When Megan Simmons left Miami four years ago, she'd struggled every day to regain her equilibrium and put the past behind her. But her equilibrium had eluded her, and the past had dogged her every step.
Now, at the sound of the knock on her open office door, she glanced up from the documents on her desk and into the eyes of the man she’d once thought she'd never see again.
Her breath left her in a whoosh.
She put down the papers she was holding.
“Your new partner is hard at work already, Conrad.”
His voice went through her like fine cognac. It always had. Particularly in bed.
This time, though, she immediately sensed the danger. Stephen’s words held a note of cynical amusement.
Her eyes traveled to the second man at her door. Conrad Elkind’s offer of partnership in the interior design firm she used to work for as an employee was the reason she was back in Miami.
“Good news, Megan,” Conrad said heartily. “We’ve got an assignment to redesign part of the Garrison Grand. Stephen here was so impressed by the job you did on the Garrison, Inc. building four years ago that he requested you work on this new project.”
Her eyes shot back to Stephen. From the look on his face, she knew this was no mere coincidence.
Stephen’s lips twisted. “I asked Conrad not to let the cat out of the bag until we’d sealed the deal.”
She felt the blood drain from her face. If she hadn’t already been sitting down in a chair, she’d have collapsed into one.
When she’d moved back to Miami, she’d known she might run into Stephen, but she hadn’t expected to be working for him within weeks of being back at her old firm.
Someday, in the not too distant future, she hoped the name of her firm would be Elkind, Ross, Gardner & Simmons. Now, however, Stephen loomed like an immovable obstacle in that path.
She composed herself and stood, even as her eyes shot daggers at the man who’d haunted her days and not too few of her nights.
“What a unexpected compliment,” she announced as she came around her desk.
She was dressed in a sand-colored skirt suit paired with an emerald blouse that echoed the color of her eyes. She was glad now for the professional armor—though, in a nod to the hot, sunny weather, her feet were encased in strappy tan sandals.
The end of summer in Miami was still hot. The September sun radiated outside Elkind, Ross & Gardner’s cool offices, and its rays filtered through the blinds on her office window, hitting her back.
Still, though her sandals lent another two inches to her five-foot-nine frame, the boost wasn’t enough to counteract the Stephen’s intimidating presence. At six-foot-three, he loomed over her, radiating a charisma and sex appeal that were palpable.
He was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome, with jet black hair and coffee eyes, and a body that looked as if it would make military basic training seem no more rigorous than a stroll in the park.
She’d seen evidence of his effect on women four years ago. They’d swooned over him. She’d been stupid enough to swoon over him, too.
Even now, she felt a tingling that went all over.
She wondered whether it was the cleft chin—a Garrison family trait—that did it for some women. But unlike screen idol Cary Grant, Stephen was a living, breathing playboy nonpareil.
A quick glance at his right hand was enough for her to confirm he was still single.
Conrad glanced at his watch. “I’ve got a phone conference starting in five minutes, so I’m going to leave the two of you to talk and get reacquainted.”
Getting reacquainted was the last thing she wanted to do with Stephen Garrison, ever, but she forced herself to nod. “Thanks, Conrad.”
When the older partner had retreated, her gaze came back to Stephen, and of its own volition, her chin rose a fraction.
Then she caught herself. It was ridiculous for her to feel defensive. She had nothing to feel defensive about.
“Hello, Stephen. Won’t you have a seat?” She turned to head back to her desk. “I’m sure we can help you with whatever it is you’re looking for.”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” he said silkily.
She heard him close the office door, and she couldn’t help but think of the sound as the opening bell in a boxing match.
She turned to face him. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that your appearance here today is a mere coincidence.”
“You guessed right,” he drawled. “It’s taken a while, but I plan to get the answers I’m looking for.”
“Why do I get the impression we’re not talking about the Garrison Grand?”
“Four years ago, you left Miami without a backward glance.”
“You mean I left you.”
A muscle jumped in his jaw, the only sign that her words had hit their mark.
“And no one leaves a Garrison, is that it?” she said, hands braced on hips. Hips that now had experienced childbirth.
Motherhood had instilled in her a newfound courage, changing her from the woman she’d been four years ago. She’d do anything to make sure her daughter had the future she deserved, including struggling with the demands of single parenthood.
Including coming back to Miami.
Last month, she’d uprooted herself and Jade from her hometown of Indianapolis, and returned to Miami, though she knew it was the Garrisons’ town. She’d been lured by the promise of a lucrative junior partnership in her old design firm.
Now, looking more closely at Stephen, she realized the intervening years had wrought a change in him, too. She knew he was thirty-one now, only a year older than she was, but he had a physical maturity he hadn’t possessed the last time she’d seen him.
It wasn’t that he looked different. He was still as good-looking as ever.
It was more that he wore his power more easily. His air of command had lost its harsh shine and achieved a subtle luster.
Subtle, but more dangerous, she reminded herself. With that thought, she blurted, “How did you know I was back in town?”
He shoved his hands in the pockets of his bespoke suit and sauntered closer, completely comfortable in an office that should have been her domain.
She thanked her lucky stars that she hadn’t set out any photos or revealing mementos. She also prayed Conrad hadn’t mentioned anything too revealing about her private life.
“How did I know you were back in Miami?” he repeated, as if taking his time to consider her words. “Now that’s the central question, isn’t it?”
For all his smoothness, she couldn’t miss the quiet danger his voice.
His eyes held hers, and she felt as if she were drowning in their dark depths. “It seems you never mentioned to your friend Anna that you and I used to be lovers.”
Oh, Anna, Megan wailed silently. Why, oh why, did you have to mention me to Stephen Garrison?
Yet, she could hardly blame her friend. She’d kept Anna in the dark—she’d kept everyone in the dark—about the debacle in her life four years ago.
Stephen’s lips twisted sardonically. “If you wanted your return to Miami to remain a secret, you should have sewn up that hole with the brand new Mrs. Parker Garrison.”
He was right, of course, but it didn’t make the pill any easier to swallow.
“You know, it’s funny,” Stephen went on, his tone implying it was anything but humorous, “there we were sitting around Sunday dinner at my parents’ estate in Bal Harbour a few weeks ago when I happened to mention I was looking for an interior design firm to update the Garrison Grand.” He paused. “One guess as to what Anna said.”
Megan compressed her lips, but Stephen apparently wasn’t looking for a response.
“She mentioned her friend Megan Simmons had just moved back to Miami to be a partner at Elkind, Ross.” Stephen rubbed his jaw, then paused as his eyes focused on her again. “I didn’t even know you and Anna were friends.”
“That’s how Anna got her start at Garrison, Inc. four years ago,” she said tightly. “I’d gotten to know people in the HR department at Garrison headquarters when I was working on the redesign there, and I recommended her for a job. She was ready to leave Indianapolis.”
She braced her fingertips against the top of her desk. Her legs felt rubbery, but since Stephen had yet to mention Jade, she guessed Anna had left out she had a daughter now.
“Oh, right,” Stephen said, sauntering even closer. “Four years ago would be right about the time you skipped town.”
“I decided to leave Miami, yes.” She’d fled, but these days she’d learned when to run and learned when to stand her ground.
“Of course,” Stephen went on, seeming not to have heard her, “if you hadn’t run off like a scared rabbit when I headed your way at Anna and Parker’s wedding reception recently, we could have had this conversation elsewhere.”
She’d hoped he hadn’t spotted her mingling among the guests at Anna and Parker’s lavish beach wedding, but clearly it had been a false hope despite her quick departure.
Her fear of coming face to face with him had almost kept her from attending, even without Jade, but loyalty to Anna had ultimately won out.
Still, she wasn’t about to concede an inch. “I did not run away.”
He quirked a brow disbelievingly.
“I just refused to sully Anna and Parker’s wedding day with an unpleasant conversation.”
He laughed humorlessly. “Spare me the drama.”
“Is it so hard to believe there are women who don’t want to flirt with you?” she retorted, her temper igniting.
“I haven’t found any who’ve turned down an invitation to my bed, sweetheart,” he shot back. “Including you.”
“Yes, but I was the one who ultimately walked away,” she countered, then went on the offensive. “Does it bother you, Stephen? Did I ruin your perfect record with women when I dumped you?”
A muscle ticked in his jaw.
She tilted her head. “You know, I promise not to tell…”
His eyes narrowed, his lips becoming a thin line, and for a moment, she worried she’d gone too far.
They’d always been good at pressing each other’s buttons. It was what had added an element of exhilarating excitement to their short-lived affair.
She reminded herself, however, that nothing she could do now could match his betrayal at the end of their affair.
He searched her face. “Did you run because I was getting under your skin?” he mused, his voice lowering. “Were things getting too hot in the bedroom for you? Was your cool façade in danger of melting?”
She sucked in a breath.
“You know it was good,” he murmured.
“Don’t flatter yourself!”
She hadn’t wanted an ugly confrontation four years ago, so she’d gone without an explanation—without a goodbye. She’d been afraid that if she’d faced him with her knowledge of his betrayal, he’d convince her to stay.
Because she knew she was weak where he was concerned. Because she was intimately acquainted with just how charmingly persuasive he could be.
He shifted back a step suddenly, laying off some of the pressure. “Why did you leave?” he asked bluntly.
“I told you in the last conversation—”
“A phone message.”
“I wanted a clean break,” she lied again.
“After dodging my calls for days,” he accused.
“You were out of town on business.”
“Yeah, and then you were—supposedly.”
“I was never good at breaking up,” she countered, “and it was clear to me our fling was coming to an end.”
As clear as the woman whom she’d seen leaving his yacht, she added silently.
His jaw moved. Evidently, he didn’t like her response, but he also wasn’t going to dispute her belief.
She read his silence as confirmation, and her stomach dropped sickeningly. Obviously, if she hadn’t called it quits first, Stephen would soon have been giving her his “it was good while it lasted, babe” talk.
“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” he taunted finally. “A simple explanation for why you ended the affair. You could have given it to me at Anna’s wedding without an ugly scene.”
Perversely, she felt her temper rise again, and attempted to check it. “Are you suggesting that if you’d had a chance to talk to me before now, you wouldn’t be here today with a brand new project for Elkind, Ross?” she demanded. “Because if so, I don’t believe it. I know you too well, Stephen.”
“You used to know me well, sweetheart,” he responded silkily. “About as well as any woman who’s shared my bed.”
She was just one in a crowd, Megan thought bitterly. As if she could ever forget.
Yet one more reason Stephen must never, ever, know about Jade.
She could bear working for him if she had to. She just couldn’t bear having him jeopardizing what mattered most.