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WINTER’S FALL


THE WINTER BILLIONAIRES – ANDREW

PART ONE





OLIVIA BLAKE



Winter’s Fall

Copyright © 2017 Olivia Blake

Published by Pink Parts Press


All rights reserved. No part of this eBook may be reproduced in any form or by any means, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without permission in writing from the publisher.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names, characters, places, businesses, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

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Summary

Most fairy tales start with a wicked stepmother...


Nicole’s life in Key West was paradise until her father died. Then her stepmother stole his dive company, fired her, and kicked her out of her apartment. To add insult to injury, Nicole’s boyfriend dumped her for her stepsister. Now she’s alone, practically broke, working in a job she hates, and living in a squalid apartment with two roommates she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy. Well, maybe on her stepsister.


Then she runs into bad boy billionaire Andrew Winter. Literally runs into him, because the lunatic decided to drive his Mercedes through the worst traffic snarl on the island. When she loses her bartending job—thanks to her ex and her stepbrother—Andrew steps in to save the day. He’ll pay her to be his tour guide while he’s vacationing in the Keys. Why not? The money is good and the company is better, but it’s the kisses that keep her coming back. There’s just one problem—what’s she going to do when he leaves?

TABLE OF CONTENTS



Winter’s Fall


Bonus Material


Preview: Winter’s Bite

Dark Bargains

With One Word

Lessons in Love

About the Author


Winter’s Fall

“I NEED YOU OUT OF HERE BY TOMORROW, NICOLE.”

Nicole Nelson glanced up from her computer, where she was making a final pass through the checklist for the tourists she was taking out to dive on the reef in the morning. Dad had always insisted that his dive instructors triple check everything, because all it took was one mistake to kill someone. Dad. She winced at the now-familiar ache in her chest. Three months had passed since the funeral, but it still hurt just as much as the day he’d died.

Her gaze settled on her stepmother, Victoria. The older woman had chopped her platinum blonde hair short the day after the funeral, and the cut threw her face into severe lines which only accentuated the hard set of her eyes and mouth.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

Victoria waved a manicured hand at the office and the tiny apartment that adjoined it. “I’m showing the place to a potential buyer on Thursday, so I need you out. I don’t want him worrying that he might have to deal with a tenant he’d have to get rid of.”

Nicole opened her mouth then closed it again, too stunned to respond. A buyer?

“What do you mean a buyer?”

“I mean I’m unloading this place as soon as I possibly can.”

She was selling Dad’s dive center? Nicole’s heart began to pound. “But you can’t do that.”

“Of course I can. And I will. I’ve already got half a dozen interested prospects lined up. I just have to wait for the right offer.”

“But Dad started Mick’s before I was born.” It was where he’d met Nicole’s mom and was all she really had left of either of them.

“Well, it’s mine now, and that means it’s going.”

Icy talons clawed at Nicole’s heart. Her stepmother meant it. She was really going to sell the business.

“Victoria,” she said, trying to keep her voice low and calm, “you can’t just sell it. You know that Dad intended for me to have joint ownership.”

The older woman frowned and gave a little shrug. “Well, that’s not how he put it into his will, so maybe you were mistaken. Of course men do change their minds, you know. Or at least you’ll learn it one day.”

Her supercilious smile did nothing to soothe Nicole’s nerves. It felt as though her whole world was crumbling around her, and she had nothing to grab onto to save herself. Desperation left her clinging to shreds of hope which were dissolving before her eyes.

“Look, I know you said there were cash flow problems but you don’t have to sell the place. We can make it to the next tourist season.”

Nicole wasn’t sure exactly why the finances were so bad. The place had always done all right, even if things got a little tight sometimes during the off season. Captain Mick’s Dive Center had been operating in Key West for almost thirty years—longer than she had been alive.

“I just don’t understand what’s happened,” she said. “I even worked the last two months without pay to help keep things in the black.”

“There have been expenses.”

“What expenses?”

Victoria didn’t answer, but her mouth tightened. “I let you keep this apartment rent free, so the pay thing mostly evens out.”

Like hell it did. “Dad was letting me stay here before he—”

“And since ownership transferred to me I’ve been letting you stay here. Until now. Now I need you out.”

As if to reinforce those words, Nicole’s step-siblings, Anthony and Chloe, entered through the door behind her, followed by Dylan Lowery, one of the other dive instructors. The office wasn’t that big, so the four of them crowded the area in front of the desk. It was probably the first time any of them but Dylan had ever been inside.

Neither Anthony nor Chloe had ever made any pretense of liking her, and the feeling was mutual. Anthony was a pretty boy who thought he was God’s gift to women. He was also a cocky little jerk who took stupid risks on dives. The only reason Nicole’s dad hadn’t fired him was because he knew it would start World War III with Victoria. Chloe was a younger version of her mother—petite and pretty and so self-absorbed that Nicole doubted she even realized the rest of humanity existed until she needed something. There was certainly no love lost between the three of them.

She couldn’t say the same about Dylan. They had worked together for almost three years and had started seeing each other outside of work in the months before her dad died. What was he doing here with them?

Victoria nodded towards her children. “They’re here to make sure that you only move out the things that belong to you.”

Nicole’s face burned with anger and shame as the words sank in. “Are you accusing me of stealing?”

“No, and they’ll be here to make sure that there’s no reason to do so. This is my business now,” she stated with obvious satisfaction, “and I have no intention of letting you plunder it on your way out.”

Nicole turned her eyes to Dylan. “What’s this all about? Are you going along with this idiocy?”

His bronze face might have belonged to a statue as he stepped nearer to Chloe, who slid a possessive arm around his waist. Chloe’s smirk told Nicole everything she needed to know.

She swallowed down the cold lump that threatened to close off her throat and held her head up. Dylan had ambitions of becoming the senior instructor at Mick’s, even though Nicole had more dives and certifications. It looked as though he’d found a way to get what he wanted without having to work for it—or at least not working as a dive instructor.

“How long?” Nicole asked him.

Chloe laughed and answered for him. “Long enough.”

Nicole glared at her. “You’re welcome to him. Once a cheater, always a cheater.”

“Maybe you just don’t know how to hold onto a man. I guess you take after your mother in that regard.”

Nicole’s hands bunched into fists as the bolt struck home. Her parents had divorced the year she started high school, and after that Mom had never settled into a real relationship with anyone else.

“At least my mother didn’t marry him for his money.”

Chloe tossed her head. “Or at least she didn’t get any.”

Victoria held up a hand. “As much as I’m enjoying this little chit-chat, I have other things to do. Just be out of here by the time we open in the morning.”

“Look, I’ve got nowhere to go on such short notice, and I’m supposed to take that dive tour out on Mick’s Lady first thing in the morning. There’s no way I can do that if I’m up all night moving out.”

“Dylan is taking over the tour,” Victoria replied coolly. “I’ve decided that he’s more qualified to head the team.”

Fury burned cold in Nicole’s bones at that. He was not better qualified.

“The hell he is, and you both know he’s not. If you think I’m going to put up with him being put over me when I’m more experienced and better trained—”

“You don’t have to,” Victoria interrupted in a syrupy sweet tone. “Your services are no longer required at my dive center.”

“You’re firing me?”

“I prefer to think of it as allowing you to pursue other opportunities.”

What opportunities? It’s the off season. No one in Key West is hiring dive staff right now.”

“Then perhaps you should consider options in other locations.”

Other locations? Leave Key West? It was home, the only home she’d ever known or wanted. No, Victoria wasn’t going to force her to leave. She might lose her apartment and her job, but there was no way she was leaving Key West.

She stood up and shoved the keyboard away. “Fine. I’ll move out tonight. And tomorrow I’ll be seeing a lawyer about having the will contested.”

Victoria lifted one shoulder in an unconcerned shrug. “Throw your money away if you like, dear. I don’t care. I’ve already consulted two probate lawyers and they both assured me that the only way you could fight the will was if you could prove that I exercised undue influence. But since Mick passed both his physical and mental checkups less than six months before he died, you’ll find that rather difficult.”

The witch looked like the cat that ate the cream when she smiled. “Because I’m feeling generous, if you promise to leave without a fuss I’ll give you a severance check for five thousand dollars.”

As Nicole opened her mouth to tell her stepmother what she could do with her check, the older woman lifted a warning finger. “Remember, I don’t have to give you anything. My advice would be to take it and be gracious about it.”

Nicole wanted to tell her off. Pride burned in her chest and begged her to scream herself hoarse at these people who were bent on stripping her of her entire life, to tell them all exactly what she thought of them. Five thousand dollars was nothing compared to what the sale of her dad’s dive center and Mick’s Lady would bring in, and barely covered what she was owed for the last two months.

But the cold, calculating part of her mind noted the pathetically depleted state of her bank account after two months without a paycheck and pointed out that five grand could keep her going—barely— long enough to figure out a game plan and find another job.

“I’ll take it,” she agreed with a sigh of surrender, “and I’ll be out of here by the time the doors open in the morning.”

“Good. I knew we could work this out. One last little piece of advice, dear. A girl like you is never going to be able to hold onto the men in her life against women like me and Chloe. You’ll want to keep that in mind in the future. It’ll save you loads of grief.”

Victoria turned without another word and left the wreckage of Nicole’s life bobbing in her wake. Chloe and Anthony trailed after her, despite their supposed task to monitor their stepsister’s packing. Only Dylan paused for a second in the doorway, his gaze lingering on her with something that might have been curiosity.

“It was the money, wasn’t it?” Nicole asked bitterly. “You latched onto me when you thought I’d inherit, but as soon as you found out the terms of the will you cozied up to Chloe.”

He didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed. “Don’t take it personally, babe. It was just a business deal, that’s all.”

She thought of all the words he’d spoken, recalled all of the things that they had done together. How she’d given herself to him. Her stomach churned as she looked into that face which only a few hours before she’d found so handsome. Now the sight of him made her want to throw up.

“Get out. Go chase after your meal ticket. But I doubt you get much out of this deal. She and her mother are both sharper than you.”

“We’ll see. I got what I wanted from you without any trouble.”

As he disappeared from Nicole’s office and her life, hot tears pricked at her eyes. She blinked them back ruthlessly, determined to keep up the appearance that she was holding it together until she left and could give way to her rage and humiliation in private.

How could she have been so stupid? She had been foolish and naïve because she had never had to deal with people this ruthless and vicious before. From now on she would have to be a lot smarter. She no longer had Dad to come to her rescue if she got into a mess. The only person she could count on now was herself.

Her first resolution as the new and improved Nicole was to stay away from men. Apparently she was a clueless idiot where they were concerned, and she could not afford to get involved with them. They were simply more trouble than they were worth.

* * *

The Winter’s Group offices were quiet when Andrew Winter walked in that Wednesday morning. A dozen people were out sick with a stomach bug that had been making the rounds while Dale, the lead firmware developer, was off on a rig with most of the software team. The office felt deserted, his footsteps echoing hollowly as he walked down the hallway towards his office.

Voices carried from the rear lobby, though, and he smiled as he stepped into the bright sunlight which flooded through the windows. The receptionist, Rachel, was peering at her computer while Celeste, Andrew’s new sister-in-law, leaned over the desk to point at the screen.

Celeste raised an eyebrow. “I thought you’d be coming in late today.”

There had been a party the night before at a new art gallery he’d helped to fund. Normally he would have crawled in some time after noon, once he’d gotten rid of whatever girl he’d brought home with him from the party. But last night he just hadn’t been feeling it and he’d gone home early—alone. There was no point in admitting that and tarnishing his reputation, though.

“It didn’t feel right when I knew Rachel would be here on time as always.”

He’d taken her along as his “date,” a fiction which allowed her to attend some of the most exclusive events in Houston while he got the benefit of having a woman around whom he could actually talk to, as well as trust to chase off any unwanted female attention.

Rachel gave an unladylike snort. “Funny, that’s never stopped you before.”

Andrew’s concentration faltered as his eyes lingered on the exquisite lines of his receptionist’s face. Every now and then the full realization of just how lovely she was caught him by surprise. If he’d had any sense at all he would have taken her back to his place last night and to hell with the consequences. Of course it was good sense that kept him from doing any such thing. It would be stupid to throw away their working relationship for a night of sex.

But what if it wasn’t just a night of sex, though? What if it was more? It had worked out for Stephen and Celeste. Why not for him and Rachel?

Andrew gave a mental wince. Thoughts like this had been plaguing him ever since his brother had gotten married to his own personal assistant. Hopefully whatever weirdness their wedding had awakened in his brain would wear off—and soon.

“Maybe I’m finally maturing,” he told her.

Celeste snickered behind him as he turned towards his office. She didn’t believe that any more than he did.

“Andrew.”

When he looked back Rachel was holding out an envelope. He took it without bothering to examine it. Probably more junk mail. He’d look at it later, when he’d had a chance to clear his head.

Some of the tension which coiled in his shoulders faded away as he stepped into his office. The room was cool and austere, businesslike with no room for unsettled thoughts. Women were fun and he enjoyed them immensely for recreation, but now he had work to do and needed to focus.

Dale had sent in a batch of reports during the night, and Andrew began pulling them up on his computer. While he waited for the data files to load, his eyes landed on the plain envelope. He opened it absently and pulled out a single piece of crisp, white paper. Before he could glance at it, his twin monitors lit up with a series of brightly colored graphs of Dale’s performance analysis. As he scrolled through the first one, his eyes returned to the paper.

Dear Mr. Winter…

The new firmware appeared to be performing much better. There had been some issues with transmission lag in the previous revision, but Dale seemed to have the problem licked. Andrew clicked onto the second report.

Please accept this as my formal notice of resignation from Winter’s Group. My last day will be June 4th, two weeks from today…

He was certain that they could still wring more performance out of that code. He’d have to lean on Dale to get it done. If they optimized the feedback loop for the drill they could eliminate more jitter in the control function.

It has been a pleasure working with you and your team over the last four years…

There was still some older code in the message parsing subsystem that was undoubtedly adding dozens of milliseconds of overhead every single time it received a message from the sensors. It all added up and slowed things down when they needed to be reacting instantaneously.

Sincerely, Rachel Karr

Andrew froze, and then his eyes went back to the paper in his hand. Rachel? Was this some kind of joke? He started to punch in her extension then thought better of it and got up to open the door instead.

“Rachel?” When she looked up at him he waved the paper. “Care to explain this?”

Celeste hopped up from the edge of Rachel’s desk and scooted towards Stephen’s office. “And here we go. Good luck, kid,” she muttered sotto voce.

Rachel’s perfect face was set in serious lines as she followed Andrew into his office. As soon as the door closed behind her he held up the letter in his hand.

“What is this?”

She stared at him with a blank look. “My two weeks’ notice.”

He frowned back. “I know what it is. Why did you give it to me?”

Her nose wrinkled in a puzzled expression that he knew was a total put on. “Should I have given it to Stephen?”

“Enough with the games, Rachel. Why are you giving your notice?”

Tension radiated from her like heat waves over a Texas highway in the summer. Unwilling to meet his gaze, she turned away to look past his shoulder towards the Houston skyline.

“I’m getting married.”

Married? The word shrieked through his skull. Rachel married?

“Who is he?”

“The Hungarian ambassador. I met him when you took me to that party at the Hebert’s about six months ago. He was in town visiting some mutual friends. We started talking, and he asked me out. We’ve been seeing each other since then.”

Andrew stared at her, stunned. He hadn’t known. Hadn’t had the faintest clue.

“When?” he managed to ask.

“After my two weeks are up I’ll be going to Washington. Then I’m going back to Hungary with him the last week in June to meet his family. We’ll be getting married there in August.”

Washington. Hungary. He was going to lose her. Not just as his receptionist—she was going away for good.

“Rachel…”

She shook her head, finally turning back to look at him. “I waited for you to grow up, Andrew. For the last four years I sat at that desk outside your office and waited. You’re a good man and I knew that someday you’d have to wake up. But I can’t wait any longer. I can’t take seeing you with all the other women anymore. So I’m marrying Sebastyen.”

“But…” he stammered, his brain flailing as it tried to process all of this. “You said you didn’t want to date any rich men.”

“I only wanted one. And I was afraid to date any others for fear that you’d think that I was chasing money.”

He wouldn’t have believed that, no matter who she had dated. Rachel was pure class and sophistication wrapped in a mouth-watering package. She could have had anyone she wanted without having to chase. If she had been after money, she would have had money. But she’d fended off every advance made by his wealthy friends for the last four years.

“Do you love him?”

“He’s a good man, and he loves me.” She paused for a moment then added, “Yes. I do.”

“Call it off. It isn’t too late.”

Rachel shook her head sadly. “It’s been too late. You don’t really mean it now, either. You’d change your mind by tomorrow morning and be looking for a way to escape what your impulses had gotten you into.”

He felt as though she’d kicked him in the stomach. How could she say something like that? But was it true? His mind shied away from examining his reaction too closely, which gave him his answer. Damn. Slowly he reached out and clasped one of her slender hands between his.

“I’m sorry, Rachel. I wish you well. And I wish things could have been different. You’ll never know how much I wish that.”

As she looked into his eyes, she sighed. “Grow up, Andrew,” she murmured, pulling her hand away. “Don’t do it for me—it’s too late for that. Do it for yourself. You could be so much more if you’d stop acting like an overgrown frat boy with Derek.”

“What am I going to do without you?”

“Trust Celeste. She’ll be a great friend and confidante to you if you’ll let her.”

Celeste? Guilt tickled at his soul. He had treated her pretty badly before Stephen married her, and even though they’d made up and she’d forgiven him he still didn’t feel easy in her company.

“She doesn’t hold a grudge, Andrew. Just give it a chance. Listen to her. Despite what you seem to think, she really does like you.”

“All right.” What did he have to lose?

She reached up to kiss him on the cheek. “It will all work out. You’ll see. This will be better for both of us.”

His heart cried out to pull her against him and crush her mouth beneath his until she gave up on this ridiculous idea of leaving him. Surely he could convince her to stay, to give them a chance? But he only watched as she turned away with that sad smile and vanished through his office door.

And then he was alone. He hadn’t felt so alone in years, not since his father had died. He supposed it was something he was just going to have to get used to again.

The next two weeks passed in a blur, and then she was gone.

Andrew went through his days on autopilot, scarcely paying attention to anything around him and spacing off into a gray limbo where he did his best to think about nothing. He couldn’t seem to make himself take an interest in anything. When his best friend Derek tried to get him to go out skirt chasing, Andrew put him off with claims of having to work. But the truth was that he was no longer in the mood. Rachel’s words had taken hold, and the thrill of the hunt had palled.

He’d had her, if he’d only had the sense to see it. She could have been his, if he’d only had the wit to reach out and take her. She put every other woman around him to shame and he’d been oblivious, let her slip right through his fingers and into another man’s arms. What kind of idiot did that?

Day after day went by, each one more dull and unfulfilling than the one before. He was sitting at his desk staring out over the city when Celeste pushed through his door without knocking.

“You can’t keep doing this, you know,” she said in her matter-of-fact way as she dropped into one of the empty chairs facing his desk.

“Doing what?”

“Beating yourself up over might-have-beens.”

He turned to her with a bleak look. “That’s easy for you to say. You got the one that you wanted.”

Celeste breathed an exasperated sigh. “Andrew,” she told him, her voice kind but firm, “neither of you made a move. Not in almost five years. That tells me that neither of you wanted it badly enough.”

A flush of anger warmed his face. “Just because we weren’t like you and Stephen going at it like rabbits on Viagra the very first night you met…”

Instead of getting offended, Celeste just laughed. “That’s just it, though. From the first moment we saw each other we felt something. It kept pulling us together, even when we were trying our hardest to fight it. Even if we hadn’t slept together that first night, we were both under each others’ skins. We couldn’t have just ignored it and walked away from each other every day for over four years without a major effort.”

She leaned forward in her chair, her eyes locked onto his. “I think that you and Rachel liked each other and had something built up in your heads in a what if kind of way, but you didn’t have that spark, that chemistry. If Rachel had felt that for you, she wouldn’t have waited around all those years while you hooked up with every woman in Houston. And you wouldn’t have let her walk away from you without getting her naked and doing your damnedest to convince her to stay.”

“Celeste—”

Listen to me, Drew. I’m trying to help you. You’re beating yourself up for losing something that you never really had in the first place. This is when you need to be thinking about why you’re doing that, when you’ve never done it before.”

He blinked at her. She did have a point. Why now? “I don’t know.”

“I think you need to get away for a while. Put some distance between you and what happened here. Get a change of scenery and clear your head.”

It sounded like a good idea when she said it. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Stephen was supposed to go to Key West next week to consult with Durant Exploration on those new test wells they’re drilling off the Florida coast. Why don’t you go instead?”

“Key West?” he asked dubiously. All he knew about Key West was that it had become a popular spring break destination for the college crowd.

Celeste grinned as she glanced from his perfect hair down to his expensive suit and immaculately buffed shoes. “Key West would be good for you.”

“How do you know?”

“I went there one year for spring break instead of going to South Padre. I think spending some time there would do you a world of good.”

His instincts urged him to say no, but when he looked into her eyes he could see the compassion and sincerity there. A glimmer of mischief twinkled in their depths as well; she definitely had something up her sleeve. But it wasn’t anything detrimental to him. He was sure of that.

“All right,” he agreed with a slow nod.

Celeste’s grin widened. “Stephen will be glad to hear that.”

“Oh?”

“I’m pregnant, so there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend the summer in Key West. And Stephen isn’t going to want us to be that far apart once he finds out.”

She was right about that. His older brother was already quite protective of his still-new wife, and he wasn’t going to want to be more than five feet away from Celeste until she delivered his baby.

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks. I’m excited and scared to death at the same time. So will you let me take care of the arrangements?”

Andrew rolled his eyes. “Sure, why not? Since I don’t have a new assistant yet, you’d get stuck doing it anyway.”

“I know you’re just going along with this to shut me up, but if you let me do this for you I promise you won’t be sorry.”

He was tempted to take it back. Somehow he knew that this was going to be a great big heaping mess of trouble. But Rachel had told him to trust Celeste, and Celeste had readily forgiven him even though he’d been a serious asshole to her. He sort of owed it to her.

“All right. I’m putting myself in your hands.”

She bounced up and down a little on her chair with excitement. “I swear you won’t regret it.”

While he couldn’t doubt her enthusiasm, he wasn’t nearly as certain of her ability to make good on that particular promise.

Two weeks after Rachel’s last day Andrew was flying to Key West on the company’s private Gulfstream V jet. Lassitude kept him glancing through the windows and lapsing into hazy daydreams, although he knew he needed to be studying the details of the upcoming meeting with the Durant team. Stiffening his spine, he fortified himself with a fresh cup of coffee and forced himself to focus on the latest data analysis from the geologists.

Durant Exploration was a young, upstart company—much like Winter’s Group—that focused on adopting new technologies and methods to the oil drilling process. They’d impressed someone with serious resources along the way, because somehow they’d been granted licenses to drill in the waters between the Florida Keys and Cuba. Florida had maintained a moratorium on drilling off their coast for decades to keep their beaches clean and had shown no signs of relaxing that stance until now.

Since Castro’s death, though, Cuba had expanded their own drilling efforts. A number of wells were being drilled in the international waters to the north, towards Florida, and Florida’s official resistance to drilling had begun to waver. The state had granted Durant Exploration rights to drill a dozen exploratory wells to the southeast of Key West. Other companies had drilled there decades before and come up empty, but Durant’s younger generation of geologists had re-analyzed the old data using cutting edge computer technology and managed to convince the politicians and venture capitalists that it was worth another shot.

This was the company that Winter’s Group would be partnering with, and Andrew would be meeting them face to face for the first time the following day. It was a good move for Winter’s Group, because together the two companies would be a real force to be reckoned with in the oil drilling business. Assuming they could make their systems work together and actually find some oil to repay the investors, of course.

A summer storm had been battering Houston when he left, but Key West was the portrait of a tropical paradise as the jet’s wheels touched down at the airport. The air itself seemed drenched in brilliant golden-yellow sunlight, and past the edge of the landing field palm fronds waved lazily in a soft, sultry breeze as though bidding him welcome.

The massive doors to the private hangar stood open, allowing the outside air to wash over Andrew as he stepped out of the plane. He paused on the stairs with a small laugh. The people he’d talked to had complained about how brutal Key West could be in the summer with its overpowering heat and humidity. Apparently they’d never spent a summer in Houston, because Key West felt positively idyllic in comparison. For the first time in weeks a little of the weight lifted from his shoulders as an odd feeling of optimism took hold of him. Maybe Celeste had been right and this was what he needed.

Outside the hangar a rented Mercedes SL550 waited for him, its metallic red paint gleaming wickedly in the sunlight. It practically begged him to take it out onto the highway and do reckless, exciting things under the blazing Florida sun. He fished a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket as one of the crew stowed his bags in the car’s trunk. Too bad he wasn’t here for fun. The ocean air was invigorating, flooding his veins with a nervous energy of anticipation and excitement that he hadn’t felt in far too long. It made him feel gloriously alive and he longed to sample everything the island had to offer like a tropical buffet. So what if he wasn’t here to have a good time? There was no way he could go home without exploring a bit and checking out the fabled night life.

By the time he pulled out of Key West International Airport and headed into Old Town and the address Celeste had programmed into his phone’s GPS, Andrew had lost any last qualms about trusting his sister-in-law’s judgment. At first he’d questioned her sanity when she’d found him a place in Old Town rather than getting him a suite at one of the luxury resorts on Sunset Key, but he had to admit that this section of town had serious old school charm going for it.

He drove through quiet neighborhoods full of the historic, hundred year old homes that Key West was known for. Tall, spreading trees even older than the houses offered their shade as a refuge from the tropical sun. As he penetrated further into the heart of Old Town the streets narrowed into a claustrophobic maze. They had been designed for horse carriages, not cars, and on a tiny island crammed with people and houses there just wasn’t any way to broaden them. The cramped confines didn’t stop people from parking on the streets, though, which made driving along them more like navigating an obstacle course. This wasn’t helped by the swarms of pedestrians and cyclists on scooters and bicycles which almost made this feel more like one of the teeming cities he had visited in Asia rather than a small town in the United States.

Andrew shook his head as he passed two people riding their bicycles down the cracked sidewalk. The bikes weren’t racing jobs like the ones he typically saw on Texas roads. These were antique-looking beach cruisers that his parents might have ridden in their youth, battered and rusted from heavy use and constant exposure to the salt air. It felt almost as though he had gone back in time.

A flash of color in the corner of his eye was all the warning he got. With a curse he slammed on his brakes as two very sunburned young men wearing nothing but surf shorts zipped around his car on a pair of scooters to cut him off. Once they were past him they zoomed ahead, weaving dangerously through the slower traffic. Andrew muttered another curse as he followed in their wake. The idiots were going to get themselves killed.

The pedestrians weren’t much better, rubbernecking as they walked along and crossing the crowded streets with hardly a glance to spare for oncoming traffic. Andrew slowed down until he was crawling along at well under the speed limit and began to wonder if he was ever going to make it through to the house where he was staying. He was too busy watching out for the pedestrians and cyclists to do more than glance at his phone, so he was startled when the maps app announced, “You have arrived at your destination.”

The first thing he saw was the gleaming white picket fence. Behind it a sprawling, two story Queen Anne mansion crouched half-hidden behind a wild jumble of palms and strange trees covered in brilliant red-orange flowers. It hardly looked real, more like an exotic movie set or something. A narrow gravel drive curved around the side of the house and he followed it to a small parking lot shaded by another pair of those flowery trees, where he pulled in next to a battered Buick which the tropical sun had bleached from bronze to pale tan. When he got out he could see that the back seat of the Buick was stuffed with boxes and odds and ends.

With a mental shrug he turned away to retrieve his bags from the trunk. A path led through the trees to the front of the house, which had a long front porch with several wicker chairs and lazily turning ceiling fans. It wasn’t hard to envision sitting out there on a lazy afternoon like this to just watch the world go by.

The doorbell gave a pleasant, deep chime when he pushed the button. From inside he heard noises and the clatter of footsteps on a hardwood floor. A harried looking woman with her hair up in a bun opened the door and eyed him warily. Strands of gray shot through her tightly bound blonde hair, and the age lines creasing her face made her appear older than he had expected.

“Mrs. Pratchett?”

She relaxed as she saw his luggage. “Yes. You must be Mr. Winter. Please come in.”

He followed her into the foyer, setting his bags down by the staircase so he could offer his hand. “Celeste told me that you were the live-in housekeeper. I’m pleased to meet you.”

Her mouth tightened. “That won’t last long.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, confused by her reaction. “Is something wrong?”

“My mother had a stroke this morning. It affected her vision and her ability to get around on her own, so I’m going to have to move in to take care of her.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, and I hope she improves. And while I appreciate having a live-in housekeeper, it isn’t necessary. I’m sure that we can work something out where you can come by whenever you’re able to leave her to handle things around here. How far away does your mother live?”

The older woman crossed her arms with an amused look. “Pensacola.”

As far away as you could get from Key West and still be in Florida. “Oh.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Winter. I was only waiting for you to arrive so I could hand over the keys. I had tried calling earlier to give some warning, but there was no answer.”

“You called our office?”

“Yes. I was trying to get hold of that nice Celeste who set this up in the first place.”

“And you won’t be coming back.”

She shrugged. “I was ready to leave Key West anyway. It’s too hot and too crowded, and everyone is always minding everyone else’s business. I’m getting too old to want to walk or ride a bicycle everywhere, and things are getting more expensive every day. Besides, I’d like to live someplace normal again.”

She held out a ring of keys and dropped them into his hand, then pulled a piece of paper from her purse and shoved it at him.

“These are the emergency contact numbers. The owner, in case the place burns down—which it might, what with all the old wiring. There’s the handyman we use for plumbing and electrical problems—he also deals with things like broken locks and such. Lawn services. Cable and internet provider. The owner pays those, of course, but if there’s a problem with the service you can call them.”

Ten minutes later she walked out the back door and left Andrew alone. She had given him a quick tour of the house and an even quicker rundown of the local amenities like the grocery store and reliable restaurants nearby. Andrew went to the foyer to retrieve his bags and dumped them in his room. He was going to have to call Celeste and have her hook him up with a new housekeeper through a temp agency or something.

Other than the whisper of the air conditioning and the soft ticking of the clock on the foyer mantel the house was silent as Andrew wandered through to examine the rooms more carefully. Despite Mrs. Pratchett’s comments about the wiring, it was obvious that the place had recently been restored. The hardwood floors gleamed with a silken sheen, and there wasn’t a trace of mold or mildew damage anywhere. Still, it was so large that being alone there left him feeling like the last M&M in the candy jar. He was going to miss having the older woman there to bustle about and at least make a little noise.

So now what? The first order of business was to call Celeste. He let the phone ring half a dozen times and was about to hang up when a croaking voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Celeste? Are you okay?”

“Yes. I made the mistake of going out to brunch with your sister, and I’ve been trying to throw up my toenails.”

“Thank you so much for that charming visual.”

“Sorry. This morning sickness thing is getting really old fast. So you made it in all right? What do you think of the house?”

“The house is gorgeous. There’s just one little problem. I’m short a housekeeper.”

“What?”

He quickly gave her a rundown of Mrs. Pratchett’s abandonment of her post, and when he was finished Celeste heaved a sigh.

“I’m sorry, Drew. I’ll see about getting you someone else ASAP.”

With a shrug that she couldn’t see, he turned to look out the windows of the den onto the pool and rear garden. “No rush. I’m a big boy and can survive on my own for a while. There’s food in the pantry and I’ll just fend for myself. Honestly, I don’t mind the alone time.” It was sort of true. Barely.

“Well, I’ll get you someone who can come in and tidy up and do your laundry, at least.”

“When you’re feeling up to it.”

“I’ll be fine in a few minutes. It wears off and then I’m right as rain again. Well, until the next day, anyway. Oh! Jason Durant called while you were on the plane. He wanted you to call his cell as soon as you made it in.”

“Okay. I’d better do that now. Take care of yourself.”

“You, too. Relax. Take some time for yourself while you’re there.”

“I promise I’ll try. Bye.”

As soon as she hung up he pulled up Jason Durant’s number. This time the receiver picked up right away.

“This is Jason.”

“It’s Andrew Winter. Celeste said that you were trying to reach me.”

“Yeah. I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”

And wasn’t that just what he needed? “What kind of bad news?”

“There’s been a lot of opposition to the drilling, and now there’s been a challenge filed against our state licenses to drill. They found a judge who granted them an injunction to halt any operations until it can go to court.”

“Can they do that?”

“It’s done. We’ve already put our lawyers on it, but the opposition is going to drag it out as long as they can. We’re looking at several weeks, at least. I’m going to postpone the meeting until we have a better idea of where we stand, but if they delay matters too long we’re going to have to abandon the project and take on other clients to pay the bills.”

“I see.”

Jason’s voice was heavy with regret. “I’m sorry we dragged you out here for nothing. I thought that once we had those licenses in hand we were golden.”

“Hey, it happens. The environmental issues are just part of the game.”

“Thanks. We’ll reimburse you for the flight and any other expenses, of course.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It wasn’t your fault, and it gave me an excuse to get out of Houston for a while. Just let me know if there’s anything we can do to help you get this straightened out. We’d be happy to lend some of our legal staff to assist.”

“Our guys are pretty good, but I’ll ask them if they could use the help.”

“All right. Call me when you’ve got news.”

Andrew plopped onto the sofa and stared at his phone. What to do now? There was no real point in sticking around since it would take weeks for the matter to go through the courts. Until then their hands were tied, so he should probably just go home to Houston.

But he didn’t really want to go back, at least not yet. If he went home he’d spend all his time thinking about Rachel, who was in Washington now and would be leaving for Hungary soon. He’d have to walk past her empty desk every day and be reminded of what he’d let slip through his fingers. Even worse, he’d have to start interviewing to find her replacement and he wasn’t ready to face that.

Damn it. It wasn’t as though he’d been in love with her or anything, but he’d grown more attached to her than he’d realized, much less wanted to admit. Rachel had been the sole normal relationship he had with a woman he wasn’t related to, and he’d come to rely on that stability to cover for his endless one night stands.

No, he wasn’t going back to Houston. There was no reason to. Winter’s Group could easily do without him for a while, so he would take a break. Go on vacation. He’d been working ridiculous hours for years helping Stephen build the company up from practically nothing, and while he’d played hard he hadn’t been on a real vacation since college.

Hell, if he wanted to he could afford to go on a permanent vacation. He had more than enough money to live like a king without ever working another day for the rest of his life. Andrew wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he wanted, but ever since Rachel had handed in her notice his life had felt like a suit of clothes that had shrunk in the wash and didn’t fit right anymore.

So he’d change his life to fit him again. Somehow. For now he was going to relax and let go for a while, see if he could find himself and figure out a future that made sense. He needed to get his head straightened out before he went home, and so he called Celeste back.

When she answered she was clearly annoyed. “I haven’t had a chance to find anyone yet, Drew. Give me a little time.”

He related what Jason Durant had told him.

“So you’re coming back? I’ll get the plane turned around.”

He smiled at the disappointment in her voice. “No, I’m staying here for a while. I’ll take a few days off in the tropics and see what Key West is all about.”

“Really?” she squealed. “That’s great! Don’t worry about anything here—it’s all under control. If anything comes up, Stephen will call you. Just take some time and enjoy yourself.”

“That I can do.”

“And I’ll get you a new housekeeper as soon as I can.”

“Whenever. It might be nice not having anyone underfoot for a while.”

“Some time alone might be good for you,” she agreed. “Oh! Stephen wanted me to tell you that the Eatons are going to be in the Keys this weekend. They’re down there on their yacht and will be stopping over for a few days.”

Jack Eaton was an old friend of Andrew’s father, and had been Uncle Jack for as long as he could remember. He’d also been one of the first investors in Winter’s Group.

“It’ll be good to see them. I’ll take them out to dinner or something while they’re here.”

“Okay. I’ll let Stephen know that you’re staying in Key West until…”

Until he grew up? “Until I’ve got a reason to come home,” he finished for her. But he wasn’t looking forward to that, and he’d prolong the inevitable as long as he could.

When he got off the phone he was completely at loose ends for the first time in years. So now what? While he pondered that question, he wandered around the house and grounds. Unlike most of the homes in Key West which had little more than a thin strip of land around them, the mansion sat on half an acre and possessed a pool, an enormous backyard with lush gardens, and a detached housekeeper’s cottage.

The mansion itself had seven bedrooms and bathrooms, a bar, and a kitchen that was the equal of the one in Stephen’s mansion back in Houston. There was also a library full of books and nostalgic items related to the history of Key West. Some of it looked fascinating and he intended to spend some time studying it, but later.

His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast in Houston. Screw it, then. He’d go get something to eat and have a couple of drinks, and then decide what he wanted to do when he was more relaxed. One thing at a time, his Dad had always told him. Pick one problem that you know you can fix, and when you’ve got it knocked out move on to the next one. It sure beat sitting around trying to figure out how to solve all of them at once and never accomplishing anything.

* * *

June was part of the off-season for tourists in Key West, but as Nicole headed to work she found the streets jammed with an unusual number of them for that time of year. Most likely a cruise ship had come in for a quick stopover. Whatever the cause, pedestrians crowded the sidewalks while streams of bicycles and scooters held up the cars that some people stubbornly insisted on driving through the worst traffic snarls on the island.

Nicole babied her scooter through the chaos, taking extra care even though she frowned at the thought of being late for work. Normally that wasn’t such a big deal on Key West, which ran on its own “island time” and didn’t worry too much about little things like that. Her new boss wasn’t a native Conch, though, and tended to look down on what he considered the slacker lifestyle of the Keys. Not that she was habitually late or anything. She’d learned early on that tourists paying for dive tours tipped better if you were punctual.

No, his attitude towards her had more to do with her brushing off the pass he’d made at her a week ago. While he looked down his nose at the free-wheeling lifestyle of Key West, he apparently had no problem with the idea of sleeping with his own employees. She found that stupid as well as hypocritical, especially since her experience with Dylan had left her assured of the wisdom of not dipping your pen in the company ink.

She groaned when she turned onto Duval Street and saw the nightmare snarl of traffic. Briefly she considered cutting back onto one of the side streets, but she wasn’t sure if they would be much better. Avoiding traffic jams on an island as small as Key West could be tricky at best, and it was easy to end up stuck behind an even worse bottleneck on a back road. Better to just ride it out and hope she still made it on time. The light ahead was about to change and she sped up a little to make it through. That was when it happened.

A knot of people, among them an older couple on bicycles, stood at the cross street to her right where they were waiting for the light to change. Behind them two drunken tourists on scooters were racing up the sidewalk, where they had no business being at all. One of them slewed his scooter to a stop as he saw the group up ahead, but the other zoomed on, oblivious on his phone, until he plowed into the back of them.

Screams pierced through the traffic noise as the scooter rammed into one of the bicycles and the elderly woman watched her companion tumble backwards onto the pavement. The scooter and its rider flipped up and over to skid into the intersection right in front of Nicole.

On instinct she hit her brakes and twisted to the left so she wouldn’t run over him and hurt him worse than he must already be—and probably cause her to crash as well. The scooter slowed quickly, but not fast enough to avoid ramming into the side of the shiny, red car that had been coming through the intersection from the opposite direction. Her teeth clacked together as she came to a very sudden stop, and the driver braked hard and cut his wheel sharply away from her. Nicole found herself looking right at him as they both came to a stop.

If her heart hadn’t already been pounding, the man staring back at her would have started it hammering. She had sworn off men after Dylan, but this guy was almost enough to make her reconsider—sexy as sin without being too pretty, with glossy black hair ruffled from driving around in the afternoon breeze with his windows rolled down. Nervously she glanced down towards his full, kissable lips and hoped she hadn’t been drooling over him too badly.

It was too late, though. He had caught her staring, and his face broke into a slow, playful smile that laughed at her. I know what you’re thinking. When he reached up and pulled off his sunglasses, his cool, blued-steel eyes seemed to pierce through her to read her very soul. Her mouth went desert dry as she met his gaze, mainly because of the tingly flutter he had awakened in her tummy. Oh, this guy was trouble with a capital T.

“Are you okay, Miss?”

It was really hard to talk with a mouth full of cotton. “I’m fine,” she muttered.

Afraid of her reaction if she looked into his eyes any longer, she cast a glance over her shoulder. A crowd had gathered around the drunken tourist, who lay crumpled in the street where he had come to rest underneath his scooter. It was pretty obvious he was going to need a hospital, and a siren wailed in the distance. She would have to find an alternate route to get to work because this intersection was going to be shut down until an ambulance got there.

The car door opened and Nicole turned back as the driver got out. She looked up—and up—at him. Well over six feet tall, he wore an elegantly tailored charcoal gray suit that screamed money and neatly fit his broad shoulders and rangy frame. That flutter stirred low in her stomach again. He was even hotter out of his red sports car than he was in it, especially when he shrugged out of his suit jacket and tossed it onto the passenger seat. His shoulders looked ready to burst the seams of his fitted blue shirt, and he carefully rolled up the sleeves to reveal muscular, tanned forearms.

He closed the car door and bent down to inspect the front fender where Nicole had hit him. The paint there was gouged along a shallow dent the size of her palm, and she groaned inwardly. The car looked brand new, too. When she caught sight of the emblem on the hood, a sick feeling replaced the flutter in her stomach. Wouldn’t it just have to be a Mercedes?

“Is your scooter all right?”

Her scooter? It took her a second to wrap her mind around what he was asking. The front fender had been twisted to one side so that it was digging deep into the tire, which would no longer turn. Lovely. She was never going to make it to work on time now.

“Damn it.”

The driver of the Mercedes was watching her speculatively, and Nicole realized that he was really looking at her, the way a man who is interested looks at a woman. She couldn’t help the frisson of pleasure that rippled through her, although she did her best to make sure it didn’t show.

“Do you mind?” he asked, pointing to her scooter.

She shook her head and watched as he knelt down and gripped the scooter’s fender. The muscles in his arms and shoulders bunched under his shirt as he strained against the metal until it slowly bent back more or less where it was supposed to be. He looked at it from a couple of different angles, bent it a little further away from the tire, then gave a satisfied nod.

“That will get you where you’re going,” he said with a satisfied smile. “Doesn’t look like it cut into the tire or anything.”

He really needed to stop smiling at her. It was affecting her ability to make coherent sentences and making her forget important things like the need to get to work, not to mention that pesky little swearing off men thing.


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