Hearing a click, she whirled around, realizing she was no longer alone.
“What the hell—?”
Ryan Sperling, naked except for a gray towel riding low on his hips, stood silhouetted by the French doors leading to the deck outside. Ryan’s expression was thunderous, and Kelly sucked in a breath.
She drank in the sight of his smooth, muscled chest, flat stomach and hair-roughened legs, which ended at feet planted firmly on the plush carpeting.
She knew from her first tour with Mary that there was a hot tub on the deck. He must have been soaking in it.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I—” Shock rendered her momentarily speechless.
“If this is some desperate attempt to try to persuade me that Sperling department stores should be doing business with you,” he sneered, “forget it.”
She couldn’t believe his ego. He’d already informed her that he didn’t have anything to do with Webb these days. Did he really think she’d seek him out as a supplicant for any leverage he could provide as far as getting her products into Sperling department stores? Apparently so.
Ryan’s expression darkened even more. “If this is some sort of entrapment scheme, I’ve got some of the best litigators in the country on retainer.”
Her temper rose. “Not to worry. Entrapping you is the last thing on my mind.”
He scowled. “How did you track me down?”
“Easy,” she retorted, “I just followed the trail of fawning women.”
He smiled mirthlessly. “I’ve got news for you. Women don’t faint for me, they just press their phone numbers into my hand. But this is the first time one’s gotten into my house unannounced.”
“You’ll have a hard time tossing me out,” she said, letting a note of satisfaction creep into her voice.
“I’m the newly hired decorator.”
Ryan figured if he kept talking, he wouldn’t get turned on.
Little Miss Sweet and Tart was the last woman he’d expected to discover inside the house, even if he’d had one heck of an erotic dream about her last night. In fact, for a second, when he’d first seen her, he figured he must still be dreaming.
He’d been ticked off this morning when he’d realized who he’d been fantasizing about and that, combined with his current effort to hold those memories at bay, made him brusque.
“Mary said a decorator would be coming by,” he said icily, “but she also said whoever it was would ring the doorbell if she did.”
“I did ring the doorbell,” Kelly said defensively, “but I got no response.”
“I was in the hot tub,” he snarled, “and I didn’t hear you. Then when I did, it took me a minute to get inside to answer the door.”
Great, Ryan thought. It was the first time he’d had a chance to relax in a hot tub since he didn’t know when, and now he had to deal with her.
It didn’t help she was wearing some ridiculous getup that nevertheless managed to be provocative. She had on a white crewneck T-shirt, a long, high-waist black skirt and black suspenders. The outfit was finished off with mid-calf length black leggings and black pumps.
Her generous breasts were framed by the high waist of the skirt and by the black suspenders. Damn.
“I rang three times,” she said.
“I heard only two.”
Her chin came up. “Are you suggesting I’m a liar?”
He smiled mirthlessly. “The apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“Same thing goes.” She craned her neck. “Anyone out there with you?”
He frowned. “No.”
She stopped trying to see outside and gave him a cool look. “Well, I’m surprised.”
She went beyond irritating, he decided. And what’s more, if she was the decorator, then she’d be hanging around the entire time he was here. The realization came as a blow.
“I didn’t see a car,” she said.
“It’s in the garage.”
He raked his hand through his hair. “How long is this damn decorating job supposed to last?”
Her lips tightened. “For several weeks, at least. And please try not to refer to it as ‘this damn’ anything. Some of us have to work or starve.”
"Or depend on the generosity of our friends,” he sneered.
He figured Brenda Hartley’s daughter could spot a sugar daddy as well as, if not better than, her mother. The two certainly looked alike. The pair shared the same voluptuous figure and dark-red hair—and the same siren voice calling men to their doom.
“Let’s keep family out of this,” she snapped.
“Can’t,” he responded. “You’re trying to shake some more fruit from that tree.
“It’s a business deal!”
“Nothing for Webb Sperling is merely business when an attractive woman is involved.”
Her mouth fell open. “Are you suggesting I’m putting out?”
He raised his eyebrows and she sucked in an outraged breath.
“I don’t put out for anyone,” she bit out. “Besides, if the newspapers are to be believed, you’re just one of many family members who owns a minority interest in the Sperling Inc., so there’s not much you can do about my contract with Sperling stores.”
“It’s not a contract yet, sugar.”
Despite her bravado, he sensed her worry he might be able to do something to cause her deal with Webb Sperling to fall through. The hardened business executive in him could knew better than to tip his hand, however.
“Look,” she said, “I don’t like this arrangement any more than you do. Let’s just agree to stay out of each other’s way. Next time, I’ll ring the doorbell until someone responds or call in advance or whatever.”
“Nice to hear, but there won’t be a next time.” He picked up the cordless phone sitting nearby. “I’m calling the caretaker and getting this project postponed, or better yet, cancelled.”
The longer he stood in front of her nearly naked, the harder it was to keep thoughts of sex at bay, which fueled his ire, both at her and at himself.
“You wouldn’t dare,” she said, hurrying forward.
She stopped an arm’s length away, visibly fuming as he dialed the cell number Mary had given him.
When Mary picked up after a couple of rings, Ryan spelled out the problem, his eyes on Kelly.
“But I don’t understand,” Mary said. “I explained the decorating project to you previously by phone, and you had no problem with it.”
“That was before I knew whom you’d hired. Ms. Hartley and I have—” how the hell was he supposed to describe it? “—a history. Or rather, we don’t, but a couple of family members do.”
He had no idea why he was protecting the old man by not bringing his name directly into it. The bastard deserved to have his dirty laundry aired.
“Just think of us as friends of the bride and groom, respectively, after there’s been a divorce,” he told Mary smoothly, regaining some of his cool. “We’re on two different sides of the fence.”
The caretaker sighed. “Unfortunately, it’s out of my hands. Ms. Hartley’s been hired by the Hunter Palmer Foundation. The timeline for getting this decorating job done has been spelled out because we wanted to inconvenience the guests as little as possible. By the time you get all this sorted out with the lawyers for the Foundation, your stay will be over. I’m sorry.”
Damn it. Into the phone, he said curtly, “Understood.”
When he hung up, Kelly asked apprehensively, “Well?”
He contemplated her for a moment. “You’re here for the duration—”
She looked relieved.
“—just make sure to stay out of my way. I want you to let me know when you’re showing up—and ring the damn doorbell!”