Authors: Anna James
Table of Contents
KEEPING HER GUILTY SECRET
Forever Yours Trilogy
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
KEEPING HER GUILTY SECRET
Cover Design by Leah Suttle
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Max with all my love.
I want to thank my family and friends for all their love and support, my editor, Debby, and all the others at Soul Mate Publishing who helped bring my Forever Trilogy to life. And a big THANK YOU to: The Connecticut chapter of Romance Writers of America (CTRWA),Charter Oak Romance Writers (CORW),
and the Romance Writers of America chapter of Contemporary Romance for your friendship, support, and good advice.
Where the hell is everyone?
Max Paradis dragged tense fingers through his hair and blew out a harsh breath. The office phone had been ringing for more than ten minutes. At least it seemed that way to him.
He’d been sitting on this plane for lord knew how many hours doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. The mystery thriller he’d purchased at the airport had occupied his time when the flight home to the States had been delayed, the movie the airline had offered wasn’t one that had caught his interest, and despite the First Class accommodations, with the fully reclined seats, sleep eluded him. There wasn’t even work to occupy his time now that the contract assignment in Saudi Arabia was complete. And he wasn’t in the mood for chatting. Not even with the voluptuous flight attendant who’d indicated her interest in him from the moment he’d taken a seat.
God, what’s wrong with me? I’m not even interested in a beautiful woman
You haven’t found any woman interesting
, his subconscious retorted.
Not since Angela. Pathetic, really. It’s been over a year. A little harmless flirting isn’t gonna kill you.
He closed his eyes and willed his mind to stop its relentless torment. A quick glance at his watch indicated it was only four-thirty.
Where the hell was Maeve, and why wasn’t anyone answering the god-damned phone? Maeve always stayed until five, or at least she used to.
Things sure had changed since he went away, and not for the better. When and if he finally got to speak to his brother, he’d have a few things to say to him about how to run a business.
“Good afternoon, Paradis and McNamara. Thank you for waiting. How can I help you?”
“Maeve? What took you so long to answer? I thought everyone had gone for the day. Put me through to Reed.”
“Maeve is on vacation. May I ask who’s calling, please?”
His stomach tightened, and he smiled. Whoever sat at the other end of the line had backbone and that voice . . . like smooth, creamy caramel. Rich. Warm. Sexy. Still, if she’d been at her desk when his call came in he wouldn’t have snapped at her. “Yes, this is Mr. Paradis.”
“As in Paradis and McNamara?”
“That would be me,” he said dryly.
“I’m sorry you had to wait for someone to answer, Mr. Paradis. I, ah, Reed’s line is busy at the moment and I’m afraid . . . If you’ll wait one second I’ll go in and tell him you’re on the line.”
Max rolled his eyes.
You should have gotten someone who actually knows how to operate a multi-line
phone system, Reed, but, as usual, you went for beauty instead of brains.
He pictured her in his mind. Tall, blond, willowy, pretty blue eyes. Typical Reed.
“Mr. Paradis? Are you still there?” the woman questioned with a note of panic in her voice.
Max chuckled. He had to give Reed credit. This woman had the sexiest voice he’d ever heard. It flowed over and around him, like a whisper of silk slipping over smooth skin, and . . . maybe a little harmless flirting was just what the doctor ordered. “Yes, but don’t bother my brother yet. Let him finish up with whoever he’s speaking with. I wouldn’t want to interrupt a business call. I’ll just talk to you for a moment if you don’t mind?”
“I have work to do, Mr. Paradis.”
His pulse quickened and he smiled again. “Humor me. It’s been a long day and, please, call me Max.”
Nicole Bradford couldn’t think of a single thing to say to Max Paradis. The framed photo sitting on Reed’s desk flashed into her mind. The picture featured Reed and Max, his older half brother, laughing after a day of fishing. Her heart had skipped a beat and the breath had whooshed out of her the moment her eyes caught a glimpse of the image. With his tall, lanky frame, luxuriant, wavy black hair, and the most amazing midnight blue eyes, how could she not be attracted to him? She wondered, not for the first time, how the brush of his lips would feel against her heated skin or the touch of his hands as they caressed . . .
Get a hold of yourself! You’ve never even met the man and here you are fantasizing about him. Again.
Considering her track record with men, sticking to fantasy was probably the safer option.
An image of Joe, her boyfriend until nine months ago, popped into her head, his ruggedly handsome face and lithe body, not to mention his to-die-for kisses.
Don’t forget the wife and two kids
, her brain scoffed.
Yes, the lying son-of-a-bitch was married.
Henry was before him. She’d had high hopes for him. He wasn’t the sexy handsome Joe had been. Henry was the scholarly type. Reserved. Shy. You had to watch out for the quiet ones, though. Whips and chains might work for some people, but not her. Boy, she sure could pick ‘em.
When it came to men, she may as well have ‘Fool’ tattooed across her forehead.
No, she didn’t need a man in her life, thank you very much. No siree! Nicole Bradford would do just fine on her own. She had this great job and her two sisters and—Oh, who the heck was she kidding?
“Hello. Is anyone there?”
Nicole’s gaze darted around the room.
Where are you, Ashley?
Ashley, her middle sister, had been filling in for Maeve at the reception desk this week while home on spring break.
But Ashley wasn’t at the reception desk, answering calls as she should be, and the phone had been ringing off the hook. So she’d put down the project summary file she’d been reading and hurried over to answer the persistent caller on the other end of the line. Good thing, too. “Sorry, Mister, er, Max. Yes. I’m still here.”
Lord, I sound like a bumbling idiot.
She cleared her throat. “Reed tells me you’re in Saudi Arabia, working. What’s it like there?”
“I’m at a slight disadvantage. You seem to know quite a lot about me, but I don’t even know your name.”
“Oh, right. I’m—” Nicole sighed in relief as Ashley hurried into the lobby and took the seat behind the reception desk. “Where were you? It’s Max, Reed’s brother,” Nicole whispered.
Ashley picked up the headset and clapped her hand over the mouthpiece. “Sorry. I was in the bathroom.” She removed her hand and spoke again. “Reed’s line is free now. I’ll put you through.” After keying in Reed’s extension, she removed the headset and peered up inquiringly.
Nicole let out a loud, noisy breath. “Thanks. It’s a good thing you came along when you did. If I’d tried to put Max through I probably would have disconnected him. He was already ticked off it took so long to answer the call. If he’d had to call back . . .”
Ashley laughed. “You amaze me, Nicole. Over the last year you’ve learned the construction permitting business inside and out. I’ve seen you go up against some of the most headstrong bureaucrats around and win. Yet you still can’t figure out how to operate a simple multi-line phone system. It isn’t difficult, you know.”
Nicole shrugged and gave Ashley a rueful smile. “So you keep telling me. What can I say?”
Ashley snorted. “By the way, Kate called. She has a date tonight and Reed and I are having dinner. I’m afraid you’re on your own for the evening. Unless you might be going out, as well,” she added hopefully.
Nicole sighed. Both her sisters had dates. “I have plans.” An image of Max inserted itself in her head, molten heat blazing from his smoky blue eyes as he gazed down at her . . . A shiver ran down her spine.
She blinked. “Yes?”
“Your face is flushed. Are you okay?”
“Oh. Yes, I’m fine. What were we talking about?”
Ashley winked. “You were telling me you had plans tonight, too.”
Plans, right, but not with Max, and she’d be late if she didn’t get out of here on time. It took at least thirty minutes to get to the restaurant, her second job, and another five to change into her uniform. Her shift started at six o’clock, which meant leaving here by five-fifteen at the latest.
She gave Ashley a little wave and headed down the hall to Reed’s office.
Ashley called after her, “Aren’t you going to tell me who with?”
Ashley and Kate knew nothing of her waitressing gig, or how she’d taken on the extra work to help make ends meet. Nor did she want them to. They needed to concentrate on getting through college, not worrying where the money would come from to pay for it. Finding more cash for the extras they needed was her problem now that their parents were gone.
Nicole turned back and flashed her most brilliant smile. “Nope.”
After a soft tap on the office door, she peered inside. Reed motioned for her to come in. She hated interrupting the call with his brother, but he needed her comments on a file before he left for the weekend. She may be putting in a few extra hours tomorrow morning, but Reed was not. Ashley was home, and he’d spend every possible moment with her before she returned to school next Sunday.
“What’s up, Nik?”
“My notes are on the top page,” she whispered.
He nodded to her and then continued talking on the phone. “Nik is my right-hand man, so to speak. Oh, about a year ago . . . Hey, what can I say? I needed help after you left, bro. And hiring Nik was the best thing I ever did.”
Nicole let out something between a snort and a laugh. “Only because you got to meet Ashley.”
Reed winked at her. “Right. Ashley is Nik’s sister and the best thing that’s ever happened to me. We’ve been seeing each other about a year now . . . Yes, very serious. As a matter of fact, I’m going to ask her to marry me tonight.”
Reed glanced up at her. “Don’t you dare let on. I want it to be a surprise.” Speaking into the phone again, he added, “Relax, Max, just because your marriage was a complete disaster doesn’t mean . . .”
Max was married? And not happily from the sound of it.
The alarm on her watch beeped.
Time to go.
“I’ll see you later, Reed, and good luck tonight.” He wouldn’t need any luck. Ash was head-over-heels in love with him. She’d definitely say yes.
An hour later, Nicole parked the car and raced into the restaurant. “I know I’m late, Jack. Sorry. The accident on the highway had traffic backed up for miles. I need five minutes and I’ll be ready.” Hurrying past the manager and into the employees’ changing room, she quickly shrugged out of her business suit and into the required uniform.
“You’ve got the back section tonight,” one of the other waitresses called as she headed toward the dining room. “The guy at table five has been waiting for a few minutes. You need to get his order first.”
Nicole finished tying an apron around her waist as she rushed toward the table. “What can I get for you this evening?”
The man lowered his menu.
Nicole started to sweat.
No! It can’t be.
But, oh god, it was. She’d recognize him anywhere with his black, slicked-back hair and dark aviator sunglasses, the gold rope chains draped around his thick neck and the long-sleeved shirt with the top four buttons undone to showcase his wide, hairy chest.
“Hello, baby. Long time no see.”
Not long enough.
“What do you want?”
His eyes wandered down her body, back up, and came to rest on her breasts. She felt the chilly slime of his leer as he said, “Whadda ya say? One last fuck for old times’ sake?”
Her stomach heaved. She shoved a fist in her mouth to stop the bile from rising up.
, her brain sneered.
Yes, idiot pretty much summed it up. Carlo was yet another example of her lousy taste in men. Only he’d cost her more than a broken heart.
Lord, what had she ever seen in him? She’d been young, impetuous, and carefree. Caught up in the glamour and mystique that was the fashion industry. Carlo had been fun and exciting. If only she’d looked past his suave exterior, maybe she would have seen the danger. Instead, she’d jumped in feet first.
It had been the same with Joe, too, and even Henry. They’d seemed perfect. They weren’t, of course. The signs had been there with both, but that impulsive part of her had plunged in without a second thought.
“Not in this lifetime or any other.”
“You might want to rethink that. Six years locked behind bars makes a man a little desperate. It would serve you well to remember that.”
A shudder ran through her.
I won’t let him intimidate me. I won’t let him intimidate me.
She repeated the mantra over and over, forcing herself to remain cool and composed. “You don’t scare me.”
He lunged across the table and she almost fell in her haste to get away. His bark of laughter echoed in her ears and had her stopping in mid-stride.
Get a hold of yourself.
He’d be crazy to try anything in a crowded restaurant. One scream from her and the manager would come running. She turned back and glowered down at his still-laughing face. “What-do-you-want?”
His expression sobered. “The way I figure it, you owe me and—”
Her eyes rounded. “I. Owe. You? Are you high, or what?”
“You cost me everything,” he sneered. “And now it’s time to pay up. I want twenty-five thousand dollars in cash or I’ll tell everyone your dirty little secret.”
Her body shook. From the top of her head down to the toes on her feet.
Oh god, oh god, oh god. No!
How could this be happening now, after everything she’d suffered because of him? Getting charged with a crime she didn’t actually commit, the jail time, the police record she now had
because of him
. Not to mention the humiliation and . . . What about her job? She couldn’t lose another one
because of him
. Not now.
He shot her a lascivious glare. “I’ll take five thousand off if you let me touch those luscious breasts again.”
No damn way!
“Get out of here now.”
“Baby,” he chided. “You used to like it when I—”
“I’m calling the manager.”
He yanked her wrist to prevent her from leaving. “I don’t think so. Now, I want my money.”