Soft chuckles drifted through the open window on a warm draft of morning air.
Chase’s eyelids fluttered as the sounds slowly drew him out of a restless sleep. Groaning, he turned onto his stomach, hugged his pillow, and tried to fall back to sleep. Then the town’s clock pealed out the morning hour, bringing him fully awake.
“Seriously?” Rolling on to his side, Chase tossed the rumpled sheet aside and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Evergreen, unlike Granite Falls, hadn’t changed much since he’d been gone. He staggered toward the window and the sounds of the chuckles, flinching as his aching muscles reminded him of the previous night’s activities.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
What the hell had he been thinking, sleeping with Lisa? He’d been home for one night and he’d already screwed up—royally. Hector had warned him to stay out of trouble, and like a bull seeing red, he’d charged right into it without batting an eyelash.
Chase groaned again as he peeked through the shades at the house across the lawn. Just as he’d feared, Lisa was busy blabbing to the young woman who lived in the house. Chase didn’t need to imagine what they were talking about. The gloat on Lisa’s face and the scowl on her companion’s said it all.
Chase leaned his shoulder against the window frame as his eyes lingered on the other woman. She was slender, with long black hair brushing her gentle sloping shoulders, prominent cheekbones beneath a smooth coffee complexion, a sexy wide mouth featuring succulent lips, and enchanting brown eyes that took Chase’s breath away each time he gazed into them.
Her name was Desire.
And he desired her.
But now, instead of just one obstacle standing between Chase and his Desire, there were two.
Chase’s heart did a flip as Desire raised her head and stared across the lawn as if she sensed he was watching her. They might not have seen each other for twelve years, but that special bond they’d shared growing up next door to each other was still there. He released a soft moan, and his shaft tightened and slapped against his stomach as the morning sunrays splayed across Desire’s face, drawing out the golden undertones of her skin and illuminating the cherry richness of her lips. It was a taste of both heaven and hell to see her in the flesh.
For the first few years after he’d been forced out of town, Chase had tried to keep up with news about Desire through his mother. He’d waited with bated breath for her to say that Desire had asked about him, had enquired about his whereabouts, when he was coming back so they could talk. But he’d eventually had to push her to the back of his mind when she’d begun dating. It was just too painful thinking of Desire with other men, and besides, he could not afford to wallow in self-pity, or harbor any other type of distraction from his master plan until he was ready to return to Evergreen and take back all that had been stolen from him.
He’d kept an ear out, though, for any news of her becoming engaged to some other man—an event for which he would have abandoned his plan for certain. Desire was far more important than revenge.
Several months ago when Chase received his edition of Granite Falls People News, he’d almost blown a load when he’d opened up his copy to page four and had seen Desire Summers in a black floral print dress posing in Evergreen’s famous Flower Garden Maze. Her company, Weddings by Desire, had gained global attention for coordinating the extravagant fairy tale group wedding for four billionaires from Granite Falls.
Chase had thought Desire beautiful at eighteen—the last time he’d seen her—but the woman who’d stared back at him from that magazine page was unbelievably stunning. At that moment, Desire had stepped out of Chase’s dreams and right back into his heart. The fact that she’d chosen to pose in the garden, in the exact spot where she had kissed him for the first time twelve years ago, had renewed Chase’s hope that she might still be in love with him.
Chase rubbed the pad of his thumb across his lips at the heated memory of Desire’s soft, luscious, and barely legal lips pressed up against his in the garden that night. He remembered the lingering taste of peppermint and chocolate ice cream on her tongue.
He’d always loved her, respected, and adored her, and that night in the garden when she’d made the first move, indicating that she was ready to step into his adult world, Chase had unleashed all the emotions he’d been holding back and allowed himself to fall head-over-heels in love with Desire. The need to make love with her had been severe, but he’d had to slow the pace because of her tender age, her inexperience, and the fact that her father didn’t like him very much.
Now he’d returned, determined to change her father’s opinion about him, and hopefully convince Desire to give him—give them—another chance. But Chase’s world had once again fallen apart when he snuck into his mother’s house last night, only to overhear the worst news of his life.
Desire was engaged to—of all people—Chase’s younger brother, Chad.
Anxiety tore at Chase’s insides as he recalled the moments following his mother’s remark about calling to tell him about his brother’s engagement.
“No need, Mom,” Chase had said, stepping into the kitchen. A recent graduate of the School of Deceit, Chase conjured a hearty smile. His gut was ripping apart as he took in the mixture of joy and surprise on his mother’s oblong-shaped face and the twinkles in her lively gray eyes. Average height and curvy, she was strong and beautiful, and he loved her.
So instead of spoiling her happiness, Chase had made a mental date to drown his pain in a bottle of Scotch later that night. Cheap tequila had been his friend when he’d first left Evergreen, but as time passed, he’d graduated to Scotch. The good, expensive kind. They hadn’t spent a lot of time together in the past few years, but they would be picking up where they’d left off before the night was out. He was certain of that.
“Chase! Chase!” His mother flew across the floor and threw herself into his arms, hugging him so ferociously, breathing had become difficult for Chase.
He hugged her back, kissing her plump cheeks over and over again.
She reluctantly released him and gazed up at him, grinning from ear to ear. “You’re back in Evergreen. We weren’t expecting you. We didn’t know you were coming home. Oh, my heart is so full tonight to have both my sons here with me, at last.” She hugged him again, then asked, “Are you hungry? We just had baked chicken, rice, some grilled broccoli with pumpkin seeds, and a salad. There’s plenty left.”
Chase glanced at the stove where some covered pots were hanging out. “No, Mom.” He was starving, but anything he sent down his esophagus would be back up in seconds. “I stopped in town and had something to eat.” He hated lying to her, but it was better than vomiting all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor, or worse, her kitchen table.
“Hey, Chase.” Chad rose from the table.
“Hey, little brother.” Chad’s brief hug wasn’t as enthusiastic as their mother’s, but Chad had never been an overly affectionate child. Chase remembered their mother begging her youngest son for hugs when they were growing up. Chad was fifteen when Chase left home, and from what he’d observed from the times they’d visited him in Iowa, Chad’s aloof personality hadn’t improved.
That’s why Chase couldn’t believe what he’d just heard.
“Come on, sit.” His mother pulled him down into the chair next to her. She held on to his hand as if she were afraid he’d run off again. “I’m obviously happy you’re here, son,” she said, her eyes beaming from the ceiling light, “but I’m dying to know what made you decide to come back home.”
“It was time, Mom.” That wasn’t a lie.
“Well, you picked the right time,” Chad said, returning to his chair on the other side of the kitchen table. “I’m sure you heard the news.”
Chase swallowed the knot in his throat. “Yep. So when’s the wedding?”
“We haven’t set a date yet. We only got engaged three days ago.”
Three days ago. He was three days too late. Talk about bad timing. He should have returned for love instead of revenge. If love had been his motivation, he would have been home long ago, before Chad had the chance or even the idea of proposing to Desire. Hearing that she’d pledged herself to another man at the very time his hopes for them had begun to resurface was hard to take.
But to his brother?
Had it been any other man, Chase would have viewed her engagement as a challenge, one he would have moved heaven and earth to break up, but when it came to family…that was one road Chase dared not take. It would be history repeating itself—the contemptible history Chase had fled from in order to keep it hidden. Not that he thought his and Chad’s rivalry over the same girl would have ended the way Chase’s father’s and his uncle’s had ended. Nonetheless, if that secret ever got out, everyone would have been looking at Chase, shaking their heads, and thinking: Like father like son.
Nope, Chase would have to sit out this one and let it fall apart on its own. He hoped Desire came to her senses before it was too late. Maybe if she saw him face-to-face, the feelings she’d once had for him would come rushing back, just as poignantly as his had the moment he’d seen her picture in the magazine.
Chase would bet his jet that it was Desire’s burgeoning professional success and not her physical beauty, or even the unique qualities of her heart and soul that interested Chad. No, his brother, who was quickly rising to the top of the twin towns’ elite chart as one of the most influential lawyers in the area, and who had several times mentioned his interest in running for office, was as pragmatic as they came.
Last night, as he’d talked about Desire, Chase had been waiting for Chad to get that giddy look in his eyes, that catch in his voice, that stupid grin on his face that men got when they were truly in love. He was still waiting.
Since the billionaires’ wedding, Desire had been in high demand. Hollywood celebrities, and business executives and politicians across the nation had solicited her services. Chase knew his opportunistic brother well enough to know that he planned to ride Desire all the way to Washington, D.C. Through her business, Desire was acquiring a long list of connections that would be more beneficial to Chad than it was to her.
Chad’s reasons for marrying Desire were as clear as crystal, but why Desire had chosen to marry Chad was the billion-dollar question. The one question Chase knew he had to ask her, and depending on her answer, he would either…
“Chase, are you up?”
Speak of the devil.
Chase swung away from the window and grabbed a pair of jeans from the footboard of his bed, just as his bedroom door flew open.
“Oops.” Chad grinned as Chase hauled his jeans over his hips.
“Will you ever learn to knock before barging in?” Chase carefully eased the zipper over his morning erection. “You always barged in, even as a kid.”
“I’m glad you’re home. It’s been a while. A boy needs his big brother.”
“Like he needs a hammer smashed against his head.” Chase gave Chad’s six-foot, lean frame a once-over. Fully dressed in a suit and tie, with a pretty face and green smiling eyes, Chad looked sharp and articulate. Always did. “What do you want?” Chase was irritated beyond words, and he made no effort to hide it. If he weren’t still trying to keep a low profile, he would have been waking up in his recently rented penthouse suite at Hotel Andreas in Granite Falls. Nobody was supposed to know that he’d joined the ranks of young, wealthy bachelors on the global market. And until he was ready to go public, he had to keep pretending that he was the same poor old Chase who’d been chased out of town—even to his family.
“I was wondering if you wanted to ride into Granite Falls with me this morning. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
“Chad, we saw each other at Easter when you and Mom visited me in Iowa. We’ve seen each other frequently over the years. So cut the crap.”
“You hurt Mom when you left so abruptly, you know? She was depressed for weeks, months, but you didn’t have to stay away this long. You didn’t have to leave because of that video. It would have blown over quickly like everything else around here. In fact it did in a few months when Victoria shot—”
“Is that what you came in here to discuss? My past transgressions?” One long stride and Chase towered a good three inches over Chad. He flexed his muscles and narrowed his eyes as he stared down his brother. “Because you have a couple of your own we can take a swing at. One in particular.”
Chad took a hasty step away from Chase and dropped his gaze.
“Have you told her?”
“It was a long time ago, Chase. I was a kid. It only happened one time. There’s no reason to tell her anything. You, of all people, should understand.”
Yeah, he understood. He understood a lot more than his devious little brother thought he did. “I ask again, what do you want, Chad?”
Chad pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and sent Chase a sheepish look. “Well, since you’ve been away, a lot has changed around here.”
Like you moving in on my girl.
“New businesses and people have moved into the twin towns. The old roads have been rerouted and new ones built. Lots of new suburban residential communities are being built. The mill buildings down by the Mannis River are being renovated to accommodate the influx of investors and new businesses. They’re putting in an esplanade like the one on the Aiken River in Granite Falls. Two marinas and million-dollar lakeside mansions are going up along the Evergreen side of Crystal Lake and on Cedar Lake, too. Your old employer, Carron Architecture, won the bids for most of the projects, but I heard another company, D&C or C&D Designs, out-bid them for the major projects.”
“And?” Chase asked, when Chad stopped to take a breath.
“The point is, I have some free time this morning and I’d like to show you around. You don’t have a car and your old Yamaha has been sitting so long, it probably needs a tune-up.” He looked Chase up and down. “How long are you home for, anyway? You never said. Do they need you back on the farm in Iowa anytime soon?”
The question was legit since Chase’s family thought he’d spent the past decade working as a farmhand down in Iowa. They had no idea that he owned Carver Farm, and had been using it as a cover to mask his true identity in the corporate world for the past eight years.
“How long are you staying?” Chad repeated.
“I have no idea. Maybe until another video of me surfaces,” he said, surprised that his heartbeat didn’t accelerate at the mention of his worst blunder. The sweetness of revenge had definitely taken over the pain of embarrassment and the loss of his love.
“See that you don’t. Mom won’t survive another disgrace like that one.”
You don’t know the half of it.
“I’m serious, Chase. You disappeared without a trace. A whole year went by before Mom and I knew where you were. We thought you’d gone off and—”
“What? Killed myself?”
“We were worried.”
“Well, I’m not dead.” But you might soon wish I were.
“Desire and I are having lunch with a reporter from Twin Town Times. Our engagement will be public by tomorrow morning. I thought you’d like to join us and give—”
“No, thank you.” Chase picked up his duffel bags from the floor, dumped the contents out onto his bed, and began stuffing the drawers of his bureau and dresser, one huge handful at a time, even as he wondered why he was unpacking since he was only staying a couple days in the house. Oh, yeah. Appearances.
“You don’t need to be so antagonistic toward Desire, Chase. I’m sure she’s forgiven you. She’s not an immature teenager anymore. She’s a woman with a level head. You can’t avoid her forever. She’ll be family, your sister-in-law. Once we have kids—”
“Do you love her?” Chase jammed a handful of underwear into the top drawer of his dresser and slammed it shut. He turned to face his brother. What he wanted to ask was if they’d been sleeping together and for how long. But he didn’t think he could deal with a positive response.
“Love?” Chad chuckled on his way to the window Chase had been staring out of earlier. “Desire and I are practical people. We’re not governed by silly notions like love and romance. Many of the couples she helps down the aisle end up in divorce court at some point. She’ll help put them together and when they’re ready, I’ll assist in breaking them apart.”
Ever the cynical bastard. “So it’s a business arrangement.”
“It’s a good match.”
“A good match? Where are we, in seventeenth-century England?”
“That’s the problem with you, Chase. You let your emotions rule you. You’ve always been hotheaded. You must learn to use your head. Well, the one on your shoulders,” he added with a snicker.
“So you’re telling me you feel nothing for Desire.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Chad shrugged. “I won’t say nothing. She’s the first friend I had, ever, even though she’s three years older than me, and after you left, our friendship blossomed. We respect each other. She knows I’ll never hurt her or embarrass her.”
Like I did.
“We’re fond of each other, and...”
Chase took his travel case to the dresser and began unloading his toiletries as Chad went on and on about why he and Desire were perfect for each other. By admitting that love wasn’t a factor in his impending marriage, Chad had given Chase tacit consent to derail his plan.
From what Chase remembered about Desire, love was important to her. That hot July night when she’d kissed him in the garden on her eighteenth birthday, she’d told him that it was the place where she wanted to get married. She’d even gone so far as to lay out the plan for him. She wanted a harp and violin orchestra, the release of butterflies during the exchange of vows and white doves after the ceremony while she and her new husband walked down the garden path hand-in-hand. As she’d described the perfect romantic wedding, Chase’s twenty-one-year-old heart had begun speeding like an Indy 500 race car dashing for the finish line.
“I want to be your Desire, Chase Hunter,” she’d said in a tremulous voice, her beautiful brown eyes gazing with love, affection, and hope into his. “I know I’m young and you’ve had a lot of women and experience, and my parents might disown me because of your wild reputation, but I don’t care. You’re the man I want standing by my side on my most special day. I’m giving you my heart, hoping you’ll give me yours. Will you be My Chase for real?”
Chase was young. The night was hot. Her breath smelled like peppermint and chocolate ice cream, and tasted just as sweet. He’d promised to be her Chase, and kissed her again and again and again that night as the moonlight bathed their faces.
Chase closed one hand around the wooden pendant hanging from the black hemp cord around his neck. The wood was fashioned into the shape of a heart with a butterfly painted on the top side of it. Desire had been fascinated with butterflies as a little girl. She’d given him the necklace on her fifteenth birthday, just before he left for college, and had asked him to keep it for her until she was all grown up. She’d grown up that night in the garden. Chase swallowed as his thumb slid along the engraved words on the bottom of the heart: Desire’s Chase.
“…perfect for each other. Desire won’t have much time to hang out with her after we’re married. She will be busy hosting business meetings and such. You know, you should marry her, take her back to Iowa with you, settle down and raise a bunch of little Chases.”
Chase whipped around. “What the hell are you talking about, Chad?”
“Lisa. I heard the two of you last night.” Chad turned with a grin. “That old trailer in the backyard was rocking off its axles and—”
Chase growled. “Don’t you have anything better to do than sneak around in the middle of the night watching other people f—”
“Stop. Stop.” Chad raised his hands. “Remember where you are, brother. You’re home, not in some cornfield in Iowa. So hold the expletives, please. As to my sneaking around on you, Mom still forbids me to smoke in the house, so I went out back, and that’s when I heard Lisa’s, ‘Oh God! Oh Chase. Oh God. Oh…’ I wouldn’t be surprised if that isn’t what Desire and Lisa are talking about. You know women share their sexual experiences, right? They might even be planning a double wedding. From what I heard last night, you two seem to really enjoy each other. She’s a good match for you. I can picture you working side by side on the farm in Iowa. You should—”
Chase charged toward his brother. “Get the hell out of my room, Chad!”
Chad made a dash for the door and turned to face Chase from the other side. “You should reconsider having lunch with Desire and—”
Chase slammed the door in his face. He shrugged out of his jeans, and as he headed for the bathroom, he chastised himself for allowing Chad to get under his skin—the way he used to when they were kids. Chad would always find a way to get Chase all riled up, then sit back and laugh while Chase ranted and raged out of control.
They were so different, like chalk and cheese, he thought, as he turned on the shower and stepped into the tub. Chad wore silk suits; even though he was wealthy now, Chase still preferred old jeans and T-shirts that had been worn so many times that even after he came around to washing them, they still maintained his form. Chad gave himself a close shave every morning and visited the salon every other week to trim his sandy hair, while Chase clipped his beard with a pair of scissors, and wore his dark locks at shoulder length. Chad enjoyed fancy restaurants, fine wine, and that classical crap for music. Chase felt right at home in a burger joint with a draft of cold beer and the jukebox blasting some country and western singer’s sad lyrics about somebody who done did somebody wrong. Chad liked the opera and ballet, while Chase preferred hard-action thrillers, rough football, and wrestling.
The only thing they had in common was their high IQs. Straight-A students, they had graduated top of their individual classes from Granite Falls Prep High School. Chad had been eager to attend college, and had earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
Chase, on the other hand, had enrolled at Dartmouth College just to get his mother off his back. Bored stiff sitting still for all those long lecturing hours, he’d dropped out after the first year. It just wasn’t his thing. He already knew what he wanted to do with his life and he didn’t need a college degree to verify it. Despite the wild sex with a great number of college women, and one or two adventurous female professors, Chase had been glad to get the hell out of there.
It had broken his mother’s heart, but she’d learned to accept his decision. His mother believed in her children choosing their own paths and had always backed up their choices whether she liked it or not. She often said that folks learned only from their own mistakes. Chase had made a lot of mistakes—as recently as last night. It seemed he still had a lot to learn.
Chase lathered up his washcloth and kicked himself mentally for the umpteenth time since he’d limped out of the trailer and snuck into his room after his romp last night. Back when he used to roam the neighborhoods, Lisa must have been the only girl who’d never thrown herself at him, probably because Desire had told her how she felt about him. But after hearing that Desire was engaged, Lisa probably figured that the one reason she’d denied herself a piece of Chase Hunter didn’t exist anymore. So when Chase had called her up and told her about Desire and Chad’s engagement, Lisa had been all too happy to help him ease the pain in his heart.
But a roll in the hay—in this case, a hump in the camper—was as far as his relationship with Lisa went. Chase scrubbed at his skin as if trying to eradicate the evidence of his indiscretion. He hoped Chad didn’t say anything to their mother about him and Lisa, and of Chad’s stupid idea of a double wedding, especially because their mother had questioned Chase last night about his plans to settle down and raise a family. Her questions had sent Chase running from the house in search of therapy. He couldn’t lie to his mother about the matters of his heart. It was his love and protection toward her that had sent him in search of the truth and his roots that she’d buried a long time ago.
For the past twelve years, Chase had wished that the only family history he knew began thirty years ago when he was three, and his mother, Azura Bennett, moved from Iowa to New Hampshire to work as a nurse at Granite Falls General Hospital. She’d fallen in love with and married Dr. Chadwick Hunter, a dermatologist who worked at the hospital. Chadwick adopted Chase as his own son and then a few years into his marriage with Azura, he suffered a stroke and died.
Unbeknownst to Azura, Chadwick had been addicted to gambling and was almost bankrupt when he died. Azura had immediately sold their house in upper suburban Granite Falls and purchased a home in the less affluent town of Evergreen. Luckily for Chase, she’d bought the smallest and most affordable house on Crawford Avenue, right next door to Gerald and Ruth Summers and their two daughters, sixteen-year-old Victoria and three-year-old Desire.
Shortly after their move to Evergreen, Azura left Chase with one of her friends, went to the hospital for a couple days, and returned with a squirming little baby boy. She placed him on Chase’s lap and said, “Chase, this is your little brother, Chad. You’re the man of this house, so you’re responsible to look after him. See that he stays out of trouble.”
And that’s exactly what Chase had done. He’d looked after Chad. He had fought his battles with the older boys at the playground. He’d taught him how to pitch, and how to kick a ball. He’d taught him how to ride a bike, how to swim, how to hook a line. He had taught him how to read, and the trick to mastering algebra and geometry. And he’d taught him about girls.
Azura hadn’t been too happy about the way he’d handled the latter subject. Especially after Mrs. Connor from next door had rung the doorbell one afternoon with a crying eight-year-old Susie hiding behind her skirt. Mrs. Connor had accused Chad of playing doctor with her little girl. It didn’t matter to her that Susie was a year and a half older than Chad and that she might have been the one who had initiated the game. Mrs. Connor had caught them playing, and as far as she was concerned, Chad was at fault.
Somehow, Chad had pinned the blame on Chase, and Chase had been punished. How the hell he’d done that was still a mystery to Chase. Yet, in spite of all their childhood quarrels, and even those that had followed them into adulthood, Chase loved his younger brother, and he knew Chad adored him.
What his mother and Chad didn’t know was that years later, a teenage, guilt-ridden Susie had approached Chase. She said she was sorry that he’d been punished for something Chad had done and wanted to make amends. Chase had helped her ease her guilt countless times up against the side of Mrs. Connor’s house, securely secluded by her drying wash flapping in the wind.
He’d enjoyed Susie. She was probably the sweetest girl he’d been with up to that point. They’d started up again after he dropped out of college, but then Desire had brought an abrupt halt to his relationship with her. Surprisingly, he never missed Susie. How could he miss her when he’d found the love of his life?
Chase sighed. It had been hard for him to choose between his love for Desire, and ruining his mother’s life, but he nonetheless believed that he’d made the right choice. If he had to do it again, he would have made the same decision, but he would have made sure Desire understood why he had to leave. And he would have asked her to go with him or simply wait for him.
Chase sighed again as he turned off the shower and stepped out of the tub. When they were growing up, Chase had always stepped aside and let Chad have his way, let him win whatever games they used to play, because winning always made Chad feel better.
Those days were over. They were playing grown-up games now, and Chase would be damned if he would sit back and let Chad rob him and Desire of a second chance at love, the kind of love that lasts forever.
He was Desire’s Chase and no one else’s.