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Authors: Renee Roszel

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BOOK: Her Mistletoe Husband
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“I know I seem abrupt, Miss Crosby,” Mr. D'Amour said, breaking through the tense silence, “But I've given up my legal practice in L.A. and I've decided to live in the Midwest, to turn my grandparents' home into a golf club and lodge. Branson is growing by leaps and bounds, and a resort near the city would be a good investment.” He closed his briefcase, snapping it shut with precise movements. All business. “I'm afraid the inn will have to be torn down to make room for the golf course. But you may continue operations through December while you make other living arrangements.” He took the briefcase in his hand. “Don't take reservations for after the new year, however. I'll need to take possession then.” Scanning the place in a cursory examination, he added more to himself than to her, “It looks quite livable.”
She stiffened at the surprise in his tone. “What did you expect?”
His glance returned to her and he shrugged wide shoulders—the image of cold-blooded elegance. “I admit, I didn't expect this. But since it's in such good condition, I'll use it as my operating headquarters while the renovations to my mansion are going on. Now, if you'll show me to a room?”
Elissa stared blankly at the brazen man before her—the man who had, with only a few words, ruined her life.
“We'll be going now,” the husky police officers mumbled, shuffling around to go. Before Elissa registered what was happening, both patrolmen and Sergeant Hamm had gone—no doubt along with her extra patrols or any credibility she might have had before she'd accused this well-heeled lawyer of stalking her. She supposed he had every right to be walking on his
own
property.
“Well?” That one word stirred her from her stupor and she glanced up in question. “My room?”
His room? The man had unbelievable gall! She glared at him. He might own the D'Amour mansion, but he did not own her inn! “You can't come in here and take over!
Get out!”
She thrust a stiff arm toward the door.
His jaw worked and her gaze was drawn again to the damage she had done to him. It's a good thing she didn't know then what she knew now, or she might have clawed him to shreds. “I'm afraid you don't have a legal leg to stand on, Miss Crosby,” he cautioned. “Don't make things worse.” He inclined his head toward the stairs, a clear command to be shown to a room.
She battled an urge to kick him in the shins, but she was afraid she'd just end up seeing Sergeant Hamm again, under less-than-sociable circumstances. Hating the idea that she might have to humor this overbearing man for even a few days, she let her arm fall to her side. She told herself that it would only be until this thing got straightened out, then she could kick him out on his expensively suited backside. “I'm going to fight you on this,” she warned.
“Feel free to sue me, Miss Crosby. But, you'll lose.” The way he said it, with such cool assurance and total absence of bluster, made her shiver. “My room, Miss Crosby?”
She eyed him contemptuously. She'd be hanged if she was going to give him one of her guest rooms. “We're full,” she lied. It wasn't totally untrue. She'd reserved her two best rooms for her sisters and their husbands, who would be arriving in a few days to spend Christmas and New Years.
“This is my inn, remember?” he said. “I could send everybody away if I chose. Think real hard.”
Those silver eyes held a determined glint and alarm skittered up her spine. With a mutinous lift of her chin, she said, “You can stay in the basement parlor. The couch folds out.”
His expression told her he knew exactly what she was doing, and his brows furrowed at her ploy. “Is there office space down there?”
“My office is down there.”
He didn't looked thoroughly pleased, but finally nodded. “All right. Until a room becomes available.”
She grabbed the folder and pivoted away. “When hell freezes over, buster,” she growled under her breath.
“I heard that.”
She spun to glower at him. “I'm
thrilled.”
A mocking brow rose, and Elissa was disappointed to see that her most intimidating glare didn't have him shaking in his expensive wing tips. “Where's the basement, Miss Crosby?”
She marched away from him into the staircase hall, heading toward the kitchen. “It's on the way to hell,” she snapped back. “I feel sure you'll find it.”
She was startled by the derisive chuckle at her back.
How dare he find entertainment in the annihilation of her life!
 
Alex D'Amour didn't know who he was trying to push around. Elissa Crosby was not a woman to easily give up her dreams. The instant she hit the kitchen, she slammed the folder onto the table, startling Bella, the plump cook. Stubby hands fluttered to a ruffly bodice. Elissa looked up and tried to smile. “Sorry. Could you get me a cup of coffee?”
The middle-aged woman nodded and hurried to the pot. The coffee in Elissa's mug had gone cold before she looked up from the documents to take a sip. Making a face, she rubbed her eyes. It looked bad. Mr. D'Amour seemed to have every legal right to the property. But then, the documentation she had looked just as good—and it had passed muster with the probate court and the title company. Even so, the face staring up at her from the police rap sheet looked a little like the man she'd known as the caretaker who'd sold her the old Victorian house. Not exactly like him, but...
And he had been in a hurry to sell, offering her a fantastic deal for cash. At least she'd thought it had been fantastic at the time. Unsettled by the thought, she bolted from the table and ran down the stairs toward her office, barely missing her unwanted guest as he was coming up. “Pardon me,” he said, sidestepping out of her way. She took no notice of him and barreled on, slamming into her tiny office.
The windowless room was hardly bigger than a closet, bare cement walls and floor, without windows or adornment. When the three sisters first moved into the inn, a small cot had been crammed between the desk and the entry wall, giving Elissa a makeshift bedroom. Now she slept in the room that Helen had first used, then Lucy. The cot was thankfully long gone. In its place stood two gray metal filing cabinets.
Her secretary's chair was secondhand and worn, as was her metal desk and fax. But
by
heaven they were hers—just like her inn—and she loved every scratched, dented inch of each piece.
With fingers that would hardly function, she dialed her old professor and mentor at the University of Missouri law school. Though she prided herself on her independence, not leaning on anyone, she was no fool. She knew she needed professional guidance in this. And there was no one who knew the law like Dr. Grayson. When he came on the line, she worked to keep her voice even, placid, explaining what had happened.
By the time she sat down in her creaky chair, she was no longer trembling. Dr. Grayson had always been a calming influence and she felt a flood of relief, knowing that a man of such serene wisdom was on her side.
“Send me everything you have, Elissa. I'll see what I can find out.”
She swallowed, her gratefulness making her teary. “Thanks, Dr. Grayson. I'd feel better with somebody who's up on things to go over this.” Her voice breaking, she winced, then admitted as evenly as she could, “I'm afraid I can't be objective. This man is trying to take away my life.”
There was silence for a moment, before Dr. Grayson spoke. “I hope we can find a loophole, dear.”
There was another bothersome pause and Elissa's anxiety level soared. “What? What is it you're not telling me?”
“Nothing, dear. Nothing to worry about.”
“Dr. Grayson,” she insisted. “Tell me!”
He cleared his throat. “You shouldn't have left the law, Elissa. You have good instincts.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I do know something that might upset you. And I wish you weren't so intuitive to sense it.”
“What is it?” She felt pain and realized she was digging into her knee with her nails.
“Well...” Her professor cleared his throat again. Not a good sign. “I've heard of Alex D'Amour. He's one hell-on-wheels litigator. You remember that Hildabrant Industries toxic waste suit out in California?”
She felt a surge of nausea. “He won that?”
“Got a hundred million dollar settlement for the families in the affected area. I'm afraid he may be hard to beat.”
Elissa closed her eyes and sagged in her chair. “Oh—Dr. Grayson. You have to find something to prove I'm the rightful owner. I've put every cent I've made back into this place. If I lose it, I'll have nothing.” Her lips quivered and she pulled them between her teeth.
“Try not to worry. If there's a way to keep your inn, I'll find it.”
She nodded, but couldn't speak. Her voice was too quivery to trust.
“This is Sunday, so tomorrow, overnight-mail your documents to me. Okay?”
She cleared her throat, but her “okay” was fragile, almost undetectable. “First thing.”
“And, Elissa...”
“Yes, Dr. Grayson?” She toyed with the handle of a mug, half full of day-old coffee.
“Try to have a Merry Christmas.”
She inhaled unsteadily. “I won't be merry until I know the inn is mine.”
“I'll do this as quickly as I can, but you know how things go. Especially around the holidays.”
“I know.” She cringed, disconcerted that her turmoil was spilling over into her voice. She hardly ever cried, but she was right on the verge. “Thanks...” She whispered, swiping at a tear.
“Goodbye, dear.”
When he broke the connection, Elissa couldn't move. She didn't know how long she sat there with the receiver clutched in her hand.
A knock at her office door made her jump, and she dropped the receiver. The clatter it made hitting the cement floor, then bouncing up into her metal desk, then dropping back to tap-dance across floor, was nerveracking.
“Are you okay?” came a deep male voice.
She lurched to her feet, grabbing the receiver by the cord and drawing it up. “What do you want?” After a couple of fumbled tries, she managed to get the stubborn thing into the phone's cradle. “I'm busy.”
“I need to use the fax.”
“Don't you have some fancy laptop computer you could use?”
“Not on me.”
She slumped to perch a hip on her desk, crossing her arms before her. “What if I told you you can't use mine?”
There was silence for a long minute, a silence that was far from reassuring. “What if I told you to get out of my inn, today?” he challenged.
She gasped. “I—I you
wouldn't!

“I need to use the fax.”
He opened the door. Some small comer of her mind caught on the fact that he'd changed out of his dark three-piece suit and was now wearing soft beige trousers and a matching polo shirt. She was startled to note that he was more muscular than she might have expected of a man who spent his days drinking three-martini lunches and filing wordy briefs.
Formidable and grim, he stood there watching her with those breath-stealing eyes, his resolve electrifying the air around her. “Are you going to move, Miss Crosby?”
Never overly thrilled at being ordered around, she gritted her teeth and dug in her heels. “Have you heard of the phrase, ‘When pigs fly,' Mr. D'Amour?”
He took a step toward her; the scratches along his jaw jumped as muscles flexed beneath the skin—a silent testament to his anger.
CHAPTER TWO
E
LISSA had no idea what she thought she was doing, leaning against her desk, arms crossed belligerently. She was acting as though she intended to block Alex D'Amour from gaining access to her fax.
That was the most ludicrous idea she'd ever had, and her brain screamed,
Jump out of the way before he flattens you, idiot!
Nevertheless, her body resisted. Stubbornness was a flaw in Elissa's character—according to her sisters—but she had always thought of it more as, well, being right.
Elissa watched D‘Amour lift his arms and she stiffened, visualizing herself being thrown through the office door. She clenched her teeth, warning in a low voice, “Go ahead—try to use my fax. If you dare.” She lifted her chin. An instant too late it occurred to her that giving him such a conspicuous target wasn't very bright.
Okay, Mr. D'Amour,
she cried inwardly,
if you're looking for some knee-in-the-groin revenge, here's your chance!
Two steps and Alex D'Amour was close enough to strike. A growl issued from his throat and he grasped her upper arm, tugging her away from the desk. Against her will, she cringed as he leaned around her.
He's not going to simply throw me out the door,
Elissa thought in panic,
he's going to throw me over his shoulder-and then out the door!
His hand came down, rubbing hard across her backside—hardly what she'd expected. Instinctively she jumped sideways, only to be caught again as he returned to his rubbing. “What do you think you're doing?” she demanded, shocked and breathless.
“Hold still.”
She wrenched at his grip, but he held her fast. The lethal glare she shot him missed its target, since his attention was focused on her back—her
hips
to be brutally precise. Furious, she shifted so that she could knee him the way she had that morning, but he deftly dodged the attempt, releasing her so suddenly she nearly fell.
“Only one free groin shot to a customer, Miss Crosby.”
When she righted herself he had turned his back and was swabbing a handkerchief over her desktop, soaking up some dark liquid. Suddenly she realized what he was doing. “My coffee spilled?”
“It isn't mine.” He refolded his handkerchief and sopped up the remainder of the liquid that was snaking toward the fax machine. Elissa inched up beside him, tentatively touching the seat of her wool skirt. She detected a faint dampness. Twisting around as far as she could, she squinted down at the herringbone pattern. “Did it stain?” She arched around until she'd turned in a full circle. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't see her rear end, much less a stain on her skirt.
His large hand on her shoulder halted her halfway through her second spin. “You remind me of a puppy chasing its tail,” he said. “And no, it didn't stain.” He held the soaked handkerchief toward her. “Where can I put this?”
She glowered at him as the harsh fluorescent light above his head accentuated his rugged good looks. Thick, black hair that tapered neatly to his collar gave off a soft luster, begging for fingers to stroke and caress. Tall and straight, he was a remote yet majestic figure, with the trace of silver at his temples and eyes that glowed like mercury. In other words, the man was sexy-as-hell. The instant the wayward thought surfaced in her mind, she squelched it, growing angrier. She had never acted like a fluttery female in her life, and she didn't intend to start now. Especially not because of
him!
Mild amusement rode his gaze, hiking her agitation. Her lips parted with an urge to tell him exactly where he could put his handkerchief, but a rush of gratitude stopped her. His quick thinking had saved her favorite skirt. Before she could form an answer, his lips lifted in a sardonic smile. “I'll rephrase that. Where is your laundry room?”
Though she knew she should thank him, she stubbornly pursed her lips. Part of her wanted to tell him she was grateful, but most of her wanted him to take a flying leap off a cliff. She wasn't sure how it happened, but civility won out, and she nodded toward the office door. “The laundry room's across the hall.” She extended a hand, surprising herself even more. “I'll take it.”
He appeared as startled as she felt. “Thanks.” He placed the dripping mess into her open palm. “Now, Miss Crosby, may I use your fax?”
She had pivoted toward the door. With his question, she halted, bitterness swelling inside her. He had some nerve asking her permission when they both knew what would happen if she refused. She turned back, her glare unblinking and reproachful. “I'm going to fight you on this, Mr. D'Amour. I'll prove my ownership.” She paused, struggling to suck in a breath that didn't catch in her throat. “I may have to put up with you for a few days, but don't get the notion I believe you have any claim to my property. Once I get verification that this inn is mine, I'll call the police to have you tossed out on your ear. Do we understand each other?” The last words were a rough whisper.
One dark brow curled upward. “Is that a yes?”
Her temper flared. She couldn't remember when she'd been this outraged. How dare he not be intimidated. She felt a spark of misgiving at that, but tried to reassure herself.
Mr. D'Amour is a lawyer, trained to disguise his emonons, to look supremely confident even when he's quaking with fear.
She'd been out of the profession a long time, and was rusty at the game. Unfortunately he was at the top of his.
For all her loathing of this man and his plans to take away her inn, she had to give him credit. He was good. He just stood there, watching her, making her doubt herself without saying a word.
She'd never met anyone who could affect her that way, and she had a sinking feeling he wasn't cloaking any fear with false calm. He was simply very sure of himself. That realization tore her confidence.
No!
She couldn't accept that. For if it were true, then she didn't own...
She fought back the thought, too horrible to allow full-blown into her mind. Digging deep within herself, she managed to straighten her face and square her shoulders, giving him back the same, self-assured air that he displayed so flawlessly.
Two could play at this game. Elissa Crosby did not cower or admit defeat!
She managed a polite expression, a miracle, considering her internal turmoil. “Guests of my Inn may use the fax for free, Mr. D'Amour.” She shifted to go, then glanced over her shoulder, her smile calculated. “I'll run
you
a tab.”
 
Elissa's bravado was wearing thin. It had been a long day, especially considering how little sleep she'd had the night before, crouched in the D'Amour mansion closet. She hadn't realized the thought of going down to her bedroom would engender as much emotional chaos as spending the night in a frigid, cramped enclosure in fear for her life. But that's how she felt as she headed toward the basement stairs.
Since her staff had immediately recognized the D‘Amour name, she'd told her housekeeper, her cook and her part-time assistant that Mr. D'Amour was going to be a neighbor. She had “been delighted” to offer him lodging while he was refurbishing his mansion. She had no intention of stirring up fears among her employees about the possibility of their losing their jobs. She wouldn't give that idea a moment of her time. It simply would
not
happen.
With her new, part-time employee manning the registration desk, Elissa trudged down the stairs. To her great discomfort, she would have to pass by Mr. Stealerof-Dreams. When she opened the door to the basement, she noticed a light on, making it clear that he was still awake.
She decided she'd better knock before barging around the comer, though it grated on her nerves that she must make any concessions for this man. She rapped against the partially open door.
“Yes?” came a deep voice.
“I'd like to go to my room. Are you decent?”
“No, I'm buck naked.”
Her cheeks warmed at the risqué vision that passed through her mind. The unexpected reaction irritated her, and she wasn't sure why. Stiff-backed she marched into the room. “Sarcasm is a poor excuse for humor, Mr. D'Amour.” Though she'd vowed not to look at him, movement caught her attention and she turned, only to stumble to a halt as her unwelcome guest wrapped himself in a towel. “Oh...” she cried, feeling as though she'd been hit in the stomach.
“Thanks for that bulletin about sarcasm, Miss Crosby.” He tucked the comer of his towel at his side to secure it “But I rarely lie about being naked.” He bent down to his open suitcase and plucked up what looked to be a shaving kit. Glancing narrowly at her, he headed for the bathroom that opened out into the basement parlor. His long legs ate up the distance, flexing calf and thigh muscles drawing her gaze. When he reached the door, he turned to lounge a shoulder against the jamb. “Did you say something?” An eyebrow rose in question.
She could do nothing but shake her head. Waning emotions squeezed her throat like a vise. She despised the man, but some basic womanly instinct sent a ripple of appreciation through her as she saw what a marvelous male specimen he was.
“Oh? Too bad.” He appeared thoughtful. “I thought you might have apologized for barging in. My mistake.”
Her face was flaming and had to be the same color as her hair. She attempted to speak, knowing she should atone, but no sound would come.
His lips curving in the vaguest smile, he slowly cocked a hip. Elissa caught the movement and stared, experiencing a lurch in her chest. With the lazy, calculated move, the ends of his towel separated nearly all the way up his thigh, leaving only his masculine essentials to the imagination. Unfortunately her imagination decided to go there with a vengeance. Pulling in a deep breath she belatedly forced her gaze to his face. She was appalled to see that his grin had grown shrewd. “Been a long time, huh?”
Her jaw almost hit the floor when she realized what he meant. Had she been obviously devouring him with her eyes? It was true that she hadn't dated anyone in a while. But running her inn was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. Her lack of male companionship was her
choice.
Was he suggesting she was a poor, deprived old maid, lusting after him?
Him! Of all people in the world!
Realizing her mouth was open, she pressed her lips together and counted to ten. “I beg your pardon!” she finally demanded in a raspy whisper.
He straightened, deftly tossing the shaving kit from one hand to the other. “I accept your apology, Miss Crosby.” His gaze taunting, he took a step back and closed the door between them.
She didn't know how long she stood there scowling, wishing looks could drill through doors and vaporize arrogant interlopers in their tracks. Her body fairly vibrated with fury. The man was impossible! How long could she bear to have him underfoot, acting so superior, so smug while insisting he owned her inn?
The click of a door opening made her start and she was mortified to be caught still rooted there like a potted geranium. When Mr. D'Amour came out of the bathroom this time, he was wearing a pair of gray shorts. He glanced her way, a sparkle coming to life in his eyes. “How nice—company,” he said, without even a hitch in his step. It was as though he expected her to be there
waiting
for him. “What can I do for you now, Miss Crosby?”
He began to remove cushions from the sofa, preparing to open it up into a bed. Elissa watched him, noting the play of muscles along his arms and shoulders, the tautness of his belly as he bent over. Not an ounce of extra flesh bulged over the elastic waistband of his shorts. Blast him! As her mind began to wonder about how many sit-ups it might take to create a belly like his, he straightened. Holding a cushion, he gave her a rather amused, speculative look. She frowned. What had he asked?
Laying the cushion aside, he indicated the sofa. “I bet you stayed to help me open the bed.” His eyes were challenging.
Her emotions jangling with embarrassment and indignation, she planted her hands on her hips. “Mr. D'Amour, the only thing I'd care to help you open is an artery.” She jerked her head toward the bathroom. “There are clean sheets and blankets in the linen closet.” In an icy monotone, she added, “Just so you're perfectly clear on this, I do not consider you a guest, I consider you an intruder.”
His unwavering gaze disconcerted her. After a few ticks of the clock he nodded, then bent to tug open the bed. With a high-pitched creak, it unfolded revealing the thin mattress that covered the springs. When he straightened and looked at her again, he propped his fists on his hips in a gesture that was plainly mocking. “And just so you'll be perfectly clear, Miss Crosby, I do not consider myself a guest, either. I consider myself a property owner who is being very lenient with a squatter.”
She gasped, horrified.
“Squatter!”
The suggestion was so outlandish it was laughable. She only wished she could laugh. “If I were you, Mr. D'Amour, I'd watch who I called a squatter. You're sleeping on my sofa, remember.” She wheeled around toward her bedroom.
“Then maybe you should call me Alex.”
BOOK: Her Mistletoe Husband
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