A second chance at love, or a recipe for disaster?

After her older sister committed an unspeakable crime that tainted their family name, Desire Summers has lived her life trying to redeem it. But when Chase, her fiancé’s older brother returns to Evergreen, looking sexier than she remembers, Desire fears that one look into the compelling gray eyes of the man she still loves, and wants, will shatter the good-girl façade she has so carefully crafted.

Twelve years ago, bad-boy, Chase Hunter, was humiliated and run out of town by the devious deeds of a business rival. Now, a refined self-made billionaire, he returns to Evergreen to avenge the wrong done against him and win back the love, trust, and respect of the girl he had been forced to leave behind—a girl who has blossomed into a stunningly desirable woman. There is only one problem: she is engaged to his younger brother.

Can Chase convince Desire—the only woman he has ever loved—that they belong together, before it is too late, or will pride and circumstance keep them from realizing their dreams and living the life they had planned together, years ago?

Desire's Chase: Chase & Desire (Beyond Granite Falls Book 2)

Chapter 1

He was back and hell was begging to be paid.

Chase Hunter stared through the cockpit windshield as the small private jet made its final approach into Granite Falls Regional Airport.

Nestled at the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and bordered by the Aiken River on the west, Lake Crystal in the northeast, and Lake Aubrey in the southeast, Granite Falls had always been a picturesque town. In twelve years, it had flourished into a little metropolis that matched the glamour and excitement of any of the big cities Chase had visited around the world.

The majestic mountain ranges in the north and west provided breathtaking backdrops for the sprawling billion-dollar estates at the peak of Mount Reservoir, and for the multitude of modest family homes scattered across its foothills. Directly below him, the glowing sunset bounced off the tops of historical landmarks and the mass of modern high-rises in the downtown area—many of which had been erected since Chase’s absence from Granite Falls and its sister town of Evergreen to the east.

It was hard to imagine a town, especially one located in a remote mountain range, expanding at this rate, but when the population included four billionaires with growing families—all of whom were dedicated to making Granite Falls, and now Evergreen the best little towns in the region—then anything was possible.

A mixture of rage and pride spread through Chase like a California wildfire as his eyes scaled the tops of Fontaine Enterprises, Fontaine Towers #1 and #2, and Fontaine Conference Center—the tallest buildings in Granite Falls. That son of a bitch had stolen so much from him. Not only his ideas and his reputation, but also his chance to make a life with the only woman he’d ever loved. The woman he’d had to put out of his mind for twelve heartbreaking years.

It was bad enough that he’d been chased out of town, but even worse was the evidence that had sentenced him to being forever scum in her eyes. If a picture was worth a thousand words, the incriminating video featuring Chase as the star of the show was worth ten thousand. There was no argument that Chase had been a willing participant in the private homemade movie.

No siree, he thought, as the plane touched down and sped along the runway. He could, however, argue that he’d had no idea the video existed, much less that it would be shown to a room full of the elite residents of Evergreen and Granite Falls.

Irresponsible. Narcissistic. Degenerate. These were just a few of the names the love of his life had hurled at him in front of all those people that night. And those were the nice names, Chase thought, as his gut contracted at the memory of the contempt that had flashed in her eyes.

Stay away from my daughter, you repulsive reprobate. You come near her again, and I swear to God I will shoot you, her father had threatened when Chase had attempted to see her the next day.

It hadn’t taken Chase long to figure out who’d set him up, and why. Chase had confronted the SOB and sworn to make him pay, but his enemy had another ace up his sleeve. Somehow, he’d gotten wind of a Hunter family secret—a secret Chase hadn’t known existed until that day. And if that secret were made public, it would have destroyed Chase’s mother’s world.

With his love’s contempt for him, and her father’s threats against him, Chase had had nothing more to lose when he’d been given two days to leave Evergreen, forever.

Forever, for Chase, turned out to be twelve years—twelve years during which he’d had time to plan his revenge, build up his arsenal to take on, and now take down the bastard who’d robbed him of his life and his happiness with his one true love.

“Welcome home, Mr. Hunter.” The pilot turned and gave Chase a big grin once the jet came to a complete stop.

“Thank you, Hector. And thanks for the ride.” He unbuckled his seatbelt.

“It’s Mr. Fontaine you should be thanking. He paid for the gas and the Scotch, sir.”

Chase smiled at Hector’s sir. That’s one name he’d never been called before, at least not in these parts. “The ride was smooth. You’re topnotch, and if you weren’t so happy at Fontaine Enterprises, I’d hire you in a flash.”

“Make sure you share your sentiments about my value with my boss. I can do with a raise.”

“I’ll mention it the next time I see him,” Chase said with a chuckle, as the pilot began his post landing procedure. Hector’s family was one of the few Hispanic families that lived in the twin towns when Chase was growing up. Chase had had a short fling with Hector’s younger sister, Celia, during their senior year at Granite Falls Prep.

Since Hector never mentioned it, or gave him attitude, Chase assumed he wasn’t privy to that information. But even so, Hector worked for Bryce Fontaine, and no smart Fontaine employee would consciously offend someone Bryce considered a friend or a colleague. Luckily for Chase, he was both, all because of a chance meeting several years ago.

Hector was Bryce’s most valued and trusted pilot, so when Chase had voiced concerns about his own private jet landing at GFR and thus defeating his element of surprise, Bryce had sent Hector to fly him from Iowa.

He wasn’t overly concerned about being recognized as Chase Hunter since most of the people he’d grown up with had left the area. It wasn’t as if he had many male friends, anyway. His companions had been predominantly women, and many of them had either married, moved away, or both. The younger generation and new blood that now occupied the twin towns had probably never heard of him, and if they had, they wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup.

The cockpit door opened and the inflight attendant stuck his head in. “Mr. Hunter, your driver is here. We’ve loaded the duffel bags into the car and dispatched your other luggage to your hotel as you instructed.”

“Thank you, Nigel.”

“See that you stay out of trouble,” Hector warned as Chase vacated the seat.

“I’ll try, but you know me. Trouble just seems to find me no matter how hard I try to avoid her,” he said, as he squeezed his large frame through the cockpit door.

In the plush cabin, he gathered a leather satchel and the rolls of tracing paper—drawings he had been studying before moving to the cockpit—disembarked, and made his way across the tarmac, through the sprawling terminal, and out the other side.

The air was cool, as was expected for a mountain town—much more tolerable than Iowa’s evenings, and it smelled a lot better, too, Chase thought, as his nostrils picked up the mixture of floral scents heavy on the westerly evening breeze.

His heart skipped a beat as the memories of Evergreen’s Flower Maze—located just across Granite Falls’ southeastern border—finally caught up to him. During the approach, Chase had astutely kept his eyes and thoughts away from that garden. There were just too many…

“Chase!”

Chase stopped short as he approached the line of limos on the curb outside the terminal.

“Chase Hunter. It is you. Oh my God.”

There went his element of surprise. Chase groaned when the young woman wearing a classic chauffeur uniform—white blouse, black skirt, and cap—alighted from the driver’s side of a limo and began running toward him.

Damn it. It was Lisa Yarwood, his true love’s cousin. Curvy, attractive with a moon-shaped face and straight black hair, bleached blond at the tips, Lisa hadn’t changed much from the woman Chase remembered, except for the fact that she looked older.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t Chase Hunter in the flesh,” she said, smiling up at him. “Only one man I know who walks like a jungle cat,” she added, as if to answer the first question that popped into his head.

“Lisa.” Chase raked his fingers through his wind-tossed shoulder-length hair, wondering how he’d gotten so unlucky fifteen minutes after his return. This town was really too damn small, and seemed to be filled with too many bags of bad luck with his name written on them.

“Oh my God, you remember me. It’s been like—how long, ten—”

“Twelve years,” he provided, forcing a grin.

“Oh my God.” She threw her hands around his neck and gave him a big squeeze. “Welcome home, Chase.” She stepped back and frowned up at him. “Desire is going to chip a nail when she sees you. Did she know you were coming home? We had dinner at Francine’s last night. You remember Francine’s, that ritzy French restaurant in Evergreen where I used to waitress? Desire talked about some big changes she will be making in her life.” Lisa sped on without giving him a chance to respond to her questions. “But she didn’t specify—” She clasped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God, is it about you? Was it supposed to be a surprise?”

Chase’s heart raced at the mention of Desire’s name. It was the second time in twelve years that he’d heard someone utter her name, and it fueled his excitement to see her. But what kind of big changes could she be making to her life—changes that she hadn’t shared with her cousin with whom she used to be very close? “Nope, Desire’s life changes have nothing to do with me.”

“Then it must be about her business. She’s been thinking of expanding, but didn’t have the money to do it until last year when she planned that big wedding. Yeah, it must be about her business.”

I hope that’s all it is. The thought of Desire making big personal changes that involved another man tore at Chase’s gut, even as the fact that she was still single stunned him. Could she subconsciously be waiting for his return? After all, she’d been calling him My Chase since the day they met.

It had been a hot Saturday afternoon, and Chase was carrying a box of comic books to his bedroom in their new house when a butt-naked little girl burst through the hedges that bordered the two properties. Well, butt naked except for a pair of red cowboy boots.

“Hi,” she’d said, staring up at him with large brown eyes and a pearly white baby-teeth grin.

“Hi,” he’d replied, wondering where her parents were, and more curiously why she was naked. “What’s your name?” he’d asked.

“Desire,” she’d said, tugging on her two long ponytails. “What’s your name?”

“My—” He’d stopped at the sound of a woman’s voice calling out to Desire from the other side of the hedges. “Chase,” he’d said, returning his attention to the little girl, who had climbed up the steps and was now tugging on his T-shirt.

“My Chase,” she’d said.

“No. Chase.”

“My Chase,” she’d repeated stubbornly.

“Desire, where are you?” the voice had asked.

“Coming, Mommy,” she’d yelled before descending the steps and darting back across the lawn and disappearing behind the hedges.

Chase had hurried inside, not wanting anyone, especially the child’s mother, to know that he’d seen her naked. But from that day on, he’d become Desire’s Chase. When she was old enough he’d told her about their first meeting, but she refused to believe it. He wondered if she still consider him her Chase and if she…

“Mmm. That Iowa farm has been real good to you, Chase Hunter. You look scrumptious, as always,” Lisa said, pulling him back to the present.

“So, this is what you do for a living?” Chase asked. He needed to keep the conversation on the straight and narrow. The Lisa he remembered from their elementary school days used to be pretty smart. So how had she ended up driving people around town?

“Heck, no. I’m the regional manager for Eye Spy.”

“The eyewear company? They are the biggest in the northeast. That’s impressive.”

“Thanks. I’ve been working for them since I was nineteen. Got the promotion about six years ago. I drive for Twin Town Limo Services at nights and on weekends. It’s my second job. My play money job.”

And he just had to pick her limo company. Chase wished he’d taken Bryce’s offer to have a Fontaine car pick him up and drive him to Evergreen. He’d turned it down, thinking the man had already gone above and beyond favors to help him onto his feet, and now back home, even though Chase had to consider that Fontaine Enterprises had a lot to gain from his return to the area.

“Is Chad or your mom picking you up?” Lisa asked.

“They don’t know I’m here. I wanted to surprise them.” Surprise the whole damn town.

“I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you, especially your mom.”

“I guess you’re my driver,” he said, noticing the name sign on the windshield of her limo.

“Nope. Would have been cool, but I’m here to pick up a Mr. Bennett.” She glanced around. “They already loaded his bags, but he hasn’t shown up yet.”

“I’m Mr. Bennett.”

Her mouth popped wide. “Why the alias?”

“It’s a long story. Shall we?” He took a step toward the limo in an attempt to ward off her questions.

“Ohhh, Mr. Bennett. Very mysterious. Does it have anything to do with why you want me to take you to the Forsythe mansion on Mount Reservoir, then pick you up at nightfall to take you home?” she asked, before walking ahead to open the door for him.

“It has everything to do with it.”

“Are you friends with the Forsythes?”

Of all the questions anyone could have asked Chase upon his return, this wasn’t one he was expecting or was prepared to answer. He managed to keep his cool as he searched his mind for a simple explanation. “No, we’re not friends. The house has been vacant for some time now. My boss is planning to purchase a home in Granite Falls, and he asked me to check out the property for him while I’m here, take pictures and so on.”

“Oh, that makes sense.”

It didn’t really, but he was happy she thought so. Chase slid into the backseat. “Lisa, can you keep all this between us? I don’t want anyone outside of my family to know I’m back, or about what I’m doing. Not until I’m ready to make my presence known. That goes for Desire, too. And no one is to know that I’m using the alias Bennett.”

She gave him an animated grin. “No problem, Chase. Your secrets are safe with me.” She pulled a card from her blouse pocket and handed it to Chase. “Call me if you ever need a ride.”

“Thanks, Lisa. I might take you up on that offer.” Chase shoved her card into the back pocket of his jeans.

* * *

Under cover of twilight, with two duffel bags in one hand and his key ring in the other, Chase stole across the front lawn of 72 Crawford Avenue, past the two parked cars in front of the closed garage, and made his way toward the back of the house and the stairs that led to the private entrance to his bedroom. The kitchen was the only room lighted, which meant it was the only currently occupied room in the house.

Chase smiled. His mother had a thing about not wasting energy. When he and Chad were little, she used to make them turn off the lights of the unoccupied rooms in the house. If they’d fallen asleep, it didn’t matter what time she came home from her shift at the hospital, she would wake them up and make them go around the house and turn off all the lights. Eventually, they had learned to check before they went to bed.

“Thank you, Mom,” Chase whispered as his key slid smoothly into the lock of his bedroom door. Some things still fit and worked. From force of habit, before turning the knob, he glanced across the lawn to the wraparound porch of the house next door. It was pitch dark. No one was home.

He tucked away the sweet memories and let himself quietly into his bedroom. He waited a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and his nose to the smell of pine-laced Pledge. Warm feelings of affection enveloped Chase at the thought that even in his absence, his mother never neglected to dust his room and polish his furniture. Those simple acts of filial love had made it easy for Chase to sacrifice his own happiness for her. He loved his mother.

Placing his bags on a chair in one corner, Chase tiptoed across the floor and opened the door leading into the hallway. As expected, the doors to the other two bedrooms were closed, but he could distinctly hear the murmur of voices—one male, one female—coming up the hallway from the kitchen.

Taking a deep breath, Chase began his stealthy walk toward the stairs, praying that the floorboards hadn’t begun creaking in his absence. He breathed a sigh of relief and began his descent. His mother’s and brother’s voices grew louder as he got to the bottom step, but it wasn’t until he was halfway across the open living and dining area that he was able to make sense of their conversation. The mention of one name in particular halted Chase in his tracks.

Pain ripped through him as if someone had hacked his chest open and torn his heart out of him.

His mother’s scream and the screech of a chair against the tiled floor were simultaneous. “Oh my goodness, Chad, I’m so happy for you, son. That is the best news a mother could hear tonight. You know I love her like a daughter. Of all the women you’ve dated, she is the only one I’ve ever envisioned as the mother of my grandchildren.”

“So you don’t mind the color thing, or about what happened eleven years ago?”

“Chadwick Hunter, when have you ever known me to be concerned about the color of anyone’s skin? As to what happened all those years ago, every family has its secrets and its shame to bear. We all live in glass houses, so none of us should be throwing stones.”

Chase’s gut tightened.

“When did you propose?” his mother asked Chad.

“Three days ago. We had dinner at Odyssey, the Greek restaurant on Remington Drive. Afterward, we drove over to Cedar Lake. I proposed there under the stars. I wanted to make it special, you know.”

“Three days ago? Why are you just telling me?”

“We decided to give ourselves time to think about it, and if we were still in agreement at the end of three days, we would inform our families, separately.”

Chase frowned. Who does that? People in love don’t wait. Oh yes they do. He’d waited and now…

“She’s telling her family tonight as we speak. We’ll make it public in a day or two, and then she’ll begin wearing that big rock I gave her. Wait till you see it, Mom. I went all out. It set me back a bit, but—”

“Oh Chad. That is absolutely wonderful. We have to call Chase right away. He’s going to be so thrilled.”

Chapter 2

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.

Desire included.

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...”

Fond?

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.

Chapter 3

“You don’t still have a thing for Chase Hunter, do you, Desire? I mean you can’t, otherwise you wouldn’t be marrying Chad. Oh my God, I didn’t even know you two were dating. What a surprise!”

Desire furrowed her brows. “Why are you asking me about Chase? He’s been out of my life for twelve years. And how do you know I’m marrying Chad? We haven’t made it public yet. I just told Mom and Dad last night.” Desire stared at her cousin, Lisa, as they sat on Desire’s porch swing, enjoying the early morning breeze, just as they used to do when they were children and Lisa would sleep over. Lisa, the only child of Desire’s mother’s deceased sister, was a few months older than Desire. They had always been close—more like sisters than cousins, really. “Did Mom tell you?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t hear it from Aunt Ruth,” Lisa said. “Chase told me. Oh my God, that’s the life change you mentioned the other night.”

Shock rippled though Desire. “Chase?” she asked, when she finally found her voice. “You talked to Chase?” She cleared her throat. “Did he call you from Iowa?”

“No, silly.” Lisa slapped her arm playfully. “Chase is here. He came home. He’s in Evergreen. Probably sleeping in his bedroom, right across the lawn as we speak,” she added with another giggle, nudging her chin toward the Hunters’ house.

“Chase is home. He’s here. Across the lawn.” Desire swallowed the bile that rose to her throat.

“Yeah, and oh my God, girl, you won’t believe what we did last night…”

That was how the most difficult conversation of Desire’s day had begun this morning.

* * *

Chase slept with Lisa. Chase slept with Lisa. Chase slept…

The words bounced around in Desire’s head as she backed her Audi out of her driveway and began her twenty-minute drive from suburban Evergreen to her place of business in downtown Granite Falls.

It was a full hour and a half before her usual time of departure, but she couldn’t stay in her house one minute more, not with Chase occupying the house next door.

For the hundredth time this morning, Desire wished Lisa hadn’t told her about her tryst with Chase, or had at least spared her all the gory details. It was as if Lisa was gloating that she’d finally been with Chase, the boy every teenage girl had swooned over when they were growing up together on Crawford Avenue. Maybe Lisa was gloating. Maybe it was payback for Desire not telling her about her engagement to Chad.

Desire had been anxious to share her news with the only true friend she had in this unforgiving town, but she and Chad had agreed not to make it public for three days and not until after all their parents had given their blessings. She didn’t want to make anything public until all her ducks were lined up in a row.

And they were finally in a row—well, all except for one—she thought, as she made a right turn onto West Street and then a quick left onto College Road. She was thirty, the age that most women settled down and began raising families. In fact, she was probably the only unmarried woman of her age on her street. She’d helped many of her neighbors get married, first as bridesmaid or maid of honor, and then as a wedding planner. Most of them were still happily married and raising families. A few, including Lisa’s—Desire’s first wedding, eight years ago—had ended in divorce.

But such was life. There might not be a lot of sparks between her and Chad, but at least she didn’t have to worry about him dumping her. He already knew that she was related to Victoria Summers, the crazy woman who’d fatally shot the wife of her employer, eleven years ago. It might as well have happened yesterday since no family in Evergreen or its neighboring towns wanted Victoria Summers’s younger half sister as an in-law.

And now that she’d finally decided to settle down with the only man in town who’d never scorned her because of her family’s transgressions, Chase had returned to screw up her life. Again. Of all the times in the last twelve years when he could have returned to Evergreen, why had he chosen to do so now, just three days after Chad had proposed to her? Why hadn’t he come back a month ago when she was still available, or three days ago before she’d agreed to marry Chad, or even next year after...

Desire’s hands tightened around the steering wheel as she took the entrance ramp to Route 80 West and merged into the flow of traffic speeding toward Granite Falls. It was bad enough to learn about Chase’s unexpected homecoming this morning, but hearing that he’d slept with her cousin had brought on nausea like Desire had experienced only one other time in her life—the night Chase, her dearest and closest friend, and the first love of her life had humiliated her in a room full of people.

Three years apart, Chase and Desire had been playmates since the day Chase and his mother, Azura Hunter, moved next door. Her cheeks warmed as the story Chase had told her about their first encounter surfaced in her mind. According to him, it was the day she had begun calling him My Chase.

Whether the story was true or not, Desire had had Chase’s undivided attention for a few months until Chad came along. And even though Azura, a single mother, had placed a lot of the responsibilities of taking care of Chad on him, Chase still found time for Desire.

She’d adored him, although he was constantly getting into trouble, and had been suspended several times in elementary school for pulling off stupid pranks: pretending to sleep and snore in class, and sneaking into the school office to make bogus announcements about extended recess and lunch periods, and pulling the fire alarm during school-wide standardized testing, were among his list of innocuous misadventures. He’d even set a mousetrap under a teacher’s desk once. Thank goodness she hadn’t been wearing open-toe shoes that day. Poor Azura had spent more time in the principals’ offices than she did at the hospital where she worked as a nurse.

Desire caught herself smiling with pleasant memories. Chase had been a mischievous little boy, but he was so cute that his teachers had had difficulty doling out harsh punishments on him.

“That boy is going to end up in jail or in the grave at a very early age,” Desire had often heard her father say in regard to Chase. “There isn’t one good bone in his body. He’s a bad seed.”

“Oh give the boy a chance, Gerry,” Desire’s mother, who was the principal of Evergreen Elementary School at the time Chase was enrolled there, would respond. “He just needs attention. He recently lost the only father he ever had.”

“You shouldn’t make excuses for him. Boys like him grow into men who never learn to respect the law.”

“Chase is a good boy. He’s gentle with Desire. He’s like the big brother she never had. He looks out for her, in case you haven’t been paying attention.”

“As long as that’s all he does,” her father had huffed. “If he ever lays a finger on my daughter, I’ll—”

“Oh, stop it, Gerry. You’re being foolish now. Chase would never hurt Desire. He just needs some male guidance in his life. He’s a smart kid. He has natural intelligence beyond his years.”

So true, Desire thought. Since he was the top student in every grade, the faculty and staff of Evergreen Middle School had perceived Chase’s disruptive behavior as boredom, and so they had given him extra and advanced work to keep him occupied. No one was surprised when he’d gained a full merit scholarship to Granite Falls Preparatory High School, a private institution known in the entire country for its high standards and excellence. As expected, Chase excelled to the top of his classes.

When Desire hit puberty and her female hormones kicked into gear, her sisterly adoration for Chase turned into girlish infatuation. Tall and muscular, teenage Chase was impulsive, spontaneous, and wild. Sneaking into movie theaters without paying, taking his mother’s car for midnight rendezvous before he got his license, diving off forbidden areas into the region’s two rivers, and skinny-dipping by moonlight in Crystal and Cedar Lakes were just a few of the kinds of trouble Chase Hunter constantly got into. Luckily for him, his stepuncle-in-law was the twin towns’ Chief of Police, so he always got off with a slap on the hand, and none of his pranks had gotten back to Granite Falls Prep, or else Chase would have surely been expelled.

Desire had loved the aura of danger and excitement he exuded even though she didn’t understand the feelings running rampant through her teenage body at the time. She used to look forward to getting home from school and hanging out with him as he helped her with her homework and science projects. She’d pretended not to understand geometry and algebra, just so Chase could tutor her for hours. She was certain he knew she wasn’t that dumb, but he never let on. He was always patient and gentle with her.

Chase’s charisma grew with him, and, unfortunately for Desire, she wasn’t the only girl in Evergreen or Granite Falls Prep who’d begun to notice his sexual magnetism. The older girls had begun looking at him with dreamy eyes, and he would always look back and smile at them in a way he never looked or smiled at Desire.

Eventually, he’d stopped hanging out with her and Chad, and would disappear for hours at a time, returning with rumpled clothes, a twig or two embedded in his dark hair, a gleam in his gray eyes, and a satisfied smile on his ruggedly handsome face. Having already taken sexual education in school, Desire had known exactly what Chase was doing with those girls, some of them older than him—women. Green with envy, she’d vowed to make him notice her when she was old enough to partake in his adult games.

Desire caught herself smiling as she took the Highland Avenue exit off of Route 80 and drifted into the flow of traffic into downtown Granite Falls. On her eighteenth birthday, she had asked Chase to accompany her to the Flower Garden Maze, her favorite place in the entire world. He’d recently dropped out of college and had been splitting his time between working as a landscape artist at Carron & Son Architecture Designs in Granite Falls, and washing and polishing the motorcycle he’d bought at age sixteen with money he’d saved up doing odd jobs around the neighborhood since he was ten years old.

Desire had been surprised that Chase had broken off a date with Susie Connor, his current girl at the time, and her former neighbor and childhood playmate. The fact that he’d stood up Susie to spend time with her was Desire’s first clue that Chase cared about her in a grown-up way. That knowledge had given her courage to kiss him and share her dreams with him that night.

Desire’s heart began a rapid beat as she recalled walking between a row of sunflowers and daffodils with Chase while licking the ice cream cone he’d bought her at the maze café. They’d talked about her going off to college to study marketing in the fall of that year, and returning home to work at Fontaine Enterprises where she’d interned for two summers, and where her sister, Victoria, worked as a personal assistant to Bryce Fontaine, CEO and founder of the billion-dollar company.

That night, Chase had shared his passion for architecture and had told Desire about his plan to present his ideas and sketches at the upcoming Youth Talent Night at Granite Falls Country Club—an annual event where the winner of each category was awarded fifty thousand dollars to start their own companies or further their interests. Desire, who happened to be on the planning committee, had agreed to be Chase’s presenter since all candidates needed one. In her excitement, she’d hugged him, and before either of them knew what was happening, their lips had been locked in a deep, passionate kiss that had left her breathless.

It was Desire’s first kiss, ever, and she’d been so mesmerized, she’d had visions of walking through the maze in a white wedding gown with a mile-long train toward Chase, who would be dressed in a white tuxedo. She’d shared her dream with him just as freely as she’d shared her first kiss.

“Would you be My Chase for real?” she’d asked in a breathless whisper against his lips.

“Yes, Desire. I’ll be your Chase. I’ll be yours. I promise.”

“What are you going to tell Susie?”

“Susie, who?” he’d asked, before capturing her lips again and kissing her so passionately, Desire’s skin had felt like it was on fire.

She’d wanted to make love with him right there in the garden, but he’d said it wasn’t the right time and place with people mulling around. He wanted her first time to be special and memorable with candles and flowers—no wine because she wasn’t old enough to drink yet, he’d jokingly added. He’d booked a room at a nice hotel in a town north of Evergreen where they would spend the night after the talent show was over. But alas, their plans never materialized.

The thumb drive that was supposed to hold Chase’s architectural designs turned out to be a short video of Chase and two women—a mother and a daughter—having sex in the women’s home. The time stamp was two days before the event—a week after she’d kissed Chase in the garden and after he’d promised that she was the only girl in his heart.

Desire swallowed as she remembered standing at the podium, her mouth frozen open as she stared at the video. The initial gasps from the audience had been thunderous and the silence that followed had been deafening. Desire had prayed for the floor to open up and suck her into a deep black hole from where she could never escape. Tears had stung her eyes as she’d looked at Chase, dressed in the suit she’d picked out for him, sitting in the front row with all the other candidates.

He’d had the audacity to walk up to her, attempting to apologize while his porno clip was running. Humiliation, disgust, and contempt were just a few of the emotions that had been rioting in Desire. Her hands had itched to slap him, her feet to kick him, but because lashing out at him that way would alert the world that she cared, she’d contained herself to telling him what a vile, contemptuous, less-than-human scumbag he was.

People had talked about that clip for months. Some had even asked Desire for the entire movie and wondered if she knew where it could be purchased. Overnight, Chase Hunter had become a sought-after porn star and Desire had been labeled his pimp. The image of Chase having sex with two women had been stamped in Desire’s brain for a long time. But she had been forced to put it aside a few months later when her sister shot and killed Bryce Fontaine’s wife before turning the gun on herself. Chase Hunter’s junk had become old news as the media vultures began hounding her family about Victoria’s crime of passion.

Two hideous stains had been placed on the Summers family name in the space of a few months. All of Desire’s socialite friends began avoiding her as if she had the mark of the devil stamped on her forehead. Cursed was what they’d called her family. The only person who’d shown compassion for what had happened was Lewis Carron, Chase’s old boss’s son. He’d expressed his regrets that one of his father’s employees was that contemptible. He’d said that Carron Architecture’s reputation had suffered just as much as she had. Desire had been grateful to have one person who understood what she was going through.

Except for Azura, all of her parents’ friends had dropped them, too. They were no longer invited to social events nor welcomed at the Country Club. Her father had had to resign his role as Mayor of Granite Falls, and then he’d suffered a heart attack that almost killed him.

Life had become so miserable that Desire had often fantasized about escaping to another corner of the world where nobody knew her—just like Chase had done. But escape was not an option for her. She’d even had to give up the luxury of leaving home to attend college. She couldn’t abandon her sick, grieving father and her heart-stricken mother. Instead of attending NYU as initially planned, she’d enrolled in Evergreen Community College, and then spent the last eleven years of her life trying to redeem her family’s name.

Since Victoria’s crime, and suicide, Desire had been a “good girl,” doing everything her parents wanted and expected of her. She’d loved her half sister dearly, and she missed her terribly, but many times Desire wished she wasn’t related to Victoria and that she hadn’t been expected to clean up the mess her father’s oldest daughter had left behind.

She’d become a poster child, above reproach, avoiding anything with even a hint of scandal in it. In essence, she’d had to put aside the desires of her own heart to become the desire of her parents’ hearts—especially her father’s, who’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer, seven years ago. He’d beat the disease with chemotherapy, lots of prayers from their church, and TLC from her and her mother. He’d been in remission for the past seven years, but his oncologist had warned that he could succumb to the cancer within six months to a year if it ever returned.

Desire suppressed a groan. She was so grateful that she’d finally had the chance to redeem her family’s name before her father died. Her chance had come last summer when, due to a twist of fate, she’d been hired to plan the elaborate group wedding for Bryce Fontaine and his three, billionaire friends. Because of that wedding, Bryce had come around to forgiving Victoria for killing his first wife, thanks to his second wife, Kaya, who’d convinced him to let go of his animosity toward the Summers family, so they could all move on with their lives.

Planning that wedding had opened up doors of opportunities for Desire—both personally and professionally. Her business had grown so big, she’d had to hire extra help. She couldn’t go it alone anymore, especially now that she was thinking of expanding beyond Evergreen and Granite Falls, not only as a wedding planner, but also as a coordinator of other events.

Lori, her personal assistant and food connoisseur, who kept her on task; Jacques her brilliant and talented floral designer; and Gillian, her advertising and marketing consultant, all worked diligently to keep Weddings by Desire’s flag flying at the top of the wedding planning totem pole.

Her personal life had come full circle as well. She was making new friends—most significantly, the wives of the billionaires, she thought with a pleased smile. Folks were beginning to show her respect, and a couple of the guys who’d dumped her had the audacity to try to get back with her since she began associating with celebrities and politicians around the country.

She’d sacrificed her dreams to take care of her parents and make them happy. In hindsight, Desire could admit that not going off to college in New York had worked out in her favor. Staying home and attending a community college with a lighter workload, less stress, and a nonexistent social life had afforded her a lot of time for some deep soul searching, and figuring out what she really wanted from life.

Yes, it would have been awesome to have an MBA in Marketing from NYU, and maybe follow in her sister’s footsteps working at a global, billion-dollar company like Fontaine Enterprises. She’d had to abandon that first dream, but now, instead of being an employee, she was an employer. Nothing could compare to having her own company, being her own CEO, and hopefully one day becoming the most prosperous wedding planner in the world, or the country at least.

Desire’s second dream, her true life’s dream had begun materializing when she’d served as Lisa’s maid of honor. Desire had gone above and beyond her duty and had planned a fairy tale wedding for Lisa from start to finish, including writing her vows. Everyone had been impressed, and soon other brides-to-be—even those who’d shunned her after Victoria’s crime—began asking her to plan their weddings. They didn’t want to be friends again. They just wanted her professional expertise, and they were willing to shell out insane amounts of money for it.

Desire had quickly realized that she didn’t need friends to run a successful business—a hard fact to accept, but a sound one, nonetheless. All she needed to do was earn the trust and respect of her clients and provide the best services on the market. Weddings by Desire had been delivering for the past six years, and even more so in the past year.

Her good-girl façade had paid off, way beyond her wildest imaginations. But could she maintain that level of decorum now that Chase Hunter—the one man in this world who still had the power to make her want things and be willing to do things that in no way, shape, or form aligned with the new principles she’d had to create and live by—had returned to Evergreen?

That was the question bouncing around in Desire’s head as she pulled off Main Street and into the parking lot of the building that housed Weddings by Desire.

With an hour to spare before Lori, her personal assistant, and Trinity Newman, her first client of the day, showed up, Desire made herself busy by making some calls to her regular caterers, photographers, and deejays for two weddings that were scheduled for early fall. Lori usually undertook those chores, but Desire needed something to keep her mind off Chase Hunter. Those tasks accomplished, she arranged three table settings, complete with some of the most expensive bone china dinnerware, sterling silver utensils, and crystal glasses on the market—specifically requested by Trinity.

At thirty-one, Trinity was embarking on her third marriage. One would think that by the third attempt at happiness, a bride-to-be would avoid the fuss and just head on down to City Hall, but Trinity was the exception, a true romantic and believer in forever-after fairy tales. She wanted the white dress with the long train, bridesmaids, ushers, and flower girls—the works. Trinity was the daughter of a Hollywood producer who’d attended the billionaire wedding last year. Since the Newmans owned a summer villa on Crystal Lake, Trinity had opted to meet with Desire in Granite Falls instead of flying her out to Hollywood. Trinity had ordered the expensive dinnerware samples and offered them to Desire at no additional cost.

Desire knew for a fact that those samples cost four times as much as a first class round-trip ticket to California, but truth be told, she would much rather have the items in her collection. She was sure she would have the opportunity to present those brands again before long.

Forty-five minutes later, with a freshly brewed mug of coffee in hand, Desire was in the middle of setting out the customary daily munchies—an assortment of fruits, crackers, cheeses, and sweets—on a coffee table when the guttural burrrrrooom of a motorcycle drew her attention toward the parking lot in the front of the building.

A few seconds later, her heart began to gallop as the towering dark figure of a man stepped from behind an SUV, and began a tiger-like stride toward her business.

The cup in Desire’s hand tipped as she placed it on the table, spilling the hot black liquid over the snacks she’d so carefully arranged. Sweat ran down her armpits, drenching her silk coral blouse. Her heart pounded in her ears. Her skin itched. Butterflies fluttered around in her stomach, and her throat dried up. But worst of all, to her dismay, she felt a pool of fluids soak her panties as she took in his massive, six-foot-three-inch physique.

His yard-wide shoulders served as a springboard for his thick mass of dark hair with every step he took toward her. His formidable pectorals, his guns, and the muscles of his washboard stomach, vibrating with vitality, were barely contained beneath the cotton material of his white T-shirt. His narrow hips tapered off into strong powerful jeans-clad thighs and legs.

Desire trembled as he came to a stop at the door. His lips that had transported her young inexperienced body to heaven that night in the garden were pressed tightly together and his gray enigmatic eyes stared her down through the glass. She noticed with conflicting emotions that he still didn’t shave his facial hair, but wore it trimmed close to the surface of his smooth tanned skin. Even from a distance, Desire could see the strong muscles of his chin and jaws twitch, and even through the glass, she could feel the rage emanating from him. He was pissed. There was no doubt about it.

He tried the door and, realizing it was locked, he made a motion with his hand for her to unlock it.

Desire hesitated, even as she felt compelled to obey him. He was a Chase she did not recognize, yet one with whom she felt an unnatural familiarity and synergy. Chase had always possessed a ruggedness and vital power that attracted her, but in his absence, he’d acquired a polished veneer that made him even more dangerous and irresistible. Bad boy, Chase Hunter, a gardener with no real purpose in life, had left Evergreen in the wake of a repulsive scandal. He’d returned, a man with an air of authority that demanded instant compliance.

What had happened to her Chase? How could a farm in Iowa equip him with such commanding power, Desire wondered as her pulse careened out of control.

He made the unlock the door motion with his hand again.

Desire contemplated ignoring him, but common sense told her that it was best if she confronted him now and sent him on his way. Trinity and Lori were arriving soon and the last thing she wanted was to expose more Summers family dirty laundry to the public, especially in front of a high-end client. Plus, there was no way she would be able to concentrate on work with this much tension in her body. She needed release. And if release was confronting Chase Hunter, then so be it.

Wiping her sweaty palms down the sides of her white linen pencil skirt, Desire forced her wobbly legs to take her across the floor.

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