This could not be happening.
Hanna Wilde disconnected the call with the dry cleaner next door and stared at her cell phone.
He was here, in Milton. Many miles and a few states away from his big fancy home—make that homes—in the Washington, D.C. area.
Not that he. Not the one who’d tracked her and tried to scare her months ago. Not the one who’d threatened and lied. No, the man in her building, on his way up to her apartment, was the son, not the horrible father.
Carter Jameson. Youngest heir to a vast real estate fortune. Grandson of a disgraced congressman. The boy whose family had employed hers back when they were kids.
Her unwanted teen crush.
Amazing how the last name Jameson could start a shake running through her that rattled right down to her bones. Her reaction arose out of anger, not fear. Though, if she were being honest, she’d have to admit to a mix of both.
His visit here meant his family had hunted her down and found her again. The last round of contacts started with letters from Carter’s father, Eldrick, then from his attorneys, all insisting she come in for a meeting. When she ignored those, the unwanted visits started. But she’d done what Eldrick ordered. She stayed away from Virginia and Carter and kept her mouth shut.
She’d already lost so much to the Jamesons—her father, her sister, her peace of mind. Now it looked like they were coming around again for one more shot.
She slipped her cell phone into her back jeans pocket and headed for the one closet in her studio apartment. It held her clothes, her cleaning supplies and, well, that just about constituted the entire list of what she owned. That and the photo album. If they were going to hound her it was easier to leave town for a while then go through it all again. She didn’t have any real connections here anyway, but the album was coming with her. It was all she had left of the past she tried so often to forget.
The knocking started as soon as she dropped to her knees. The rickety closet door with the broken slats screeched to a halt on the tracks. She usually shoved and pushed, half lifted the thing, to get it to open the whole way. But that would make noise and require her to move, and she seemed to be frozen in place.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. It was the only sound in the silent room.
Then the knocking started again.
“Hello?” A deep male voice, all silky and smooth, floated through the door.
She refused to fall for that sexy sound a second time. She wasn’t a teenage anymore. She knew better now...in theory. “What?”
He acted like he knew her but that had been years ago. Another time, almost another life.
“She’s not here.” She winced as she made the nonsensical remark.
For a second there was no response. Hanna scrambled to her feet and tiptoed to the door. She saw the shadow of Carter’s feet at the bottom. So, he still stood there, quiet now.
“Are you sure you don’t want to try another answer, Hanna Wilde? Maybe one a bit more believable?”
She couldn’t insist he had the wrong apartment. He remembered her name and he still had the same smiling lilt to his voice. This, the guy she’d been warned to stay away from was now hanging out in the hallway. Maybe he wanted to take a turn telling her not to disclose the misdeeds of his past. Either way, she refused to be blamed for being near him when he was the one who found her.
Taking a deep breath, she threw open the front door. Almost slammed it right into her own face but had the good sense to step back in the nick of time.
Her words cut off at the sight of him. A smile lit up his stupidly handsome face. He was tall, probably six-one or so, looming over her by inches even though there was nothing tiny or petite about her.
A billionaire born into a family of extreme privilege, the type of people who did whatever they wanted, without consequence. A long line of Virginia landowners who considered themselves Southern gentlemen, a bloodline that had been broken only by a Japanese grandmother—or so said the nasty whispers of their fellow rich people. The same grandmother who had gifted Carter with the striking combination of glossy black hair and near black eyes.
Carter was the youngest of the Jameson sons. The playboy with the carefree reputation. The one not defined by the rules as much as his older brothers because no one expected or demanded anything of him. He was the “extra” child, or that was the joke his father used to describe him. She knew about the nickname because she’d watched interviews with Carter’s old man, hating him as much on-screen as she had in person.
Carter had been living in California for almost a year now—after he’d breezed through her sister’s life...and destroyed it.
“It’s been so long.” He sounded genuinely happy to see her.
Hanna ignored whatever traitorous emotion started jumping around in her stomach at the sound of his voice. “What do you want?”
“That’s an interesting welcome.”
She could have sworn his eyes actually sparkled. She glanced at the ceiling, figuring it had to be a trick from the hallway lighting. But no, the dude’s eyes looked sunny and warm and welcoming.
This guy, the one who wined and dined her sister, made promises then left town, now acted as if nothing had happened. As if he’d lost touch with Hanna by accident, not because his father cut off all contact. He’d never really noticed her before, certainly not when she was younger and desperate for his attention, which still haunted her, but now he pretended to.
“Why are you here?” Her fingers dug into the wooden door. She held on to it like a shield, positioning her body half behind it, ready to slam it shut if he moved even an inch.
Later she would assess why just seeing him touched off a spinning inside her. Why, after all this time, her heart still sped up when he shot her an inviting look. The reaction struck her as self-destructive and wrong but realizing that didn’t make it stop. It also made her wonder if she’d really overcome those feelings of not being good enough as she’d hoped.
The longer they stood there, the more those sparkly eyes dimmed. They started to narrow a bit. “Hanna? Do you remember me?”
She snorted. Little did he know she used to dream about him. “Of course.”
His gaze wandered over her head, into the studio behind her. “Are you okay?”
“I was up until three minutes ago.”
He let out a long, labored exhale. The kind that telegraphed a this-woman-is-working-on-my-nerves vibe. “Let’s start over. My father sent me.”
The memory of her youthful crush vanished. Her stomach squeezed and twisted until she had to fight the urge to yell. “To tell me to stay away? Well, I did that. If he’s ticked off it’s his own fault, or yours, because you came hunting me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Whatever he wants this time, the answer is no.” She gave in and shoved the door. Put her weight behind it and let it fly.
Carter grabbed the edge before it crashed into his shoulder. “Whoa. What do you mean by this time? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Yep, his reflexes were just as solid as the rest of him. All muscle and long legs and perfect cheekbones... Man, she hated the Jameson family and their hot-male genes.
“You need to go.” She’d said it in a few ways now. Maybe this time would sink in.
“What did he do? My father. Your reaction is...telling.”
Carter could not be this clueless. It wasn’t just his father. It was him, too. He’d created a mess and had his big ol’ rich daddy sweep the problem away.
That was almost a year ago. Now Carter showed up, taking the never-happened part a bit too far. “Oh, please.”
“Hanna.” This time there was a bit more oomph behind his tone when he said her name. “We haven’t seen each other in, what, ten years?”
True, and it managed to feel like both forever ago and like yesterday. “Your point?”
“Normally, I need to see a woman more often for her to be this angry with me.” One eyebrow lifted. “Or can I assume my father is responsible for your mood?”
Oh, this younger Jameson was a smooth one. Calm, standing there in his slim black pants with his hands in his pockets. A short gray winter coat highlighted his trim waist and likely cost more than her beat-up car with its side view mirror held on with electrical tape.
He rocked back on his heels, as if they were having a friendly chat. She had to give him credit. Carter Jameson had never tripped through that typical gawky preteen stage. Nope, he went from young and cute back then to all grown-up and hot now. Confidence pounded off him. The mix of perfect genes and I-know-my-place-in-the-world control proved pretty compelling.
Too bad he was a lying sack of garbage.
“The threats.” She stared at him, watching confusion sweep through his eyes. Yeah, nice try. “The baby.”
The color left Carter’s face. Drained away, leaving him pale and listing to one side. “Oh, damn. Please tell me you didn’t date my father and get pregnant.”
She almost gagged. “What?”
“Look...” Carter held up both hands. “He’s... I don’t know, charming? At least that’s what women have said. I don’t get it at all but—”
“Stop talking.” She grabbed a handful of his jacket when her nosy neighbor from across the hall opened his door. After a quick wave to send the guy scurrying away, she pulled Carter into her apartment and shut the door, trapping them inside. Together. Which was her nightmare.
“I did not sleep with your father.” She practically hissed the words at him.
“Good.” Carter visibly blew out another breath as a bit of color returned to his cheeks. “You said something about a baby?”
She shouldn’t have mentioned it. She refused to travel down that heartbreaking road. “How did your father find me?”
“Uh...” Carter closed one eye as if he were trying to reason something out in his head. “Were you lost?”
She didn’t buy the act. This errand had a purpose and Carter was the only one of the two of them who knew what it was. “Skip to the part where you explain how and why you’re here.”
“Okay.” His frown came and went. By the time he made eye contact again he seemed to have gotten control of whatever emotions were churning inside him. His expression morphed into a blank and unreadable one. “It’s a long story, but suffice it to say, my father asked me to come and see you. Specifically, to give this to you.”
He held out an envelope. Another envelope just like the ones his father had handed her and sent to her with messengers before. The idea of being told to stay away when she already had done just that didn’t make any sense. But the idea of reading through more correspondence from Eldrick Jameson exhausted her. She refused to do it. She would not give him or Carter the satisfaction of ordering her around and getting their way a second time.
The envelope might as well have been on fire because there was no way she was touching it. Never again. “Put that away.”
He flipped it around in the air a few times. “You don’t want it?”
He sounded stunned at the thought. She almost laughed at the reaction. It was as if he didn’t know his father and the old man’s schemes at all. There were always strings when it came to dealing with a Jameson.
“Save us both some time and just tell me what it says.”
Carter shrugged. “How should I know?”
“You’re telling me you didn’t open it? You flew here or took a million-dollar taxi ride or whatever and you never gave in to the itch to crack open the seal?” That seemed to defy human nature.
“Gotta say it sounds like you want to know what’s inside.” When she didn’t say anything, his hand dropped. “He left the envelope for you and said he wanted you to have it. My job was to deliver it.”
“I figured you knew.”
Anger whooshed out of her, but frustration quickly settled in its place. She had no idea what was happening. From the apologetic sound of his voice, she wondered if he did either. “Are you serious? You really don’t know what this assignment your father gave you is about?”
“Unfortunately, no.” Carter moved around the small space, careful to dodge the corner of her dresser and the edge of her bed, to stand by the window. “I’m not sure how to ask this, so I’m just going to blurt it out. I apologize in advance for the delivery.”
“That sounds ominous and—”
“Did you have a thing with my father? Maybe not sexual but...something?”
The question sounded just as horrifying the second time. The words had changed but the idea still screeched in her brain. “I don’t want anything to do with your father. Never did.”
Carter shook his head. “Well, he’s been married four times and had a series of mistresses and girlfriends, so I guess some women like him.”
She shivered. “I don’t get that.”
“On that, we agree.” A smile tugged on the corner of Carter’s mouth as he took a few steps around her small space.
That cocky walk, the self-assurance. The way he stepped into a room and owned it. He was older now, more attractive in the way age and life experience molded and changed a person. Defined his features. That firm chin. The sexy smile.
The teenaged version of her had suffered from a debilitating crush that made her stammer and stare at her feet during the few times he’d talked to her. The grown-up version of her, the one who had experienced nothing but grief and anguish at the hands of the Jameson family, appreciated the way he looked but was smart enough to be wary. To not get reeled in.
“So, your father’s sole instructions were to find me and give me that.”
“Yes.” He held the envelope out again.
None of this made sense. She’d never said anything. Never tried to see Carter. Ripped up the damn check his father had given her as a payoff, but there’s no way the elder and famously impulsive Mr. Jameson had waited all these months to send Carter to try to pay her off again. Something else was happening here.
A terrible thought floated through her mind, freezing her to the spot by the door. “Is he with you?”
“My father?” Carter shook his head. “He’s not even in the country, as far as I know. He and the new wife live in Tortola. Since I haven’t heard from him in a few weeks, I’m assuming he’s back there.”
She noticed Carter didn’t sound upset about living that many miles apart. The family dysfunction was his business, but she did have a few seconds of silent celebration at the thought of being some distance away from Carter’s father. “Good.”
Carter eyed her, his gaze assessing her, as he leaned against the wall next to the window. “I’m guessing whatever happened between you two was bad.”
“The good news is you’ve done your duty. Daddy asked you to visit me and you did. Mission accomplished.” It was time for Carter to leave. She needed to make plans, figure out where she went from here.
“I still have the envelope, so I’m not convinced we’ve resolved anything.”
“The reality is I’m not related to the man, so I don’t have to do what he wants.”
Carter made a noise that sounded a bit like huh before he started talking. “Any chance you’re going to fill in the blanks and tell me what all of this is about?”
No way would she give up her small advantage by sharing anything she knew. “Hey, stud. You came to see me.”
“I guess shy little Hanna is all grown-up now.”
She reached out and opened the door. “And she’s done with this conversation.”
He pushed off from the wall and took the few steps that put him in front of her. “You know this isn’t over, right?”
Her hand tightened on the doorknob. “Sure feels like it.”
His smile returned as he nodded. “Goodbye for now, Hanna.”
Then he was in the hall and she slammed the door behind him. Her heart hammered in her chest as she tried to drag in enough air to breathe. She gulped and panted as she fell against the door, letting her back slide down when her knees gave out and she fell to the floor in a boneless heap.
* * *
Carter walked out of the lobby and stepped into the cold upstate New York evening. Winter fell early and heavy here. There was talk of snow in the forecast and he wanted to be long gone before it arrived.
It was a little after five. The sun had set and clouds filled the darkening sky. He zipped his jacket to block some of the biting October wind. He glanced up at Hanna’s window and saw a peek of light behind the drawn curtains blocking his view inside.
She might not want to reminisce with him, but he possessed some vivid memories of her. Shy and pretty. She’d been a teenager on his family’s Virginia estate and had hidden behind her older, more outgoing sister. The Wilde girls. Back then he’d thought of himself and Hanna as friends. It wasn’t until he was older that he’d realized he’d held the sisters at a distance. He’d all but ignored Hanna, treating her as the child of the “help” and nothing more, just as his father insisted.
Carter shook his head, hating the reminder of his past and who he’d once been. The same history he’d run from and gotten dragged back into when his brother called him home, asking for help. Now Carter was the one who needed assistance. At the very least, a little information. He couldn’t do much more without that.
He grabbed his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and called Jackson Richards, the real hub of information at Jameson Industries and one of the few people in the world Carter actually liked and trusted.
“Hey, I need your help.”
“Nothing new there. You still working on your top-secret mission for your dad?”
Carter decided to ignore the question as he listened to Jackson typing in the background. “Ready for the list?”
“Wait, don’t you have an assistant?”
“I don’t actually work at the company. I’m happy staying on the Virginia property, far away from the family business.”
Carter’s preference for the Virginia countryside was a fact his father had once used to drive a wedge between Carter and his brothers. They were the business-minded ones. He was the disappointment. Carter had heard the refrain so often it rang in his ears even now.
He’d come back to the D.C. area expecting to check in on his brothers and help out with their ongoing fight with their dad about governing interest in the business, then go again. When that didn’t happen he’d settled in to the Virginia estate. It was a small act of defiance against his father, who had kicked him out of that same property almost a year ago and told him never to come back.
But now he needed some intel. “No one is as good at this stuff as you are.”
“Flattery won’t work.” Jackson cleared his throat. “For the record, expensive liquor will.”
“Done. As soon as I get back, I’ll come by with a bottle.” Carter moved out of the glare of the streetlight and leaned against the brick wall of Hanna’s apartment building. Cars buzzed by and people moved around him on the sidewalk, likely on their way to the bars and restaurants two blocks over. “I need all the information you can get me on Hanna and Gena Wilde. Sisters. Their dad used to work for our family at our Virginia estate.”
“Do you know what you sound like when you say estate like that?”
“I have an idea.” Carter glanced at his watch and made a quick decision. “You have three hours to gather intel.”
The typing stopped. “What the hell? I do have a real job, you know.”
A fair argument but a strange anxious feeling settled inside Carter. He sensed if he didn’t talk to Hanna again soon, this time armed with information, she’d slip away. And he didn’t want to go another ten years without seeing her again.
The wary blue eyes, almost baby blue. That wavy, shoulder-length, deep auburn hair that he ached to run his fingers through. The way her jeans balanced on her hips, giving him the tiniest glimpse of bare pale stomach as the edge of her long-sleeve T-shirt shifted around. He wanted to know more. To talk with her. To dig and see what had her on edge.
He guessed he’d trace most of her problems right back to his father. Carter had no idea what had her spooked or what game his father was playing, but something bigger than an envelope was happening here.
Carter took it out and studied it. No writing or clue to the contents. It was killing him not to rip it open. If he didn’t have an answer in a few days, he would. Until then, he could respect her privacy...but barely.
Jackson sighed into the phone. “Does this have something to do with your highly problematic father?”
“Doesn’t everything? Talk to you soon.”
Carter hung up before Jackson could complain or swear. He glanced up at Hanna’s studio a second time. “It looks like I’m not going anywhere just yet.”