9780373831692

Scarlet Woman

by
  • ISBN13:

    9780373831692

  • ISBN10:

    0373831692

  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-12-01
  • Publisher: Harlequin Kimani
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Summary

Out of deep affection and loneliness, schoolteacher Melinda Rodgers married a wealthy older man. Now a widow at twenty-nine, she is stunned to learn that his will requires her to set up a foundation and remarry within the year-or lose her inheritance to a charity of Blake Hunter's choice. a charity of Blake Hunter s choice.As executor of the will, handsome, no-nonsense Blake insists that Melinda carry out the terms of her inheritance to the letter. But she would rather give up the entire fortune than marry again for anything other than love. And judging by the dangerous, unfulfilled yearning that has simmered between the two of them for years, Blake may be the man who can bring her the deepest, most passionate kind of lovehellip;or the most heartbreaking betrayal of all.

Excerpts

Melinda Rodgers sat in Blake Edmund Hunter's law office on that damp, mid-May morning, dumbfounded, as he read aloud her late husband's will. She was to set up a foundation for remedial reading and the acquiring of literacy that would meet the needs of both children and adults and have it fully operating within a year of his death. She must also marry within the year.

If she failed to fulfill either requirement, the house in which she lived and everything else—except for one million dollars to rehabilitate homeless people—would go to a charity of Blake's choice.

"It doesn't surprise me that he'd want that foundation," Melinda said to those present—Blake, her parents, and her best friend "—but as much as he valued individual freedom, I can't believe he'd attempt to force me to get married."

"You just have to carry out his wishes," her father, the Reverend Booker Jones, said. "You wouldn't be foolish enough to throw away all this money. The church needs some repairs."

"Now, dear," Lurlane Jones said, in a voice soft and musical. "Our Melinda is in mourning. We mustn't push her."

Melinda watched Blake Hunter lean back in his desk chair and survey the group, his sharp, cool gaze telling them that he judged them all and found them wanting. She tried not to look at him, lest she betray her feelings.

"I really wouldn't have thought it of Prescott," she said, "but I guess you never truly know a person."

She glanced toward Blake, and her heart turned over at the softness of his unguarded look. She told herself not to react, that she had to be mistaken. He had shown her respect but never liked her, and she doubted he had or ever would have any feelings for her, though Lord knows he lived in her heart and had since the minute she met him.

With his cool, impersonal gaze back in place, he immediately confirmed her thoughts. "Don't think you can play at this, Mrs. Rodgers, and you're not allowed to hire anyone to do it for you. You have to do it yourself and to my satisfaction."

His sharp words and unsympathetic attitude surprised her, for he had always appeared gracious and considerate toward her during her husband's lifetime. "As my husband's close friend, I expected that you might give me some advice, if not help, but I see I'm on my own. I'll be in tomorrow morning to talk this over with you."

His left eyebrow shot up, and he nodded in what appeared to be grudging appreciation. "I'll be here at nine."

"Let's go, Rachel," Melinda said to the friend she'd asked to be with her when the will was read. But she noticed that the woman got up with reluctance, almost as if she didn't want to leave.

"You do what that will says," Booker Jones roared in the descending elevator. "We can't afford to lose one brown cent of that money. We need it to do the Lord's work."

"Melinda will do what's right. So stop fussing," Lurlane said.

Melinda didn't respond. Her father taught his parishioners that money was the root of all evil, but he never said no to it.

"Is he like that all the time?" Rachel asked Melinda as they walked down one of the main streets of Ellicott City, Maryland. "My father hardly ever raises his voice."

"Your father isn't a preacher," Melinda reminded her. "If other pastors are like my father, they're always right. He talks over everybody and across everybody, because when he opens his mouth the world is supposed to shut up and take heed."

"Girl, you go 'way from here," Rachel said. "He's a good man. Last Sunday, he preached till he was plain hoarse and couldn't say another word."

"Yes, I know he's good, and I bet he started whispering into the mike. Nothing shuts up my father."

"He's a righteous man."

"You're telling me? He's the only one on earth. I wish he'd understand that he can't mold people as he would clay figures just because he believes they'd be better off."

"Now, Melinda. You don't mean that."

She did mean it. Her father believed in what he taught, but he was driven by a secular monster, the one that made you want praise and acceptance. Tired of the subject and uninterested in Rachel's views of Booker Jones, Melinda stopped talking. Who knew a man better than his family?

"Rachel, why do you think Prescott put that clause in his will forcing me to remarry? I just can't figure it out."

"Me, neither, girl, and Blake Hunter is going to see that you do it or lose everything, including your house."

Melinda shrugged. "I'm not worried about that, because I never intend to remarry."

Rachel stopped walking. "Was Mr. Rodgers mean to you? I'd have thought an older man would be sweet as sugar to a woman less than half his age."

Melinda smiled inwardly, aware that the comment reflected the local gossip about her and Prescott. "My husband treated me as if I were the most precious being on this earth. He… he was wonderful to me. Those four years were the happiest of my life."

"Well, I'll be! I guess there's no telling about people. Maybe I'd better start looking for an older man. I'm thirty-two. With a fifty- or sixty-year-old man, that ought to stand for something." Rachel didn't say anything for half a block, and then she spoke with seeming reluctance. "How old do you think Blake Hunter is? And how come he's not married?"

"Why would I know?"

"He was your husband's close friend, wasn't he?"

"They never discussed the man's private affairs when I was around. I know practically nothing about him."

"I'll bet you know he's a number ten."

"A what?"

"A knockout. A good-looking virile man who makes you think things you couldn't tell your mother."

So she'd been right. Rachel hadn't wanted to leave Blake's office. The woman was after Blake. She told herself to forget about it. Nothing would ever happen between Blake Hunter and herself.

Melinda walked into the redbrick colonial she'd shared with Prescott and froze when she realized she'd been expecting to hear his usual, "That you, dear?" "Get a hold of yourself," she said aloud, squared her shoulders, and headed for her bedroom, determined to meet the rest of her life head-on. The sound of Ruby vacuuming the hall carpet reminded her that the upkeep of the house was now her responsibility.

"We have to talk, Ruby," she told the housekeeper. "I don't understand it, but Mr. Rodgers didn't provide for you in his will, and I can't keep you on here. I'm afraid we'll have to separate."

"He paid my wages for the entire year after his death, Miz Melinda. And last year, he drawed up a real good pension plan for me. Only thing is, I has to work here for the next twelve months. He done good by me."

Melinda swallowed several times and told herself it didn't matter that Prescott had left his housekeeper better fixed than his wife.

"Is Blake Hunter in charge of your pension and wages?"

"Yes, ma'am. My pension starts thirteen months from now, and Mr. Blake will send me my salary every Friday, just like he always done." She coughed a few times and patted the hair in the back of her head. "If I was twenty years younger, that man wouldn't be single. No sirree. That is one sweet-looking man. A face the color of shelled walnuts." She rolled her eyes toward the sky and wet her lips. "Them dreamy eyes and that bottom lip…Lord."She patted her hair. "Honey, that issomeman."

Imagine that. "He's a hard man," Melinda said, thinking of how lacking in compassion for her he'd seemed when he read the terms of her late husband's will. Harsh terms, and so unlike Prescott. "But if anybody could break through that wall he's got around himself, Ruby, I expect you could."

Ruby put the can of furniture polish on the table and shook out the chamois cloth she used for polishing. "Miz Melinda, that man just can't help being hard. He done nothing but work from daylight to dark six days a week from the time he could walk till he finished high school. His daddy cracked that whip."

She stared at Ruby. Surely the woman was mistaken. "He told youthat?"

"No, ma'am. He sure didn't, but I heard him telling Mr. Rodgers that and a whole lot more. That man been through somethin'."

Melinda's eyes widened, but she quickly replaced that with a bland facial expression. No point in letting Ruby know that anything about Blake interested her. She'd had two shocks in two minutes, and she had a hunch she'd get more of them. She leaned against the wall and waited for Ruby's next shot. Her impression of Blake had been of a privileged youth from an upper middle-class family. How had he become so polished? Ruby's high-pitched voice interrupted Melinda's musings.

"Working a boy like Mr. Blake's daddy done made him work would amount to child abuse these days," Ruby said, warming up to the subject. "He said his folks was poor as Job's turkey."

"Well, he certainly overcame it," Melinda replied and walked rapidly up the wide stairs, richly carpeted in Royal Bokhara. However, realizing that she'd practically run from the talk about Blake because she didn't want to think of him, she slowed her steps. As executor of Prescott's estate, the man would be a fixture in her life for the next twelve months, and she'd better learn to handle the consequences.

Blake Edmund Hunter looked from one woman to the other as Melinda stood to leave his office and Rachel Perkins remained in her chair gazing at him. Another one of nature's stupid tricks! Rachel wanted him so badly she was practically salivating, and Melinda Rodgers didn't know he was alive. His gaze followed Melinda's svelte physique, straight, almost arrogant carriage and sweetly rounded buttocks as she strolled out of his office. He wanted her and had from the minute he first saw her, but he was Prescott's friend, so he hadn't let himself give in to it when Prescott was alive. He was damned if he'd succumb to it now.

If anything turned his stomach, it was a gold-digging woman, an unfaithful wife, or a treacherous friend. She hadn't given him reason to believe that she would be unfaithful to Prescott, and he was grateful for that, because she'd been temptation without trying and he wouldn't have considered disloyalty to Prescott.

Yet, as much as he desired her, he had reservations about her. For instance, that virginal innocence she wrapped around herself didn't fool him. She was less than half Prescott's age, and nobody could make him believe a young, gorgeous woman like her had married an old, solitary recluse for love. She'd married Prescott Rodgers for his money, and Blake would see that she carried out the terms of that will,or else.That clause Prescott had inserted requiring Melinda to marry within a year or lose her inheritance… He squeezed his eyes shut and told himself the lump in his throat had nothing to do with that.

He answered the phone, grateful that its ringing had derailed his thoughts. Dangerous thoughts.

"Yes, Lacy. Look, I'm sorry, but I have to deal with this will."

"But you can leave it long enough to have lunch with me."

He glanced at his watch and banged his left fist on his desk. Softly. Reaffirming his intention to stay away from her. "I'm having lunch at my desk today, and for goodness' sake, Lacy, please don't pout. It's so childish." He could imagine her lower lip protruding in what she considered a sexy come-on.

"You're busy every time I call."

Leaning back in the chair and closing his eyes, he told himself not to show annoyance. "Lacy, I told you I'm not ready for a relationship, and I haven't said or done anything that would make you think otherwise. I'm sorry."

In his mind's eye, he could see her lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag, a habit he hated. "Maybe this weekend?" She had the tenacity of Muhammad Ali smelling victory, but he refused to be roped in.

"I'm longing to see you," she whispered.

He wished she wouldn't beg. Three dates didn't amount to a commitment. "Yeah, right! I'll… uh. Look, Lacy, I wish you well. I'll see you around."

He hung up, but he doubted that ended it. Any other woman would know that he'd just broken ties with her, such as they were, but not Lacy Morgan. He'd never seen a human being with thicker skin.

He walked over to the window and looked down at the flowering trees, but they didn't engage his thoughts. What would happen to Melinda if she couldn't do as Prescott's will required? His long, tapered fingers rubbed his jaw, and he shook his head as if to clear it. The Rodgers account was but one in his portfolio, and several others required his attention. He pushed the intercom button.

"Irene, could you come in and take a letter to Folson?"

"Yes, sir."

Now here was a woman he admired: always professional, and she expected him to be the same. So he wasn't prepared for her comment.

"Blake, I don't see how Melinda is going to set up that foundation. People here don't think highly of her since she married Mr. Rodgers. And to make things worse, she never once went anyplace with him from the time they married till he died. Some say they weren't really married, that she just lived with the old man."

His jaw twitched, and he knew he grimaced, for her blood reddened her light skin and she lowered her eyelids.So much for her unfailing professionalism.He looked over a few notes and dictated the letter.

"Anything else, sir?"

With his elbows propped on the desk, he made a pyramid of his ten fingers and looked her in the eye. "Yes. There is. I was Prescott Rodgers's witness when he married Melinda Jones in this office in the presence of her parents. That's all."

He didn't care for character assassins any more than he liked gold diggers, and he hated feeling protective toward Melinda, but he did. Feeling a flush of guilt, he tapped his Mont Blanc pen on his desk. If she couldn't establish that foundation, he wasn't sure he'd be able to live with himself. He'd insisted that Prescott include that provision in the will and had worded it himself. If she ever found out…

Melinda dressed carefully that morning, choosing a white linen suit—she wasn't going to mourn in black; Prescott had made her promise she wouldn't—a blue-and-white striped linen blouse and navy accessories. She wanted to look great, but she didn't want Blake to think he'd ever entered her mind.

"Come in, Melinda, and have a seat," Irene said, when she opened the door. "He'll be with you in a second."

Looking around the reception room, she marveled at its decorations, carpets, paintings, and live green plants— elegance without ostentation.

"Good morning, Melinda. Nothing pleases me like promptness."

She stood, accepted his extended hand and wished she hadn't, as her heart lurched, and fiery ripples spiraled up her arms. His gaze seemed more piercing than ever, or had he noticed what that physical contact with him had done to her?

"Hello, Blake. I've thought this over and figured that I can either try to comply with this strange bequest or walk away from the entire thing." At his quick frown, she added, "Neither one of those provisions is easy to comply with, but I've made up my mind to do all I can to get that foundation up and operating. Reading is what brought Prescott and me together, and I know how dear this project would be to him."

His frown deepened. "What do you mean by that?"

So Prescott hadn't confided that problem! She lifted her left shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "Long story. Let's get started on this." Something flickered in his gaze, but she discounted it as being impossible. Blake Hunter had no feelings for her.

She made notes as he talked, suggesting names of people she should contact, and providing her with tips about their personalities and attitudes. Once, when she glanced up at him and saw the softness in his fawnlike, brown eyes, she had to stifle a gasp and quickly turned her attention to the tablet in her lap.

"Your father wants to be on the board," he said. "I can't advise you about that, but I'm sure you' ll want board members who can get along with each other."

Laughter flowed out of her at the thought of her father cooperating with any group of eleven people anywhere in the world. She looked at Blake. "Do you know anybody in this town who can swear to having had a gratifying conversation with my father?" She'd often thought the problem with her father was his longing for acceptance, but she would never allow herself to say that.

What was certainly mischief gleamed in his eyes. "I didn't know you knew that. What he's like, I mean."

"Blake, I lived in the house with him until I went away to college."

His big body settled itself in his desk chair, relaxed, and he twirled a pencil, the only playful thing she'd ever seen him do. "I'll bet you thanked God for college."

She leaned toward him, enjoying this unfamiliar side of him. "Did I ever! I put on some lipstick before the train left the station."

A smile played around his lips, mesmerizing her. "What about your soul? Weren't you afraid you'd burn in hell for that worldly deed?"

"Tell you the truth, it didn't cross my mind. Do you think a bird worries about the cage after it flies out? Not for a second. I thought,‘Free at last!'"

Suddenly, his demeanor changed, and she supposed he'd only temporarily forgotten himself, that it was back to business.

"I'll ask Irene to type out this list of prospective board members along with their street and e-mail addresses and their phone numbers. This will take time, so the sooner you get on it, the better."

"Yes, sir!"

His eyebrow went up sharply, but she didn't care if he recognized her insolence. He couldn't change faces with her like a chameleon and expect her to accept it.

"You're not as easygoing as you appear to be, are you?"

She put the tablet in her pocketbook and stood, preparing to leave. "I didn't know anybody thought me easygoing. That is a surprise."

"Real little tiger, eh?" he said, walking with her to the door.

She whirled around and he towered over her, inches from her body.Get a grip on it, girl."Tiger, lion, or leopard. Cross me, and I claw. But unless you step out of line, you'll never get so much as a hint of my feline side."

She wanted to back away from him, but the door trapped her. She didn't like the feeling that pervaded her body, a strange hunger that she suspected had nothing to do with food. He didn't move, and she didn't want him to know what his nearness did to her. Then his pupils seemed to dilate, and his nostrils flared.Oh, Lord, please let me get away from here without making a fool of myself.

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