Crossing the line between love and hate...
Widow Holly Halloran's fresh start is only a plane ride away, until Lukas Antonides—the man she hates, but has never been able to forget—strides arrogantly back into her life...
Lukas was her late husband's best friend and openly disapproved of Holly. Then on one unforgettable night their acrimony ricocheted into the bedroom!
Now the arrogant Greek is kicking the hornet's nest again by offering Holly a job. Holly agrees, determined not to let Lukas get beneath her surface this time. But as the tension mounts between them, so, too, does that bubbling attraction of old...
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RITA Award-winner Anne McAllister was born in California and spent formative summer vacations on a small ranch in Colorado, where developed her concept of "the perfect hero”, as well as a weakness for dark-haired, handsome lone-wolf type guys. She found one in the university library and they've now been sharing "happily ever afters" for over thirty years.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"Getting married is exhausting." Althea Halloran Rivera Smith Moore collapsed into the back of the cab and closed her eyes, unmoving.
"Which is why you're only supposed to do it once," Holly said drily as she clambered in after her sister-in-law. She pulled the door shut and gave the driver her address in Brooklyn.
As the taxi edged back out into the late Saturday afternoon Midtown Manhattan traffic, Holly slumped back in against the seat. "Those dresses were horrible." She shuddered just thinking about the pastel creations she'd tried on all day. It wasn't as if she hadn't worn identically repulsive bridesmaids' dresses for Althea's other weddings.
"This is the last time." Althea put her hand over her heart. "I swear. I'm just too impulsive."
In the eight years since Holly's wedding to Althea's brother Matt, Althea had marched up the aisle three times. And into divorce court each time shortly thereafter.
"But not anymore. This time is different," Althea assured her. "Stig is different."
Swedish professional hockey player Stig Mikkelsen had nothing at all in common with the aloof doctor, the extroverted stock broker and the pompous professor Althea had married previously. Stig had swept into Althea's life six months ago, charmed her, teased her and refused to take no for an answer. He'd overturned her resolve never to walk down another aisle, and best of all, had somehow given Althea the greatest gift—helping her return to the sparkling, cheerful woman she had been before her three marital disasters.
For that alone, Holly blessed him. So when Althea began making wedding plans and asked Holly to be her "one and only bridesmaid, please, please, please!" Holly had gritted her teeth and agreed.
She'd even silently vowed—if necessary—to force herself into another stiff, ruffled, pastel cupcake of a dress. But even with just the two of them to please and all of Manhattan's gauziest wonders to choose from, they hadn't been able to find "the perfect bridesmaid's dress."
"Stig will know what we need. I'll take him next time," Althea said.
"He's a nice guy," Holly allowed. But if he went dress shopping with Althea, he should be nominated for sainthood.
"And he's got teammates..." Althea shot her a speculative look. "Single ones."
"No," Holly said automatically. "Not interested." She crossed her arms over her tote bag, holding it against her like a shield.
"You don't even know what I was going to say!"
Holly arched a brow. "Don't I?"
Althea had the grace to look a tiny bit abashed, then gave a little flounce and lifted her chin. "Some of them are very nice guys."
"No doubt. I'm not interested."
"You're not even thirty years old! You have a whole life ahead of you!"
"I know." There was nothing Holly was more aware of than how much of her life there still might be—and how flat and empty it was. She pressed her lips together and made herself stare at the cars they were passing.
Suddenly Althea's hand was on her knee, giving it a sympathetic squeeze. "I know you miss him," she said, her voice soft but thick with emotion. "We all miss him."
Matt, she meant. Her brother. Holly's husband. The center of Holly's life.
Just thirty years old, Matthew David Halloran had had everything to live for. He was bright, witty, handsome, charming. A psychologist who worked mostly with children and teens, Matt had loved his work. He'd loved life.
He had loved hiking, skiing and camping. He'd loved astronomy and telescopes, basketball and hockey. He'd loved living in New York City, loved the fifth floor walk-up he and Holly had shared when they'd first moved to the city, loved the view across the river to Manhattan from the condo they'd recently bought in a trendy Brooklyn high-rise.
Most of all, Matt had loved his wife.
He'd told her so that Saturday morning two years and four months ago. He had bent down and kissed her sleepy smile as he'd gone out the door to play basketball with his buddies. "Love you, Hol'," he'd murmured.
Holly had reached up from the bed she was still snuggled in and snagged his hand and kissed it. "You could show me," she'd suggested with a sleepy smile.
Matt had given her a rueful grin. "Temptress." Then he'd winked. "I'll be home at noon. Hold that thought."
It was the last thing he'd ever said to her. Two hours later Matt Halloran was dead. An aneurysm, they told her later. Unknown and undetected. A silent killer waiting for the moment to strike.
Going in for a lay-up at the end of the game, Matt had shot—and dropped to the floor.
Simultaneously the bottom had dropped out of Holly's world.
At first she had been numb. Disbelieving. Not Matt. He couldn't be dead. He hadn't been sick. He was healthy as a horse. He was strong. Capable. He had his whole life ahead of him!
But it turned out that Holly was the one who had her life ahead of her—a life without Matt. A life she hadn't planned on.
It hadn't been easy. All she had wanted to do those first months was cry. She couldn't because she had a class full of worried fifth graders to teach. They looked to her for guidance. They knew Matt because he and Holly took them to the marina on Saturdays to teach them canoeing and kayaking. They shared her grief and needed a role model for how to handle it.
Psychologist Matt would have been the first to tell her so.
So for them, Holly had stopped wallowing in misery. She'd wiped away her tears, pasted on her best smile and resolutely put one foot in front of the other again.
Eventually, life began to resemble something akin to normal, though for her it never would be again—not without Matt to share it.
But even though she had learned to cope, she wasn't prepared when friends and family began trying to set her up with another man. Holly didn't want another man! She wanted the man she'd had.
But ever since last summer Althea had been dropping hints. Holly's brother, Greg, a lawyer in Boston, said he had a colleague she might like to meet. Even her mother, a longtime divorcee with not much good to say about men, had suggested she take a singles cruise. At Christmas Matt's parents had begun telling her she needed to get on with her life, that Matt would want her to.
She'd always done everything Matt wanted her to. That was the problem!
"At least you're dating Paul."
"Yes." A few months back, Holly had determined that the best way to deter meddling family and friends was to appear to have taken their advice and gone out. Charming, handsome, smart, a psychologist like Matt, Paul McDonald was like Matt. But he wasn't Matt. So no danger to her at all. It just kept well-meaning relatives and friends off her back. And she knew she wasn't leading Paul on. Long divorced, Paul was a complete cynic about marriage.
"If you married Paul," Althea said, oblivious to Paul's lack of interest, "you wouldn't have to hare off across the world to sit on a coral atoll somewhere." She gave Holly an indignant glare. "I can't believe you're even considering that!"
Joining the Peace Corps, she meant. Last fall, fed up with the emptiness of her life and admitting to herself at least that she needed to find a new purpose, a new focus, Holly had sent in her application. They had offered her a two-year teaching position on a small South Pacific island. She was to start preliminary training in Hawaii the second week in August.
"I'm not considering. I'm doing it," she said now.
"Paul can't talk you out of it?"
"Someone should," Althea grumbled. "You need a man who will make you sit up and take notice. Paul's too nice. You need a challenge." Abruptly, she sat up straight, a smile dawning on her lips. "Like Lukas Antonides."
"What? Who?" Holly felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the universe. She was gasping as she stared at her sister-in-law. Where had that come from?
"You remember Lukas." Althea was practically bouncing on the seat now, her cheeks definitely rosy.
Holly felt hers burning. Her whole body was several degrees warmer. "I remember Lukas."
"You used to follow him around," Althea said.
"I did not! I followed Matt!" It was Matt, damn him, who had followed Lukas around.
Lukas Antonides had become the neighborhood equivalent of the Pied Piper from the minute he'd moved in the year he and Matt were eleven and Holly was nine.
"Ah, Lukas." Althea used her dreamy voice. "He was such a stud. He still is."
"How do you know?" Holly said dampeningly. "He's on the other side of the world."
Lukas had spent the past half dozen years or so in Australia. Before that he'd been in Europe—Greece, Sweden, France. Not that she'd kept track of him. Matt had done that.
Since Matt's death she hadn't really known where Lukas was. She'd received a sympathy card simply signed "Lukas." No personal remarks. Nothing—except the spiky black scrawl of his name—which was absolutely fine with her.
She hadn't expected him at the funeral. It was too far to come. And thank God for that. She hadn't had to deal with him along with everything else. For a dozen years now she hadn't had to deal with him at all. So why was Althea bringing him up now, when he was off mining opals or wrangling kangaroos or doing whatever enthusiasm was grabbing him at the moment?
"He's back," Althea said. "Didn't you see the article in What's New!?"
Holly felt her stomach clench. "No." It was the end of the school year. She didn't have time to read anything except student papers. "What article?" What's New! was a hot, upscale lifestyle magazine. Out of her league. She wouldn't normally read it anyway.
Since getting engaged to Stig, Althea always read it. Sometimes she was even in it. Now she nodded eagerly. "Gorgeous article. Just like him." She grinned. "He got the centerfold."
"They don't have centerfolds in What's New!" But the image it conjured up made Holly's cheeks flame.
Althea laughed. "The centerfold of the magazine. There's a double-page spread of Lukas in his office. Big story about him and his foundation and the gallery he's opening."
"Foundation? Gallery? What gallery?"
"He's opening a gallery for Australian, New Zealand and Pacific art here in New York. Big stuff in the local art community. And he's heading up some charitable foundation."
"Lukas?" If the gallery and the centerfold boggled her mind, the notion of Lukas heading up a charitable foundation sounded like a sign of the apocalypse.
"It's in this week's issue," Althea went on. "He's on the cover, too. Surprised it didn't catch your eye. The gallery is in SoHo. They showed some of the art and sculpture in the article. Very trendy. It's going to draw lots of interest." Her grin widened. "So is Lukas."
Holly folded her hands in her lap, staring straight ahead. "How nice."
Althea made a tutting sound. "What do you have against Lukas? You were friends."
"He was Matt's friend," Holly insisted.
Lukas's move into the neighborhood had turned Holly's life upside down. Until then she and Matt had been best friends. But once Lukas arrived, she'd been relegated to tagalong, particularly by Lukas.
Matt hadn't ditched her completely. Solid, dependable, responsible Matt had always insisted that Holly was his friend. But when Lukas's father took them out in his sailboat, she hadn't been invited.
"Go play with Martha," Lukas had said. It had been his answer to everything.
His twin sister, Martha, had spent hours drawing and sketching everything in sight. Holly couldn't draw a stick figure without a ruler. She'd liked swimming and playing ball and catching frogs and riding bikes. She'd liked all the same things Matt did.
If Matt had always been as comfortable as her oldest shoes, Lukas was like walking on nails. Dangerous. Unpredictable. Fascinating in the way that, say, Bengal tigers were fascinating. And perversely, she'd never been able to ignore him.
If Lukas was back, she had yet another reason to be glad she was leaving.
"He's made a fortune opal mining, apparently," Althea told her. "And he's parlayed it into successful businesses across the world. He's got fingers in lots of pies, your Lukas."
"He's not my Lukas," Holly said, unable to stop herself.
"Well, you should consider him," Althea said, apparently seriously. "He's handsomer than ever. Animal magnetism and all that." Althea flapped a hand like a fan in front of her face. "Seriously hot."
"Hotter than Stig?"
"No one's hotter than Stig," Althea said with a grin. "But Lukas is definitely loaded with sex appeal."
"And knows it, too, I'm sure," Holly said. He always had. Once he'd noticed the opposite sex, Lukas had gone through women like a shark went through minnows.
"Well, you should look him up—for old times' sake," Althea said firmly.
"I don't think so." Holly cast about for a change in subject, then realized happily that she didn't need to. The taxi had just turned onto her street.
Althea shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I'd pick him over Paul any day of the week."
"Be my guest." Holly gathered up her sweater and tote bag.
"Nope. I've got my man." Althea gave a smug, satisfied smile.
Once I had mine, too, Holly thought. She didn't say it. There was no reason to make Althea feel guilty because she had found the love of her life and Holly had lost hers. "Hang on to him," she advised, getting out her share of the taxi fare.
"Put that away. The taxi is on me. I'm sorry we didn't find a dress. Maybe next Saturday..."
"Can't. I'm going to be kayaking with the kids from school next Saturday." She'd only missed going today because Althea had begged her.
"Then maybe I'll take Stig. Do you trust me to do it on my own?"
Trust her? After Althea had dressed her like a cupcake with too much frosting three times before?
Wincing inwardly, Holly pasted on her best resilient-bridesmaid smile. "Of course I trust you. It's your wedding. I'll wear whatever you choose."
Althea gave Holly a fierce hug. "You're such a trouper, Hol', hanging in with me through all my weddings." She pulled back and looked at Holly with eyes the same flecked hazel as Matt's. "I know it's been tough. I know it's been an awful two years. I know life will never be the same. It won't be for any of us. But Matt would want you to be happy again. You know he would."
Holly's throat tightened and her eyes blurred, because yes, she knew Matt would want that, damn him. Matt had never focused on the downside. Whenever life had dealt him lemons or a broken leg—though it had actually been Lukas who'd dealt him that, she recalled—Matt had coped. He would expect her to do the same.
"The right guy will come along," Althea assured Holly as she opened the cab door. "I know he will. Just like Stig did for me when I'd given up all hope."
"Sure," Holly humored her as she stepped out onto the curb and turned back to smile.
Althea grinned. "You never know. It might even be Lukas."
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