to distract her from the fact he was an insensitive jerk who’d nearly let

her die right there on his porch.

“I’m warm enough,” she ground out. “I want to get dressed now.” She shoved against

him then let out a startled gasp when her knees started to buckle beneath her.

Quin had been preparing himself for the moment her muddled senses came back to her

and she realized the state of undress she was in. He’d also known that even when her brain

became functional again, her body would still be weak as a kitten. But that didn’t keep him from

dropping his hold on her when she demanded it, if for no other reason than to prove to the mule

headed woman that she was dependent on him at the moment. A bit of humility never hurt

anyone and this ungrateful little wretch could sure use a lesson on that subject.

“I’ve got you,” he said after letting her slid halfway down his body. He pulled her up

hard against his chest, his lip quirking at the look of fury on her face.

Aiden glared up at him. “You did that on purpose!”

“I believe you freed yourself, chéri. I merely caught you before you fell. Where is the

gratitude for coming to your rescue yet again?”

Gratitude? Why you…you…opportunist,” she sputtered.

“Opportunist,” he repeated dryly. “Please do enlighten me as to how you came that

conclusion.”

“First you refuse to let me in until I’m so far gone I’m not even conscious when you take

it upon yourself to deprive me of my clothes. Then you hop in the shower with me and take

advantage of my weakened state to keep our bodies pressed so close together a breath of air

couldn’t pass between us. That was bad enough,” her eyes narrowed into accusatory slits, “but

getting a cheap thrill by letting me slither down your body like a greased up pole dancer just

proves what a despicable opportunist you are.”

Thunder brewed behind Quin’s dark eyes. “I would be very careful if I was you,” he

growled.

“Or what?” Her chin jutted up defiantly. “Are you going to toss me back outside and let

the alligators get me?”

A sadistic smile twisted his lips. “I hadn’t thought of that, but if you don’t tame that

sharp-edged tongue of yours I just may take it into consideration.”

Aiden drew in a sharp breath. “You wouldn’t…” she started, but the evil gleam in his

eyes made her shiver with fear.

“As tempting as it is, I didn’t save your hide just to feed you to the gators. As for the

other charges I stand accused of, it was necessary to get your body temperature up as quickly as

possible and that meant stripping you out of the cold, muddy clothes you were in and getting you

into a warm shower.”

“And that required you to get naked as well?”

Quin shrugged. “Why should I soak my own clothes? And just for the record, I kept my

boxers on.”

Aiden’s indignant demeanor slipped a notch. “Oh,” was all she said.

“If you’re finished with your tirade now, I’ll get you dressed and tuck you into a nice

warm bed.”

An uninvited vision of his big muscular body joined with hers in the heat of passion

flashed before her eyes. Aiden was sure she’d left some brain matter back in the swamp because

there was no way in hell she was attracted to a man as disagreeable as this one was.

Unfortunately, it was at that precise moment she became aware of just how firmly they

were pressed together and that her traitorous body had become almost feverish at the thought of

writhing beneath him. A slow blush began to work its way up her neck until it burned in her

cheeks and it took every ounce of will power in her not to look away from his steady gaze.

“You…uh…have a guest bedroom?”

Quin arched a brow. “Do I look like a man who entertains guests?”

Aiden licked her lips nervously. “A sofa then?”

“Yes, but it’s downstairs and I haven’t had the fire lit all day so you’d catch your death of

cold if you slept down there.”

“I’ll take my chances,” she managed to squeak out.

“Listen lady,” he let out a sigh of exasperation, “I have one bed and one fireplace going

right now. If I put you downstairs you’ll get sick and I am not about to play nursemaid any more

than I already have.”

“You could…”

“Like hell,” he interjected before she could even suggest it. “This is my house and my

bed so you can stifle any notion you have about me spending the night on the sofa. Trust me,

chéri,” he said with a caustic laugh, “the only desire I have concerning you at this moment is to

make you well enough to send you packing.”

“Really,” she drawled, “then perhaps you wouldn’t mind removing your hands from my

ass.”

Quin hastily moved his hands up to the small of her back with a mumbled apology.

Okay, so maybe he had been enjoying the feel of her soft derriere but only on a subconscious

level…sort of. And so what if he’d gotten a little aroused when her perfectly shaped breasts had

beaded and raked against his skin; they were like damn cattle prods, sending a jolt of electricity

straight to his groin. It was a natural reaction and didn’t have anything at all to do with the

woman. If anything, he found her exceedingly annoying, especially since he still had his

suspicions she was a tabloid reporter.

Quin reached around her shut off the water. Keeping one arm wrapped firmly around her

waist, he shoved open the shower door and grabbed a towel. He wasn’t surprised she didn’t

bother to thank him when he draped it across her shoulders, but couldn’t help feeling just a

twinge of remorse at the way she avoided his gaze.

She’d obviously had a frightening experience trekking through the swamp at night so

finding herself standing naked in the shower with a man she didn’t know certainly wouldn’t help

salve her jittery nerves. Grudgingly, he gave her points for the show of bravado she’d displayed

so far.

She let out a small cry of protest when he scooped her up in his arms but thankfully kept

her lips pressed tightly together once he’d set her down on the edge of the countertop. After

drying himself off and looping the towel around his waist, he retrieved another towel and briskly

dried the woman’s arms and legs before soaking up the excess water in her long hair. She didn’t

say a word, regardless of the fact he was making quite a tangled mess of her natural curls, though

she wasn’t above showing her disapproval via a few indignant huffs.

Aiden choked back the scathing words that lingered on the tip of her tongue as he carried

her to his room and deposited her on the side of the bed. At least he had the decency to turn his

back after handing her a long sleeved flannel shirt, though she wasn’t quite sure why he bothered

since he’d seen everything anyway. Apparently his sense of decorum was on a short tether

because he had no problem at all with dropping both the towel and his boxers in the hamper

beside his dresser before pulling on a dry pair.

Thank God he didn’t turn around until after he’d hiked them up over his hips. The sight

of his sexy back side had caused quite reaction in places that had no right responding to him so

she could only imagine how mortified she’d have been if he’d exposed the more intimate parts of

his physique. Her fingers had been shaky enough as she’d attempted to button up the flannel but

they were doubly so now that he was slowly advancing on her.

“Let me,” he said with surprising gentleness.

Aiden let her arms fall to her sides as he reached for the shirt and finished securing the

last two buttons. He helped her stand up so he could yank back the heavy comforter then waited

until she’d crawled in before flipping of the light and slipping beneath the covers himself. She

wasn’t sure what she expected and she sure as hell wasn’t going to invite any intimacy, but

without the warm water keeping the chill at bay she’d started to shiver again.

Even with a good two foot gap between them in the king sized bed she could feel his

body heat reaching out to her and for one insane moment she considered inching over and

curling up by his side. Fortunately, the ogre spoke and burst the bubble of hope that he’d

suddenly become human.

“Now that you’re all warm and fuzzy, I want to know who you are and what the hell

you’re doing here.”

Aiden stared up at the flickering shadows on the ceiling wondering how much of the truth

she should reveal. He’d no doubt consider her a blithering idiot if she told him she’d taken the

boat out to escape from Mommy and Daddy and that she’d compounded the act of foolishness by

not telling anyone she was leaving and then fallen asleep with a storm brewing. Granted, she

hadn’t known there was a storm moving in but she should have realized it was a possibility since

they were so common in the summertime.

“I’m waiting.”

“There’s no need to be so nasty,” Aiden replied to his impatient demand.

“Lady…”

“Okay, okay. My name is Aiden. I was just going to take the boat out for a short troll

but I…I must have veered off without realizing it. By the time I figured out I was lost it had

started to rain and then it got dark and…” She squeezed her eyes shut as a violent shiver rippled

through her body.

“So you got lost and just happened to end up at my doorstep,” he said skeptically.

“I didn’t just end up at your doorstep,” Aiden snapped. “After the battery went dead on

the motor and I lost the lights I spotted the light from your house through the trees. The boat was

filling up with water and I was afraid if I waited any longer to row to shore I’d end up in the

swamp with a dozen or so hungry alligators.”

“There had to be more of them on the banks. How did you get past them, fly?”

“Wow, the man has a sense of humor,” Aiden said dryly. “I imagine it did look like I

was flying when I leapt from the boat. I distracted them by putting a flare inside an empty water

bottle and torching it. I wasn’t sure they’d even go for it because they’d already caught the scent

of blood…”

“You hurt your head before you got out of the boat? How the hell did you manage that?”

She told him about the alligator startling her when it grabbed the oar and how she’d fallen

backwards and hit her head. He listened intently while she recounted her flight past the gators

and the subsequent journey though the swamp. She’d been so numbed with cold before that the

head wound seemed secondary to everything else but now as she felt the back of her head, Aiden

realized he’d put some sort of bandage over it.

She turned an incredulous gaze on the man. “You shaved my hair off?”

Quin’s eyes met hers through the dim light afforded by the fire. “Just a little. I had to,”

he defended himself. “After I cleansed the blood off I realized you needed a few stitches so I

shaved just enough off to keep the area sterile. Then I sewed you up and put a bandage over it.

You can’t even see it, not with all the hair you’ve got.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t break the stitches open when you attacked my head with the

towel,” she grumbled.

“I’m sorry if I was a little rough.”

“Thank you for stitching me up.”

For a moment neither of them spoke and Aiden wasn’t sure she liked the melty feeling

that enveloped her when he’d apologized. He had to be some sort of recluse because it was

obvious he wasn’t used to have people in his home and didn’t welcome the intrusion on his

privacy. Still, the way he’d behaved so far was deplorable and that made her even more curious

as to why he was hiding himself away in the middle of the bayou.

“You never told me your name,” she finally ventured.

“You honestly expect me to believe you don’t know who I am.”

“Good God, how on earth would I know who you are?”

“I just think it’s too much of a coincidence that you got lost and happened across the only

house for miles around.”

“Are you a criminal? Is that why you didn’t want me here and why you’re so anxious to

get rid of me? Because if that’s the case, I can pretty much guarantee I’d never be able to find

this place again.”

“I’m not a damn criminal,” Quin scowled.

“Oh…well, if you’re not a famous criminal, why would I know who you are?”

Propping himself on one elbow, Quin studied her face for signs of deception. The fact

that she’d been nothing but irritatingly straight forward from the moment he’d opened his door to

her made him believe he might have been wrong. She didn’t really look like a tabloid reporter

either; there was too much innocence in her eyes. His gaze moved to her hair and the firelight

that was dancing off it, making it shimmer like a fiery halo. She really was quite beautiful when

she wasn’t shooting off her mouth.

“Hawke,” he said, dragging his thoughts back into safer territory. “Quinten Hawke.”

“Hmmmm,” she yawned, “it sounds like the name of a criminal.”

“What kind of a name is Aiden for a girl?” He shot back.

Her eyes grew sad. “It’s not really…a girl’s name. My parents were expecting another

son. They were so disappointed I was a girl I guess neither one of them really cared what they

named me.”

“So how did they decide on the name Aiden?”

“One of the nurses was Gaelic. She made some comment to my mother about the color

of my hair. You see, Aiden means little fire in Gaelic, so when she said it would have been a

fitting name if I’d been a boy, my mother told her to go ahead and put it on my birth certificate.”

“You’re serious,” Quin said.

“I have no reason to lie, Mr. Hawke.”

“Quin,” he corrected her. “So does that mean you’re an only child or did they finally

have a son?”

“I have four brothers, all of them older than me.”

“I don’t understand. If they already had four sons, why would they be disappointed with

a daughter?”

It was a question Aiden had asked herself a million times once she was old enough to

recognize she wasn’t placed on the same pedestal as her brothers. It was also a subject that

caused a dull ache in her heart that she wasn’t emotionally equipped to handle at the moment.

She turned her head away from him and stared up at the ceiling again.

“I’m very tired, Mr. Hawke. I’d like to go to sleep now, if you don’t mind.”

“Quin,” he said, flopping back onto his pillow. “It makes me feel like an old man when

you call me Mr. Hawke.”

“You are an old man,” she murmured.

Quin glanced at her sharply but the biting remark he intended to hit her with died on his

lips when he saw her teasing smile. “How old are you, Aiden?”

“How old are you, Quin?”

“Thirty-two.”

A year younger than James, she thought. “I guess that’s not so old. I’ll be twenty-five in

a month.”

“Still just a baby.”

“Good-night, Quin.”

“What? No snappy come back?”

Aiden closed her eyes. “Good-night, Quin.”

He watched her for several minutes and when he was sure she’d drifted off to sleep, Quin

slipped out of bed. Pulling on a pair of jeans and warm flannel, he allowed himself one more

sweeping glance at her before leaving the room and quietly closing the door behind him. He

wanted to believe she was telling the truth about how she’d wound up at his house but knew he

wouldn’t rest easy until he verified the story she’d told him. After donning a pair of rubber boots

and rain slicker, Quin grabbed his rifle and a flashlight and headed outside.

The rain had almost abated but it had been pouring pretty hard when Aiden showed up so

he wasn’t very confident about finding the path she’d taken. Panning the flashlight across the

muddy ground didn’t reveal anything of use which wasn’t too surprising; the storm would have

obliterated any footsteps. He’d just about decided to make for the bank of the swamp and follow

it for awhile to see if he could spot her boat when he caught a glimmer of color in the arc of his

flashlight.

Quin couldn’t help chuckling when he reached out and plucked a few long strands of

auburn hair from a low lying branch. Maybe following her trail wouldn’t be so difficult after

all. As it turned out, the poor thing had slipped and fallen so many times she’d left a slew of

broken twigs and torn up patches of moss to lead him right to the boat. For the most part the

gators had moved on though he spotted one slithering back into the water as he neared the bank.

Just as Aiden had told him, a mangled aluminum oar lay a few feet in front of the bow of

the boat, and not too far from that was the burnt out flare inside a partially melted water bottle.

The boat probably would have drifted away if it hadn’t been weighted down by water that had

almost reached the halfway mark, but the final proof of Aiden’s story lay in the crimson glow of

the standing water. She’d been damn lucky the blow to her head hadn’t knocked her out and

even more fortunate that the alligators hadn’t been able to figure out where the scent of blood

was coming from.

Quin stepped inside the boat and waded to the stern to remove the battery. By morning it

would be fully charged so she’d be able to use her own boat to get back home, though he’d

probably have to lead her out of his neck of the swamp. Of course he’d have to get the water out

of the boat, which could only be accomplished by pushing it back into the swamp before

capsizing it.

He was strong, but not strong enough to overturn a hundred pound boat weighted down

with water, at least not on dry land. He’d have to be quick though. Once the bloodied water

inside the boat mingled with the swamp water, the gators would be over to investigate and he

didn’t relish the idea of being anywhere near when they did.

Quin wasn’t afraid of the alligators, he’d been living in the swampland long enough to

know they didn’t really consider humans as part of their regular diet. But he did have respect for

them and proceeded into the water with wary caution. He pushed the boat out just far enough to

make it buoyant then let his feet sink into the murky water so he’d have some stability.

The boat was only three feet across so it wasn’t difficult to get his arms beneath it and get

it flipped over. It was tugging it back closer to the bank while it was still upside down then

maneuvering back upright that put a serious strain on his muscles.

Once that was accomplished, he wasted no time in retrieving the flashlight and motor and

high tailing it out of there before the gators sensed his presence. He’d kept the rifle slung over

his shoulder just in case he ran into trouble but was glad he hadn’t needed to use it. If he’d been

forced to kill a alligator to save his own life, Quin wouldn’t have hesitated but he’d never

enjoyed hunting and saw no reason to destroy them unless it was absolutely necessary. Of

course, Aiden might disagree with him on that point.

At the thought of Aiden’s curvaceous body snuggled between his sheets, Quin picked up

his pace and double timed it back to the house. He’d only been gone about ninety minutes so the

chances were slim that she’d woken up, but he was concerned about it nonetheless. She’d gone

through enough tonight without the added distress of finding herself all alone in that rambling

old house with its creaks and groans. Entering through the mud porch, Quin paused just long

enough to put the battery on the charger before stripping down to his boxers and hurrying

upstairs.

Aiden opened her eyes groggily when she felt him slip back into bed. “Quin, did the fire

go out?”

“No, it’s still going strong.”

“Then why am I so cold?”

Quin turned on his side so they were facing each other then reached over and covered her

hand with his. It wasn’t as icy as it had been when he’d first tucked her into bed but it was still

cold enough to make him worry that her core temperature had begun to drop again. Her face was

even more pale than before which made her seem fragile and lent an air of vulnerability to Aiden

that touched something deep inside him. It made Quin want to wrap himself around her like a

coat of armor and protect her from the world even if it was only for the hours they had left before

he pushed her out of his life forever.

“We could…get closer,” he suggested.

Aiden gave him a sleepy smile when he slipped his arm beneath her head and gathered

snugly to his body. His warmth seeped into her skin and gradually chased the chill away. With

her cheek pressed to his corded chest she could hear the strong steady beat of his heart and it

comforted her in ways she couldn’t even begin to understand. Locked in his arms, she felt safe

from the rest of the world, though she sensed the danger in allowing him to touch her heart in

anyway.

“Where did you go?” Aiden asked in an effort to steer her thoughts away from how

incredible it felt to be lying next to him.

“I had trouble falling to sleep,” he fibbed, “so I went for a little walk.”

“In the rain?”

“It’s barely coming down now. I…uh…found your boat. I brought the motor back and

put in on the charger so it would be ready for you in the morning.”

Why was she so disappointed to hear that? After all, it wasn’t as if he’d made any

pretense about the fact he wanted her out of his house as soon as possible. Still, she felt the sting

of it and silently chastised herself for letting it bother her. He resented her intrusion and she’d

been nothing but trouble for him since she’d stumbled onto his porch so why wouldn’t he want

to get rid of her? But to go out in the rain, in the dark so he could make sure the boat was ready

to go first thing in the morning?

No, there was something more to this than Quin simply wanting the seclusion of his life

back. He wanted her gone because he was hiding something and wanted to make damn sure she

didn’t stick around long enough to find out what it was.

“You didn’t believe me,” she said when it finally dawned on her. When he didn’t offer a

denial, Aiden tilted her head back. “Why did you think I’d know who you were, Quin?”

“It’s not important. Go to sleep, Aiden.”

“You thought I came here deliberately, to seek you out for some reason.”

“Aiden,” he growled, but she ignored the warning in his voice.

“Why would someone come looking for you and why didn’t you want to be found?”

“I thought you were a reporter,” he snapped.

“A reporter? So you must be famous then.”

“I’m nobody,” he ground out. “Drop it, Aiden. I told you, it’s not important.”

“If you’re so famous, why haven’t I ever heard of you? Are you an actor? A hot shot

politian? A tragic hero maybe?”

“Oh for God’s sake,” he snarled.

With no way to shut her up, Quin did the only thing he could think of to still that pretty

mouth of hers. Anger and desire melted into one as he crushed her soft lips with a brutal kiss.

He expected her to protest, to jerk her head back or push him away, and was fully prepared for

the verbal abuse she’d unleash on him.

What he hadn’t expected was Aiden’s immediate surrender or her passionate response to

his savage kisses. She set his blood on fire, and for a few brief moments she made him forget

everything except how good it would feel to bury himself inside her lush body. Mon Dieu, the

things he wanted to do to her.

But he couldn’t.

Quin had never considered himself a weak man, in mind or body, but it took a

monumental effort to drag his mouth away from hers and an even greater effort to convince

himself he’d made the right decision. She had her whole life ahead of her and she didn’t need to

get involved with man who could offer her nothing emotionally. Whatever spark had ignited

between them needed to be extinguished before it was too late.

Blue-green eyes peered into his; soft and dreamy and as alluring as a siren’s call. How

long would it take for those beautiful eyes to grow cold and distant once she learned what kind of

a man he really was? His past would always come back to haunt him, and it would haunt her too

if he let this go any further. He wouldn’t allow another life to be destroyed because of him.

“It’s late,” Quin said gruffly, “you’d better get some sleep.”

A dull ache settled in Aiden’s chest when he rolled over and turned his back to her.

“Quin, I…”

“I want you out of here first thing in the morning,” he said coldly. “And just so there’s

no misunderstanding, I don’t want you to come back here again. Ever.”

Chapter 5

How she’d gotten to sleep after Quin’s harsh rejection was a mystery to Aiden, but she

must have because the first rays of dawn had already begun to streak across the floor. He’d left

her feeling cold and numb, but it didn’t have anything to do with the withdrawal of his body

warmth. For those few glorious minutes when he’d been kissing her, Aiden had come alive.

She’d felt a connection with him that she’d never experienced with anyone else that went beyond

physical attraction, though she’d certainly felt that chemical reaction all the day down to her

toes.

Even before she turned her head to look at him she knew Quin was still asleep because

she’d been listening to his slow, even breathing, half hoping that he would wake up. Her eyes

moved over his face, admiring the strong line of his jaw and firm chin. Unlike Aiden’s tangled

mass of curls, his thick black hair hardly looked mussed at all except for one errant lock that had

fallen across his forehead. It made him look roguishly handsome and she was sorely tempted to

reach out and brush it back but was afraid he’d wake up and catch her in the act. And then her

gaze wandered to his mouth.

A strange tingling sensation pulsed deep in her abdomen and though she recognized it as

sexual desire she also recognized that it had never been this potent with anyone else. She wanted

to toss back the covers and crawl on top of him, to feel his masculine strength as he thrust up

inside of her. She wanted his hands on her skin and to experience once again the euphoric rush

she’d gotten when his mouth had crushed hers in a fierce, wildly exciting kiss.

Aiden squeezed her eyes shut, groaning inwardly. She’d definitely been without a man

too long if she was considering attacking Quin in his sleep. It was highly unlikely that he’d

welcome her advances and she’d end up nursing her wounded pride just as she’d done last night.

In spite of his surly disposition she couldn’t deny she was attracted to him, but maybe it was

because of the air of mystery that surrounded him.

Admittedly, her curiosity had been piqued when Quin confessed he’d thought she was a

reporter at first, and not just a reporter, she surmised, but a tabloid reporter. No one got as

hostile as he did unless they thought someone was digging for dirt on them. Sensationalism was

the foundation of magazines like that; they thrived on exposing people’s weaknesses, cutting

them down with embarrassing pictures and fictional stories. They were vultures, all of them,

picking at the wounds they’d inflicted until their prey was forced to go into hiding. Like Quinten

Hawke.

Aiden had been sheltered from those horrid people only because of her father’s reputation

for being fiercely protective of his family. Demetrio Lucisano wasn’t a vindictive man but his

enormous wealth and social status afforded him a great deal of protection against magazines

whose livelihoods depended more on vivid imaginations and embellishments of the truth rather

than the less exciting actual facts of a story. He was capable of destroying anyone foolish

enough to cross him and made no secret of the fact he’d do it without remorse if the Lucisano

name was tarnished by their fowl lies.

Obviously Quin didn’t have the advantage of money and influential friends, otherwise he

wouldn’t have secluded himself deep in the bayou just to avoid being hounded by the press.

How lonely his life must be. It broke her heart to think of Quin spending his days just wandering

around this huge old house with nothing to do and no one to talk to. It was wrong, plain and

simple, but maybe she could help him in some way.

Aiden contemplated the idea of freeing Quin from his lonely existence and what power, if

any, she had to accomplish that goal. She could go to her father and ask for his help. Under

normal circumstances she wouldn’t even have considered it, and in all honestly, Demetrio would

have turned her down flat unless there was some benefit in it for him. There was nothing to gain,

of course, but her father always paid his debts and certainly he owed Quin something for saving

his daughter’s life.

The more she thought about it, the more she excited she became about the prospect of

giving something back to Quin for what he’d done. True, he’d been less than enthusiastic about

her being there at all, but the fact remained he’d rescued her from certain death and deserved

repayment. In a way, Aiden would be rescuing him too. Surely that would earn a little gratitude

and respect from the wretched man.

There was one small problem; she didn’t have a clue why a tabloid paper would be

interested in Quin, or what he’d done to gain notoriety in their eyes. Before she could go to her

father, she’d have to unravel the mystery surrounding Quin and his self-imposed imprisonment

in the swamp. She could get her friend Vivien to help out. As a freelance research attorney,

Vivien would know just where to go for that type of information. It was a brilliant idea and

Aiden was quite pleased with herself for having thought of it.

Slipping out of bed, she made her way silently to the bathroom and eased the door shut.

After relieving herself and dabbing a bit of toothpaste on her finger to use as a make shift

toothbrush, she tip-toed back into the bedroom and searched for a pen and paper. If she was

going to do this, she needed as much information about Quinten Hawke as she could get before

she left. A writing desk in the corner provided her with the tools she needed and a few seconds

of pilfering through his dresser produced a wallet.

After stealing a guilty glance over her shoulder to make sure he was still asleep, Aiden

proceeded to copy down the information from his driver’s license and social security card.

Tucking the folded up piece of paper into the pocket of the shirt he’d given her to wear, she

slipped out of the room in search of her own clothes. She found her things hanging out on the

mud porch, and though her dress was stained and torn in several places, at least it was dry. Quin

must have rinsed it off along with her bra and panties, or maybe he’d just stuck her in the shower

fully clothed and removed them once the mud had been washed away. Regardless, they were dry

so she’d have something besides his shirt to wear on the boat ride back home.

Aiden shrugged off the shirt and quickly got dressed before pulling it back on. It would

be cold this time of morning and she had no intention of turning herself back into a popsicle.

Retracing her steps, she stole back into his room so she could jot down a quick thank you note.

She’d been hurt by his rejection but in all fairness she did owe him a thank you since she hadn’t

offered him one at all up to this point.

She’d barely made it to the desk when Quin stirred in his sleep. Aiden froze, afraid that

any movement would wake him but after waiting for a few breathless moments, she decided he

was still sound asleep. Just to be safe, she took the paper and pen into the bathroom but couldn’t

seem to think of anything to say beyond a simple thank you. After all their head bashing and

verbal bantering, saying thank you suddenly felt…insincere and not at all indicative of their

decidedly unique relationship.

Aiden stared at her image in the mirror and had to choke back a giggle. No wonder he’d

turned his back on her last night; she looked hell. Her skin was pale, making the spattering of

freckles on her nose even more prominent than usual, and her hair looked like an explosion in a

steel wool factory. Quin’s shirt hung on her like a gunny sack, obscuring her feminine curves

and making her look completely shapeless.

So this was how he’d remember her, she thought with a heavy sigh. She consoled herself

with the knowledge they’d meet again one day soon if everything turned out as she planned, and

that she’d be able to restore a bit of pride by wearing something that wasn’t covered in mud or

ten times too big. Aiden’s eyes made a dismal sweep over the woman in the mirror then

suddenly brightened. Picking up the pen, she wrote down three words on the paper then

searched the drawers until she found what she was looking for.

She crept back into the bedroom and laid the note down on her pillow, placing a special

gift alongside it before taking one last look at Quin. He was an extraordinarily handsome man,

especially now when there was no dark scowl to mar his features. It was a shame his personality

wasn’t as attractive as his physical appearance but who could blame him for being bitter. Being

forced into a life of seclusion was enough to make anyone resentful and she imagined a man like

Quin would only have aggravated the situation when he lost his temper and tried to intimidate

the reporters into leaving him alone.

Knowing she’d already lingered too long, Aiden made a stealthy retreat then hurried

downstairs to the mud porch. The sandals she’d worn had been wiped clean but were just as

worthless now as they’d been the night before. The only reason her feet weren’t riddled with

scratches was because they’d been so caked with mud they’d been somewhat protected. The best

she could hope for now was that they’d keep her soles from getting torn to shreds. After slipping

them on, she retrieved the battery from the charger and left through the back door.

The sun was still low enough in the sky that it hadn’t completely chased away the

shadows of night but at least there was sufficient light to see where she was going. Her first

inclination was to follow along the bank until she came across her boat but knowing that a croc

could spring out of the water at her made Aiden more than a little hesitant to take that route. It

was during those few minutes of indecision when her gaze was idly panning the wooded area in

front of her that she discovered Quin’s footprints trailing across the open land and disappearing

between two trees that hedged the woods.

He couldn’t have made it easier for her to find the boat, and without the pouring rain and

darkness of night to hinder her, Aiden made good time. Carrying the heavy motor had been a bit

cumbersome and her arms were aching by the time she climbed into the boat but all in all she

wasn’t any worse for the wear. As she motored out to the middle of the swamp and headed in

the opposite direction of Quin’s house, she started to worry that she’d been too hasty in her

decision to leave without asking how to find her way back to familiar territory. She might very

well end up in an even worse predicament than she’d been in last night if she went the wrong

direction and wound up going deeper into the swamp.

To her immense relief, it wasn’t fifteen minutes later that she merged into a bigger body

of water and recognized some of the landmarks. Amazingly enough, she really hadn’t strayed

very far off the main waterway and probably wasn’t more than twenty minutes away from the

Lucisano Estates. Up until then, Aiden hadn’t given much thought to the distress her family

must be experiencing because of her unexplained disappearance. Considering her father’s vast

wealth, they’d probably think she’d been kidnapped for ransom and taken away by force and

would be frantic with worry.

She was going to catch hell for what she’d put them through and wasn’t looking forward

to seeing the disappointment in her father’s eyes while her mother lit into her. Facing her parents

was bad enough but knowing her brothers would have been up all night scouring the countryside

for her made Aiden dread the homecoming even more. They were going to be mad as hornets

and wouldn’t spare her the lecture on how thoughtless her actions had been.

Enzio would be the worst but maybe he’d ease up on her a bit if she worked up some

tears and acted deeply remorseful. Not that she didn’t feel bad about making them worry, but it

wasn’t as if she’d gotten lost on purpose and after everything she’d gone through herself, Aiden

wasn’t up to the emotional scene that would play out when she returned. All she wanted to do

was drag herself up to her bedroom and fall into bed, but the likelihood of that happening was

less than none.

Even if her brothers let her off the hook, there was no way Giselle Lucisano was going to

pass up the opportunity to glean sympathy from every male member in the family by acting as if

she was the injured party. Aiden would stand accused of deliberately upsetting her, and the more

attention her mother got from the men, the deeper she’d immerse herself into the role until they

were all stumbling over themselves to make her happy again.

By the time Aiden docked the boat and climbed out, she was feeling sick to her stomach.

She hated it that her mother constantly cast her as the villain and wished that just once she had

the backbone to stand up for herself instead of taking the verbal abuse with tight-lipped silence.

For a fraction of a second she actually considered trying to sneak in through the front door and

escape to her room for awhile before confronting everyone but decided it would only make

matters worse. Better to pay the piper now and get it over with.

Family conferences were always held in the dining room so they could have their coffee

or tea while they discussed the issue at hand so Aiden figured that’s where she was most likely to

find them. She took her time going around the side of the house where double glass doors led

directly into the dining room, each step more wooden than the last. Bracing herself for the

verbal attack her mother was sure to let loose on her, Aiden opened the door and quietly slipped

inside. For a moment she just stood there, dumbfounded by what she saw.

They were all gathered in the dining room all right, but there wasn’t one anxious face

among them. It was like any other morning; her father was reading the paper while her mother

prodded her sons into telling her every minute detail about their plans for the day. Aiden was

still reeling from the shocking realization that not one single member of her family had even

known she was gone when her mother spotted her. Giselle let out a small gasp, her eyes

widening in pure mortification.

“Aiden,” she said shrilly, “what in Heaven’s name is that ghastly thing you’re wearing?

You’ve been trampling around down by the water again, haven’t you?”

“I, uh…”

“And look at your sandals!”

Aiden’s cheeks blazed when all the men looked at her tattered, muddy sandals then

turned their disapproving faces back to her. While Giselle continued to berate her for acting like

a tomboy and tracking mud into the house, her father buried his frown behind the newspaper.

And her brothers, the ones who usually tried to ward off her mother’s disparaging lectures by

coming up with something to distract Giselle with whenever she lit into Aiden…the traitors just

sat there and let her take it!

“Stand up straight,” Giselle ordered when Aiden’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “You

realize you won’t be able to behave like this once you marry James. The poor man would die of

embarrassment. Now go outside and take those filthy shoes off then run upstairs and take a

shower.”

“Yes, Mother,” Aiden said demurely.

“And another thing,” Giselle continued when Aiden stepped back inside, “just because

Andre is doing your hair today doesn’t mean you can show up looking as if you haven’t run a

brush through it in a week. And get your nails done,” she added as Aiden trudged past them.

After the harrowing night she’d had, the last thing Aiden wanted to do was drive into

town to get her hair and nails done but she’d never hear the end of it if she dared miss a coveted

appointment with Andre Renoir. In her room, Aiden undressed mechanically, still numbed by

the knowledge her family hadn’t been aware of her absence or even suspected something was

wrong when she’d shown up looking so disheveled and wearing what was obviously a man’s

shirt. She felt hollow inside, as if someone had scooped out everything that had been capable of

emotion and left her with nothing but this God awful empty ache.

She’d never felt so alone in her life.

***

Quin’s mind had barely breached the foggy gap between dreaming and being fully awake

when he became painfully aware of the raging hard on he was sporting as well the reason for it.

Aiden. It had been a long time since he’d held a woman in his arms and as much as he hated to

admit it, Aiden had affected him in ways no other woman ever had. Even his own wife had

never turned him on so quickly and she’d certainly never ignited a sexual desire that was so

intense his whole body vibrated with it.

But Aiden had done that to him with just one passionate kiss. The instant his lips met

hers, Quin had been consumed by a ravenous hunger that could only have been satiated by

burying himself between those satiny thighs of hers. He’d wanted to possess her and had come

dangerously close to losing what little self control he had. That’s why he had to get rid of her as

quickly as possible.

Quin sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He’d have to wake her but it

occurred to him that it would be a hell of a lot easier to resist the temptation to touch Aiden if he

wasn’t lying in bed right next to her. He threw the covers back, forcing himself not to turn

around and look at her as he rose to his feet and made a beeline for the bathroom. He didn’t trust

himself around Aiden and that shook him to the core because it proved the wall he’d built around

his heart wasn’t as impenetrable as he thought it was.

Sex. That’s what this was really all about, Quin tried to convince himself. Aiden was a

beautiful woman and he’d been celibate far too long to be unaffected by the honeyed tasted of

her mouth and skin that was so soft and smooth he…damn. He had to stop thinking about her, or

at least stop remembering the way she’d melted into him and how eagerly she’d kissed him

back. What he needed to focus on was that razor sharp tongue of hers and hang onto the initial

anger he’d felt when he first realized that obnoxious rapping wasn’t a tree branch hitting the

house but rather an unwelcome intrusion on his privacy.

A nice cold shower should have killed any ambitions his lower appendage might have

had about becoming a heat seeking missile, and while he was standing under the frigid spray it

had worked quite nicely. It was afterwards as he was drying himself off that his mind took a

detour around the don’t-go-there sign and provided him with a vivid memory of that searing

kiss. The towel he’d hitched around hips did little to hide the prominent bulge but if Aiden was

still asleep he could put on his jeans and one of his button downs with shirt tails to cover it up.

If he was lucky, she’d wake up in a piss poor mood and start running that insolent mouth

of hers, except this time he wouldn’t try to shut her up. He’d just let her acid tongue work up his

temper instead of his hormones so that he’d be more than happy to bid her good riddance. By

the time he emerged from the bathroom, Quin was firmly convinced he couldn’t get rid of her

fast enough but when he spotted the empty bed he experienced an unexpected sense of loss.

Then he realized she was probably nosing around downstairs.

His temper instantly flared. Muttering a string of expletives, he tromped downstairs to

find her. He went from room to room, bellowing out her name and getting angrier by the

minute. When he finally returned to the bedroom to dress so he could look for her outside, Quin

noticed something lying on her pillow. He moved closer and for several minutes he just stared at

the brief note and small token she’d left him.

Aiden was here, the note said. Beside it was a long lock of her hair. Leaving it on her

pillow had been deliberate; she wanted to make sure he remembered that for a few fleeting

moments he’d held her in his arms and shared something that was more powerful than either of

them could have imagined. Quin reached out and picked up the lock of hair.

“Aiden was here all right,” he murmured.

He had the sinking feeling that she’d always be here. Like it or not, Aiden had left her

impression on his life and for the first time in over two years, Quin felt something besides an icy

coldness where his heart used to be.

Chapter 6

Aiden stopped by Vivian’s house after she’d gotten her hair and nails done. She was still

suffering from the aftershock of discovering no one had even noticed she’d gone missing. Her

mother probably just assumed the reason she hadn’t come down for dinner was because she was

still brooding over their conversation in the sitting room. Obviously no one had been sent to get

her, or maybe when they didn’t get a response after knocking on her bedroom door they decided

she’d fallen asleep and hadn’t given it second thought.

Even though she’d dreaded confessing the truth about taking the boat out alone and

where she’d been all night, Aiden would have gladly withstood the lectures on being a

responsible adult because once the dust had settled she would have been able to coerce her father

into helping Quin. Now she’d have to figure out some other way to get the job done. Part of her

wanted to just forget the whole thing had happened, forget she’d ever met Quinten Hawke, but in

her heart she knew that was impossible.

Because of the kiss.

Even now the taste of him lingered on her lips and Aiden shivered in response. She had

no choice but to help him, if only as an excuse to see him one more time. Vivian thought she

was insane for even considering seeing Quin again, especially since he’d made it abundantly

clear he didn’t want her to. It was doubly wrong, Vivian told her, because of the situation with

James.

“Would you still think it was wrong if I hadn’t told you about James?”

“I most certainly would,” Vivian said vehemently. “Taking the boat out alone is

dangerous enough but you know nothing at all about this man. Just because he told you he

wasn’t a criminal doesn’t make it true, Aiden. At any rate, James is a good person and he

doesn’t deserve to have his fiancé running off to meet another man behind his back.”

“I am not his fiancé,” Aiden shot back testily, then immediately felt sorry being so short.

“I’m sorry, Viv, I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I know you’re right about James, and I’d

never purposely do anything to hurt him but…”

“You’re infatuated with this Quin, that’s all,” Vivian told her. “He saved your life, so of

course you’re drawn to him but you said yourself he told you never to come back. Why take the

chance of ruining things with James over a man who doesn’t want anything to do with you?”

“I don’t know,” Aiden replied miserably. “It’s just something I feel I need to do. Who

knows, maybe after you help me find out why he’s hiding away from the rest of the world I’ll

change my mind.”

“I never said I’d help,” Vivian reminded her.

“You didn’t have to,” Aiden grinned. “You’re my best friend and you’ll do it because

you love me.”

“No, I’ll do it because I think it will prove to you that Quinten Hawke is just as

dangerous as those alligators you managed to escape from. You’re making a big mistake by not

jumping at the chance to marry James. If he’d asked me to marry him…” Vivian stopped

abruptly, her pretty face turning a bright scarlet.

“Why Vivian Demarais, don’t tell me you have a crush on James!”

“Of course not,” Vivian denied, even as the color in her cheeks deepened. “It’s just that

I’ve done some work for him in the past and have come to respect him. He’s a very kind-hearted

man and I’d hate to see him hurt.”

“I have no intention of hurting James, and that’s exactly what I’d be doing if I rushed into

marriage without making sure it’s what I really want. So…where do we start?”

“First you have to promise that you won’t go out there if we discover he has a criminal

record.”

“I’m not stupid, Viv.”

Okay, so she deliberately evaded making a promise but what was she supposed to do?

And anyway, it worked because Vivian started outlining the steps they’d need to take in order to

scrounge up information on Quin. Aiden was glad she hadn’t told her friend about the kiss and

how heated it had gotten because she was sure Vivian would have refused to help her then.

“I’ll take care of checking out his criminal record…”

If he has one,” Aiden interjected.

“Uh huh, and you can get on your computer and access archived newspaper articles. I

suggest you go back five years and see if you can uncover anything. If not, go back ten years;

anything further back than that will have to be requested directly from the newspapers

themselves. Try the most widely circulated papers first then move on to the smaller ones. Since

he seemed so sure you were a tabloid reporter, you may want to search those too. You

understand that if he’s not even from around here, it could take weeks or even months before we

find anything.”

“What about the information from his license and Social Security card, surely that will

make it easier.”

“In some respects, yes,” Vivian agreed, “but with all the Privacy Acts in force these days

there’s a limit as to how much information we can obtain. I have to make a run down to the

Courthouse this afternoon so I’ll be able to check criminal and civil suits involving Mr. Hawke.

I’ll give you a call if I find anything.”

Aiden checked her watch. “I’ve got to run. James is stopping by this evening after work

and…” she let out a groan. “I forgot Mother asked me to invite him to dinner.”

Invite?” Vivian arched a brow.

“You’re right, it was a royal command. She’ll have my head on a platter if I can’t

convince James to stay for dinner.” Aiden grabbed her purse and headed for the door. “Thanks

for everything, Viv, I owe you big time.”

As it turned out, James was in a conference and couldn’t be disturbed so she had to leave

a message. It was just past one so she had plenty of time to get in a few hours on the computer

before she had to get dressed for dinner. Aiden was excited about playing investigator, though

she was a little concerned she might actually find out Quin had committed a crime. Even if it

was true, she refused to believe he was dangerous. After all, she’d been completely at his mercy

so if he’d wanted to rape or murder her, he could have done it at any time.

Aiden hurried up to her room, anxious to avoid her mother and the nasty remarks she was

likely to get for having left her hair so long. There really hadn’t been an option, not after she’d

clipped a good sized lock from the underside, leaving barely an inch of it sprouting from the

backside of her neck. Andre had let out a dramatic gasp when he’d seen it, and it was all she

could do to keep from laughing out loud.

She’d made up a story about a fictional friend’s child planting gum in her hair and swore

she’d had no choice but to cut it off. He’d trimmed and layered it to take out some of the

fullness, but he’d been mumbling under his breath the entire time about people expecting him to

work miracles. Andre had, of course, declared himself a genius after making the last snip and

taking a straight iron to her hair. Well, she’d deal with her mother later; right now she had work

to do.

Aiden started with the LA Review, the largest newspaper in the area. She was surprised

to find there were so many articles containing the last name Hawke, and so began the arduous

task of sifting through them for mention of Quin. Camille Hawke came up several times in the

articles from five years ago and she wondered if the woman was related to Quin.

The answer to that question was provided in a story about a major social event in which

Camille had been escorted by her son, Quinten. Apparently it caused quite a stir because

Camille rarely appeared in public without her husband, Trystan, and it was the first time that her

son had ever played escort. It could be nothing more than coincidence but Quinten was an

unusual name so she felt certain she was on to something.

As she printed off the article, it occurred to her that if Camille was so high profile, her

own mother probably knew her, or at least knew of Camille Hawke. It was possible Giselle

could provide her with some answers if she didn’t have any luck finding something in the

newspapers. Asking questions might backfire on her though because she’d never really cared for

her mother’s social events and spent most of her time chatting with Vivian or some of the other

younger people who’d been bullied into going. She’d have to save quizzing her mother as a last

resort.

Aiden checked the time and was surprised to find she’d been at it for over two hours.

Since she wouldn’t have to fiddle with her hair, all she really had to do was take a quick shower

before dressing for dinner. Twenty minutes, she promised herself, and then she’d pack it up until

after James left. Searching the archives from four years ago produced two direct hits on

Quinten’s name. Aiden pulled up the first article then sat back in her chair with a sinking heart.

It was an engagement announcement for Quinten Xavier Hawke and Olivia Josette Mandeville.

So he’d been engaged at one time. That didn’t have to mean he’d actually gotten married

or that he was still married to this Olivia woman. And even if he was, she scolded herself, she

had no right to feel this insanely jealous when the reality was that Quin had told her in no

uncertain terms he had no desire to see her again. Maybe the engagement had been broken off

and that’s why he was so bitter. Except that would mean Olivia had run out on him, and

somehow Aiden just couldn’t picture any woman willingly leaving Quin.

Her fingers were a little shaky as she set them back on the keyboard and brought up the

second article. She stared at the screen, the dull ache in her chest making it difficult to breathe.

Quin’s handsome face was turned towards his new bride, who Aiden had to admit was

everything she wasn’t. Tall and thin, the golden haired beauty was flashing a brilliant smile for

the cameraman. She was flawless in every way; perfect figure, perfect teeth, perfect for a man

like Quinten Hawke.

Aiden printed both articles and shoved everything in her desk draw then shut the

computer down. Was it wrong to hope they’d gotten a divorce after being married for such a

short time? Something had obviously gone wrong with their marriage, otherwise Quin wouldn’t

be living alone in the middle of the bayou. And if that was so, didn’t she have an even greater

reason for making him see he had to bury the past and get on with his life? So there had been a

bitter divorce, surely he wasn’t still pining over the woman.

The image of Olivia Mandeville swam before her eyes. Of course he was despondent

over losing her, what man wouldn’t be?

Aiden pushed her chair back and headed for the bathroom to take a shower. She was

obsessing about Quin, letting him prey on her mind because of one silly kiss that hadn’t meant

anything at all to him. That’s why he’d cut her off so coldly. He’d been thinking of Olivia while

he was kissing her and when he suddenly realized it wasn’t his beloved wife in his arms, he’d

been revolted and turned away.

Maybe Vivian was right; she should forget about Quin and concentrate on developing a

relationship with James. Yes, that’s what she should do, Aiden decided as she stepped into the

shower.

***

Quin paced restlessly back and forth across his front porch, silently cursing himself for

not driving Aiden from his mind and attending to the business calls that had been stacking up all

day. She was hard-headed, mouthy, annoyingly disagreeable, and she exasperated him beyond

belief. So why was he still thinking about her? Why did his arms ache to hold her again? She

was nothing like the women he’d been with in the past, the complete opposite of Olivia in every

way. Maybe that was why he was so attracted to her.

It made sense. His marriage to Olivia had been a disaster almost from the very beginning

so it only stood to reason that he’d subconsciously steer clear of women like his wife. Despite

their differences and the disturbing knowledge that he’d made a huge mistake in marrying her,

Quin had fought like hell in the beginning to make it work. The one thing they did agree on was

that divorce was not an option. His mother would never have forgiven him for embarrassing her

with a messy divorce; she was too much of a public figure for it not to affect her in a negative

way.

Ironically, Camilla despised Olivia right from the start and had done everything she could

to dissuade Quin from marrying her. He wondered what she would have said if she’d known

he’d been forced into it when Olivia announced she was pregnant and insisted the child was his.

He’d had his doubts but Camilla would have been mortified if Olivia had gone to the

tabloid magazines and accused him of being the baby’s father and made it known he refused to

marry her. It wouldn’t have mattered to his mother that he was miserable being married to

Olivia. As far as she was concerned, once they were pronounced man and wife he was expected

to present a happy front in public at all costs and do his suffering in silence.

And Lord, had he suffered. A month into the marriage, Olivia claimed to have lost the

baby. He was devastated. Even knowing the baby might not have been his hadn’t eased the ache

in his heart because he’d been truly excited about the prospect of being a father. It wasn’t until

six months later that he discovered she hadn’t been pregnant at all. She’d lied to him in order to

get a wedding ring on her finger and she’d admitted as much when he confronted her.

“I spoke with your doctor today,” he’d told her that night as they were getting ready for

bed.

Olivia was sitting in front of her vanity mirror brushing out her golden hair. “Really,”

she replied indifferently. “And why would you do that?”

“I wanted to know how soon we could try to have another baby.”

“You could have asked me instead of wasting my doctor’s time.”

“I didn’t want to upset you by bringing up painful memories.”

Something in his voice must have alerted her to the fact he was angry though he’d been

careful to keep his tone even. Olivia’s eyes met his in the mirror as she continued to brush out

her hair. Several minutes ticked by before the cold hearted bitch turned around and actually had

the nerve to laugh. Thunder brewed in his eyes, but she was as dismissive of that as she was

about tearing his heart out with a faked pregnancy.

“Honestly, Quinten, you’re as naïve as a virgin sometimes. Surely you must have

guessed by now that I married you for your money. As for the fictitious pregnancy,” she

shrugged, “it was the only way I could get you down the aisle. I knew you were growing tired of

me but I’d seen the way your eyes lit up when there was a child around. I saw my opportunity

and I took it.”

She stood up and sauntered over to him. “Even if I really had been pregnant, you don’t

seriously believe I would have ruined my figure by having a baby, do you?”

“You would have aborted it?” He’d choked out.

Olivia’s lips twisted into a cruel smile. “In a heartbeat, darling. I don’t want children,

Quin, now or ever. I’m afraid you’ll just have to resign yourself to the fact you’ll never be a

father.”

Quin’s hands balled into fists. He’d never been more tempted to hit a woman in his life

which was why he kept his arms locked to his sides. What little affection he’d had for her

dwindled and died at that moment, and in its place a burning hatred took hold. He threatened to

divorce her but she only laughed at him again.

“You wouldn’t dare disappoint your dear, sweet Mommy like that and we both know it.

Besides, it would mean the ruin of your family fortune and I know you wouldn’t risk that. Oh

yes,” she sneered at the shocked look on his face, “I know your father gave you his half of the

business when he found out he had cancer last year and believe me, I’d take every cent of it and

then some. How do you think your terminally ill father will feel knowing you’d lost everything

he’d given you and that his wife would probably lose her half too under such a financial

burden?”

“You’d do that? For God’s sake, Olivia, my father is dying! This would push him over

the edge, and my mother…”

“Your mother would despise you,” she finished for him. “She lives for her social status

and the way her cronies look up to her. It makes me sick to see them hanging on every word and

groveling at her feet when they’ve done something to get her nose out of joint.”

Quin clenched his fists even tighter. “If you hate her so much, why did you conspire to

become my wife?”

“I did it because I hated her. She looked down on me, made me feel like bug she wanted

to squash but wouldn’t for fear she’d soil her designer shoes. I wasn’t good enough for her son

or maybe just not good enough to be related to the great Camilla Hawke. What greater revenge

for the nasty way she treated me than to marry her only son?”

“You said you did it for the money.”

“The money only sweetened the pot. I knew you wouldn’t deny me anything financially

so I decided to live high off the hog until I had you all just where I wanted you. Spending your

money has brought me a great deal of pleasure, but knowing I have the power to ruin your

snooty mother is the greatest revenge of all.”

“Then why not just divorce me and get on with it? You’ll be filthy rich with the money

from my half of the business so there’s no need to stay married.”

“Oh no,” Olivia shook her head. “I might have fallen for that when we first got married

but not now. You’re a shrewd businessman, Quinten, and there’s a very good chance you could

salvage the company even after losing half its assets. No, I like my plan better.”

“And what is that," he ground out, his voice shaking with fury, “forcing me to stay

married to you no matter how miserable it makes me?”

“It hasn’t been all that bad, has it darling?” She smiled up at him from beneath her

lashes. “You have to admit our sex life certainly hasn’t suffered, and as far as the rest of the

world is concerned we have a perfect marriage. Haven’t I been a model wife? Have I ever

embarrassed you in public or done anything to put a black mark on the Hawke name?”

Quin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re telling me that as long as I don’t file for divorce, you’ll

keep up the convincing front you’ve obviously managed to pull off right from the beginning.”

“Of course,” she replied with a nonchalant air.

“And you won’t try to lord it over my parents?”

“Why should I? It’s enough to know I’ve got the knife to their backs, it’s not necessary

to drive it in.”

Quin’s expression hardened. The conniving little bitch had him over a barrel and there

wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. How could he live with her knowing what she was,

what she was capable of doing to his family? The thought of touching her, sleeping in the same

bed, pretending they were in love when they went out in public together…it made his skin crawl.

“All right,” he finally said. “But I have a few conditions of my own.”

“You’re hardly in a position to bargain with me,” Olivia laughed.

“Oh, I think I am. You don’t want a divorce because your own name will be smeared in

the process and because you know my attorney’s could keep the proceedings dragging on for

months. What would you do for money in the meantime, Olivia?”

“You wouldn’t leave me penniless. You’re entirely too honorable for that, Quinten, so

don’t try to use scare tactics on me that we both know you’d never employ.”

“Oh, but I would,” he said venomously. “I’d pay you back for every second of pain you

caused my mother and father and I wouldn’t have an ounce of remorse for doing it. I’ve never

been a violent man, but I promise you there isn’t anything I’d enjoy more right now than curling

my fingers around your neck and squeezing the life out of you.”

Olivia took a step back, her nervous laughter assuring him she wasn’t nearly as confident

as she’d been a moment ago. He knew that everything from his heated glare to the rigid stance

of his body was intimidating her; it was obvious by the way her hand went to her throat then

fluttered to her side as she weighed out her options. Olivia was a greedy, spiteful woman but she

was also smart enough to know he was deadly serious. She tipped her head in reluctant

acquiesce.

“Tell me your conditions and I’ll consider them.”

“First, you never breathe a word of this to anyone, especially not my parents. Second,

there will be no extramarital affairs. I won’t have you embarrassing me or shaming my family

with something that sordid.”

Olivia arched a brow. “Are you finished?”

“Not yet. I want you to move your things into one of the spare bedrooms. The thought

of sleeping with you makes me sick to my stomach.”

“You can’t be serious,” Olivia shrieked. “You expect me to go without having affairs

when you refuse to have sex with me?”

Quin’s smile was glacial. “I didn’t say there would be no sex, I said I didn’t want you

sleeping in my bed.”

“What exactly does that mean, Quinten?”

“It means, my dear wife, that I will visit your room whenever I feel it is necessary to

slake my sexual needs.”

“And I’m just supposed to allow you to use me night after night as a release for your

sexual frustration?”

“I think you over estimate your ability to entice me into your bed,” Quin replied in an icy

tone. “When I come to you, and I imagine those times will be few and far between, it will only

be because I’ve reached a point where any female body will do.”

Olivia’s faced burned with outrage. “You’re a disgusting pig! Why would I even

consider letting you use me like that?”

Quin just smiled. “There’s nothing to consider, Olivia. Take it or leave it, there will be

no more discussion.”

She’d taken it, just as he knew she would. And true to his word, Quin’s visits to her

bedroom were few. She hated him for making it so cold and calculated, hated that he no longer

kissed her or lingered over her body to make sure she was just as satisfied by their sexual

encounters as he was. He even made her turn out the lights so he didn’t have to look at her, and

when it was over Quin practically jumped out of bed and returned to his own room. Only in

public did he make an effort to appear as if they were blissfully happy.

In the end, that was his saving grace. The paparazzi that he so despised referred to them

as the perfect couple. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth, but for once the lies they

printed worked for him instead of against him. It was all a brilliantly played façade and no one

even suspected how wretched his life had become or just how much he and Olivia detested each

other. As far as Quin was concerned, no one ever would know because that dirty little secret had

been taken to the grave the night Olivia’s life came to an abrupt end.

***

“You won’t tell Mother I forgot to ask you to dinner, will you?”

“Is that the only reason you rushed out to meet me?” James asked with a teasing smile.

“Well…not the only reason,” she replied. “I was hoping you could work it into the

conversation at dinner that you planned on taking me for a drive afterwards.”

“Assist you in escaping from your parents? I’m not sure if I should. After all, they are

just as anxious to see us get married as I am.”

Aiden would have taken him seriously if she hadn’t noticed his mouth give the slightest

little twitch. “That’s okay,” she said with a heavy sigh. “I guess if you’d rather be sitting around

chatting with my parents instead of being alone with me…”

James slipped his arms around her waist and delivered a tender kiss. “Nothing would

make me happier than to be alone with you.”

“I am sorry you got roped into this dinner,” she said earnestly. “I honestly wanted the

two of us to have some time alone to talk and get to know one another. But you know how

Mother is. She insisted I ask you to dinner and would have been positively miserable to live

with if I’d refused.”

James took her hand and started up the pathway to the house. “I don’t mind, not as long

as I get you all to myself afterwards.”

“Nothing ever bothers you much, does it James?”

“I don’t know. I had a maid once who insisted on starching my boxers. Now, that

bothered me a great deal.”

Aiden laughed at his dry sense of humor. Maybe she’d misjudged him and James wasn’t

nearly as straight laced as he seemed. And if that was true, it was possible he wouldn’t mind it

so much that she wasn’t the virginal bride he was hoping for. She didn’t have to tell him about

Giovanni because there was no way for him to ever find out she’d slept with the letch. Surely he

wouldn’t hold it against her if he believed there had only been one man she’d given herself to. It

would only be a small lie, and it really served no purpose to hurt him with the truth, did it?

Aiden could have lived with one minor lie if James hadn’t brought up how important

honesty was in a relationship later that evening. Dinner with her parents had been surprisingly

pleasant, partly due to the fact James parried the first few personal jabs Giselle had taken at her

which seemed to have deterred any further barbs. The other reason was that James had the

innate ability to be at ease with anyone regardless of the direction the conversation took. She

liked that about him, especially since she never knew what to say to her parents that wouldn’t

come out all wrong or be deliberately misconstrued.

He’d driven up to a lookout point which had a spectacular view of the ocean and parked

his car. At his request, Aiden had scooted across the seat and tucked herself close by his side.

After a few minutes, he’d draped his arm across her shoulders and started to talk. Maybe he’d

sensed how nervous she was because he never even tried to kiss her until it was almost time to

go.

“I don’t want you to feel as if I’m going to place a lot of unreasonable expectations on

you, Aiden. I realize you’re much younger than I am and haven’t had any experience in a

relationship, but as long as we’re honest with each other there isn’t anything we can’t

overcome.”

“Is that the most important thing to you in a relationship?”

“Honesty, trust, respect…love, all of those things are important. Without them, I don’t

see how any relationship can survive.”

“But…we don’t love each other,” she pointed out.

“Not yet,” he said softly, “but in time…”

He kissed her then, and it was the sweetest thing she’d ever known to be held so gently

and treated as if she was the most precious woman on earth. His fingers stroked the side of her

neck with reverence then twined themselves in her hair as he pulled her more firmly against him

and deepened the kiss.

In her heart, she knew James would never let her down. He’d spend his entire life trying

to make her happy, and he’d always put her first and make sure she never wanted for anything.

For all of that, Aiden could have cried. Because no matter what he said or did, he could never be

the man she wanted him to be.

He wasn’t Quin, and until Aiden proved to herself that she and Quin weren’t meant to be

together, she couldn’t even consider marrying James.

Chapter 7

He had to see her. Right or wrong, Quin was driving himself to distraction just thinking

about Aiden. He didn’t even know for sure that she’d made it back home, wherever that was,

and that was the excuse he gave himself for seeking her out. He had no idea what her last name

was, but how many Aiden’s could there possibly be in the area? She said she’d taken the boat

out and gotten lost, which meant she couldn’t live too far away so maybe he’d take a run out to a

few of the towns along the bayou and ask around a little bit.

After taking a quick shower, and laughing at himself for actually feeling nervous about

seeing her, Quin pulled on a pair of jeans and black cotton shirt. If he did manage to track her

down he wanted to look casual, as if he just happened to be in the area and wanted to make sure

she’d made it back okay.

It wouldn’t do to let her know his heart raced at twice its normal speed or that his

stomach twisted into knots every time he thought of catching her up in his arms and kissing her

until she was breathless from it. He wanted her. In his arms, in his bed, lying beneath him in a

tangle of sheets, and he wouldn’t rest until he had her.

Eventually he’d have to tell her about Olivia and how she’d died. Maybe if he explained

the circumstances she’d understand his reasons for shying away from the rest of the world and

wouldn’t condemn him as everyone else had. He didn’t relish the idea of opening up old wounds

and exposing himself for what he really was, but if she found out from someone else she’d

probably never give him the chance to tell his side of the story. It wouldn’t matter that the

charges had been dropped, not if she didn’t know the truth about Olivia and all the horrible

things his wife had done prior to her death.

But all of that would come later; after he found her, and after he convinced Aiden to

spend some time with him. As much as Quin wanted to take her directly to his bed, he didn’t

think that was likely to happen. Hell, he wasn’t altogether sure she’d want anything to do with

him after the way he’d treated her. If he wasn’t so convinced that she’d been just as

overwhelmed by the kiss they’d shared, he probably wouldn’t be heading into town now.

Probably. Oh, who was he kidding? He’d held out as long as he could and there wasn’t any use

in denying it.

His mother would be furious if she knew he was taking the chance of being seen but after

two years of being out of the public eye, who would recognize him? Still, he’d have to be

careful. It would only take one small blurb, one reporter speculating as to why he’d resurfaced

and where he’d been all this time for the whole nightmare to start over again. So why was he

doing it? Quin steered the boat out onto the main waterway, hesitated for a moment, then veered

off to the left.

Why was he doing it, besides the obvious reason of finding Aiden? Because he was tired

of being alone, tired of having only himself and a few faceless voices on the telephone to talk to.

And because he resented the fact that Olivia had taken away his life as surely as he’d taken away

hers. Being married to her had been hell enough, why should he continue to suffer because of a

few bad decisions on a night that seemed a lifetime away?

Aiden was his one shot at happiness. He knew it, felt it deep down inside where all his

emotions had been locked away until she’d wandered into his life and awakened something in

him that he thought had died long ago. She had the power to lead him out of the darkness, to

give him a fresh start, to make him feel whole again. He’d been without hope for so long, Quin

hadn’t even recognized it for what it was until he’d made the decision to go after Aiden.

And if she turned him away? His chest tightened. Quin pushed the thought away and

pressed the engine to its full potential. He wouldn’t think of anything right now except finding

her.

***

She had to see him. Right or wrong, Aiden was driving herself to distraction just

thinking of Quin. Vivian had called her at the boutique and said she’d found something, some

disturbing news she thought Aiden should know about right away. But she’d made up an excuse

about not feeling well and declined Vivian’s invitation to meet her for lunch. Even worse, she’d

outright lied to her best friend.

She was supposed to accompany James to the opening of a new play in town but just

didn’t think it was fair to spend the evening with him when she knew her mind would be

elsewhere. So she’d lied to Vivian and said she had the stomach flu and was going to close

down the shop and go home. She begged Viv to take her place with James so he wouldn’t have