If there was one thing Susannah Sanderson—soon to be Susannah Merrill—excelled at, it was setting an elegant table. Along with sparkling crystal and gold on silver flatware, dainty tapered candles perched in sterling candlesticks. A floral centerpiece in buttery yellows and golds complemented the main attraction: her grandmother’s Limoges china. Susannah often said that in a fire she’d grab the photo album from her debutante ball and as much of Grandma Sally’s china as she could carry.
Not every dinner party warranted the use of the china with the pale flowers and strip of fourteen-carat gold around the edge. But entertaining her fiancé and his parents certainly qualified as a china-worthy event.
Susannah glanced at Henry, and he smiled with approval as he took a bite of the succulent leg of lamb she had prepared with just a touch of mint.
“This is absolutely delicious, honey,” Henrietta Merrill said to her future daughter-in-law.
“You’re a lucky man, son,” Martin Merrill added. “There’s nothing quite like being married to a beautiful woman who can cook.”
Henry reached for Susannah’s hand, his love for her apparent in his worshiping gaze. “I know, Dad.”
When a strand of his salt and pepper hair fell across his forehead, Susannah had to resist the urge to brush it back from his handsome face. Henry wouldn’t approve of such an overt display of affection in front of his parents. The paisley bow tie he wore with his starched light blue shirt was a little crooked, but it only made him only more adorable to her. He filled her with such an overwhelming sense of safety and tranquility—two things that had been sorely lacking in her life until Henry had returned to it. In just one month she would be his wife, and she’d have that safety and tranquility forever. Susannah couldn’t wait.
Almost as if he could read her thoughts, Henry squeezed her hand and then released it to reach for his wine glass.
“Have you found your mother-of-the-groom dress, yet, Mrs. Merrill?” Susannah asked. Henry’s parents were spending the month before the wedding with their son in Denver.
“Just yesterday at Nordstrom. It’s a lovely pale green silk.”
Susannah forced herself not to cringe. The color would be horrible with the deep reds she had chosen for the late February wedding. “I’m glad you found something you’re happy with.”
“Now tell me,” Henrietta said with a twinkle in her eye. “What’s with this ‘Mrs. Merrill’ business?”
“Sorry,” Susannah said with a small laugh. “Old habits die hard. I’ve been calling you Mrs. Merrill since Henry and I dated in high school.”
“Well, now you’re going to be his wife, so I thought we’d agreed to dispense with the formalities, hadn’t we?”
Henrietta’s portly face lit up with a warm smile.
After Susannah served her famous chocolate mousse, her future in-laws lingered over coffee—decaf so Martin would be able to sleep.
Susannah was startled to hear a chime echo through the house, indicating the front door had opened.
“Were you expecting someone, honey?” Henry asked.
“No.” She pushed back her chair but froze halfway up, flinching when she heard first one boot and then another drop onto the marble floor in the foyer. Only one person had ever dropped his boots in her foyer...It couldn’t be. Could it? Oh, God, please no... “Excuse me,” Susannah stammered to her guests as she rushed from the dining room, through the kitchen, and into the foyer, stopping short at the sight of her ex-husband, Ryan.
“What are you doing here?” she asked in an exaggerated whisper.
He was bent in half putting something into the shabby duffle bag that sat at his feet. When he slowly stood up to his full six-foot, four inches, his signature Stetson shaded half his face. One deep dimple appeared when he smiled at her. “Hello, darlin,” he said in the lazy Texas drawl that used to stop her heart. But now, like everything else about him, it left her cold.
“What are you doing here?” she asked again.
“I’m home,” he said with a casual lift of his broad shoulders. He shrugged off a beat-up calfskin jacket and tossed it at the coat stand.
Susannah wasn’t surprised when the coat snagged a hook and draped itself over the antique brass stand. “What do you mean home?” she hissed. “This isn’t your home.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” He made a big show of checking his watch. “For ten more days I own the place.”
“This house is mine,” she whispered. “You need to get your stuff and get out of here. Right now.” She reached for his coat and yelped when his hand clamped around her wrist.
Bringing his face to within inches of hers, he grinned and asked, “Why are we whispering?”
“Because I have guests.” She made a futile attempt to break free of the grip he had on her arm. “And you’re not welcome here.”
He sniffed at the air like a dog on the scent of a bone. “Do I smell lamb?” He ran his tongue over his bottom lip. “You know I love your lamb. I hope you saved some for me.”
Realizing the movement of his tongue on his lip had captured her attention, Susannah tore her eyes away. “I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, Ryan Sanderson, but you need to pick up your stuff and get out,” Susannah said in an increasingly more urgent tone as she struggled once again to break free of him.
But instead of letting her go, he brought her left hand up to his face, his brown eyes zeroing in on her engagement ring. “Is that the best old Henry could do? Not exactly the rock you got from me, is it?”
“It doesn’t come with any of the headaches I got from you, either. Now, let me go and get out!”
“Let go of her!” Henry roared from behind Susannah. “This instant!”
Ryan snorted. “Or else what?”
Susannah wished the marble floor would open up and swallow her whole. “Henry, honey, go back to your parents. Everything’s fine. Ryan was just leaving.”
“The hell I was. I just got home. Is this any way for a wife to greet her husband?” Ryan asked, adding in that exaggerated drawl of his, “Got yourself another man while I was off fighting the wars, did ya, darlin’? You didn’t even send a Dear John.”
With desperation, Susannah glanced up at Ryan. The half of his face that wasn’t hidden by the big hat was set into a stubborn expression that told her he was determined to get his way. This was not good. “Henry, please. Go back in with your parents and give me a moment,” Susannah pleaded with her fiancé, who shot daggers at her ex-husband—or, well, her soon-to-be ex-husband. “Please.”
“Only if he takes his hands off you,” Henry said. His ears turned bright red as he clearly struggled to keep his rage in check.
Ryan released Susannah’s arm. “Happy now, lover boy?”
“I’ll be happy when you get the hell out of here and go back to whatever rock you crawled out from under.”
“Ohh,” Ryan said with a dramatic shiver. “I’m scared. You’re so intimidating in that bow tie.”
“That’s enough, Ryan,” Susannah snapped. With a weak smile for Henry, she nodded toward the dining room.
After one last long, cold stare for Ryan, Henry turned and left them.
“He’s a real tiger, that one,” Ryan said with a growl. “I’ll bet he tears it up in bed.”
“What do you want, Ryan?”
“In a word? You.”
“Well, you can’t have me. So this visit—while unexpected—has been nice.” She spun on her heel and walked away from him. “You know the way out.”
“Not so fast. I’m not going anywhere. This is my house. I bought it and everything in it.”
Susannah whipped around to face him. “And you gave it all to me in the divorce!”
“Which, I might remind you, is not final for ten more days. Now, I’m a pretty reasonable guy, and believe it or not, I’m not looking to start trouble for you and lover boy. So let me make this easy for all of us, okay?”
Wary, Susannah nodded. “That would be best.”
“We’ve got ten more days as Mister and Missus, and we’re going to spend them together.”
Susannah started to protest, but Ryan held up his hand to stop her. “Every minute of every day for the next ten days.”
“You’re out of your mind! There’s no way I’m spending ten minutes with you, let alone ten days. No way.”
“You always had such a soft spot for the McMansion.” He sent his eyes on a journey through the spacious foyer, the sweeping staircase, and the formal living room. “It took us long enough to hammer out a settlement the first time. A renegotiation would tie things up for months, and in light of your engagement, I’m thinking that might be a little inconvenient for you...”
“You wouldn’t!” Susannah fumed, but even as she said it she knew he would. Her stomach knotted with tension as she thought of the wedding and all her plans with Henry.
Ryan crossed the marble foyer to her. His scent, a woodsy mixture that always reminded Susannah of the mountains, was as familiar to her as anything in her life. “Watch me,” he said so quietly she might not have heard it if he wasn’t standing so close to her.
Her blue eyes filled with tears. “Why are you doing this?”
He reached out to touch her shoulder-length blond hair. “We made a mistake.”
“How can you say that?” She slapped his hand away. “Our marriage was a nightmare. The divorce was the best thing we ever did.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t a nightmare. Not always. Remember the first few years, Susie?”
“Don’t call me that. That’s not my name, and you know I hate it.”
“You didn’t used to hate it. Remember when we made love and I’d call you Susie? Do you ever think about how hot it was between us?”
“No! I never think of you. Ever.” She pushed him away, and he gasped. “What? What’s wrong with you?”
Struggling to catch his breath, Ryan said, “Nothing.” But his lips were white with pain.
Susannah reached up to remove his hat and recoiled when she revealed the side of his face the hat had hidden. “Oh my God! What happened to your face?”
“Sack gone bad on Sunday. Shoulder pads to the ribs, helmet to the face. Three busted ribs, but fortunately the mug is just badly bruised. Won’t hurt my endorsement deals.”
“Well, thank God for that,” she said sarcastically. His face was so black and blue Susannah had to resist the urge to reach up and caress his cheek. She couldn’t help but ask, “What about your helmet? How could this have happened?”
“The dude hit me so hard, it didn’t do me much good,” he said, shaking his head before his grin returned. “We won, though. They didn’t knock me out of the game until late in the fourth quarter when we’d already sewn it up.”
“Great,” she said without an ounce of enthusiasm. If she never heard another word about the Denver Mavericks, it would be too soon.
“The Super Bowl, baby,” he said with the cocky grin that was all Ryan. “That makes three in five years in case you were counting.”
“I wasn’t but congratulations. Now, please leave. I mean it, Ryan. This trip down memory lane was interesting, and I’m sorry you’re hurt, but there’s nothing left for us to talk about.”
“I beg to differ.” He hooked his arm around her neck and dragged her to him, flinching when she made contact with his injured ribs. Tipping his head, his lips found hers in a kiss that was hot and fast.
Susannah tried to protest, and he took advantage of her open mouth to send his tongue on a plunging, pillaging mission.
When he finally pulled back from her, Susannah could only stare at him.
“How could you forget that, darlin’?” he asked softly.
She shoved him and didn’t care about the flash of naked pain that crossed his handsome face. Whether it was the hit to his ego or his ribs that caused it, she didn’t know and didn’t care.
“Don’t touch me! Do you hear me? I’m engaged to another man. You had your chance with me, and you blew it. You come in here like a big conquering hero jock and think that crap is going to work on me. I’ve heard it all before, Ryan, so you can save it. I’ve asked you nicely to leave. If you don’t go, I’ll call the police.”
He snickered and combed his fingers through his dirty blond hair. “And what do you think they’re going to do to the guy who just brought home another Super Bowl trophy?” Reaching into the pocket of his faded, form-fitting Levis, he withdrew his phone and held it out to her. “Give them a call. Be my guest.”
“Ugh!” she growled with frustration, knowing he was right. The cops wouldn’t do a damned thing but fawn over him the way everyone always did.
“If you’re going to be pig-headed about this, I guess that leaves me no choice.” He casually scrolled through the numbers on his phone. When he found what he was looking for, he pressed the send button.
“Who are you calling?”
“My divorce attorney. Putting the brakes on things.”
She snatched the phone out of his hand and turned it off.
He raised an eyebrow, and his battered face lit up with amusement. “Does that mean we have a deal?”
“And just what am I supposed to tell Henry?”
“I don’t give a flying fuck.”
“Lovely, Ryan. That’s just lovely. You’re as rude and crude as ever.”
“And you’re still hot for me,” he said with a smug smile. “Damn, that just pisses you off, doesn’t it?”
“I know your over-inflated ego will find this hard to believe, but I’m not even lukewarm for you.”
“Whatever you say, baby,” he said, wincing as he bent to pick up his worn Mavericks duffel bag. He took the Stetson from her, tossed it at the coat rack—where it landed with spot-on perfection—and started up the stairs.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Susannah asked with mounting desperation.
“Going to bed. Feel free to join me when you ditch lover boy. Oh, and if you’re feeling generous, you can bring me some ice for my ribs.”
“When pigs fly.”
“If that’s how long it takes, I can wait. The season’s over, and I’ve got nothing but time.”
Helplessly, she watched as he trudged up the stairs and disappeared down the hallway. She stood there for a long time trying to figure out what to do until Henry finally came to find her.
“Did you get rid of him?” he asked.
With a glance at the top of the stairs she said, “Um, not exactly.”