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Aubrey Templeton stood up from the conference room table and walked to the nearest window, peering through the slats of the half-closed white plantation shutters. It was another perfect day on Indigo Island. Bright sunshine danced on the ocean beyond the rolling green lawn of the butter-yellow Melrose Inn. Looking the other direction, where the pine trees grew in thick bunches lining the golf cart path, Aubrey saw a young couple snuggling in a huge hammock strung between two strong tree trunks. She smiled as they kissed, and then she turned back to the business at hand.
She was here on this island for business, pure and simple, she reminded herself as she crossed the conference room and took her seat next to her Forest Management Consultant, Dirk Cooley. Her dad’s will had been clear: save their land for future generations of Templetons. And that’s what she intended to do, she reminded herself, swallowing the lump in her throat.
“Need a glass of water?” Dirk asked and she shook her head. What she needed was for the fifth and final presenter of the day to arrive, she thought, just as James Putnam strolled into the sunny conference room as if he owned the place. To be fair, he did, as Aubrey knew, but still, a little humility would have been appreciated. He was just as cocky as she remembered, she thought, watching his confident gait as he strolled to the presenters’ table. He was so arrogant, so damn good-looking and spectacular in bed.
Yes, there was that.
Stop it, she reminded herself, snapping the hair tie on her wrist. She’d dressed carefully today and was wearing her favorite dress, tan, sleeveless and tight fitting. It hugged all of her curves and made each one look good. For shoes, she had pulled on the highest heels she’d dare try to walk in, instantly transforming herself from barely five feet, six inches to almost five feet, nine inches of business power. She’d picked gold jewelry, chunky bangles, several thin necklaces and her mom’s ring, for good luck. And even though it was only late April, she had managed the start of a tan since she’d arrived on the island three days before. She looked good with a tan, she knew.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” James said as he placed his laptop on the table provided for presenters. Aubrey wondered where the rest of his team was from his logging company, Putnam Industries. It was a huge operation, Aubrey knew. All of the other logging firms had sent at least five representatives. In fact, one company had travelled all the way from China with ten people. But here was James Putnam, alone.
As their eyes locked – his blue and mysterious, hers large and dark brown – she knew he must be remembering their night together in Atlanta a year ago. It had been the best night of lovemaking she’d ever experienced, a one-night stand she couldn’t get out of her mind. It had been just after her parents’ accident, the start of her year of grief and bad decisions—an unmemorable blur—except for him. They’d had a connection she couldn’t forget despite all she’d lost. And now, here he was, standing in front of her in a tailored dark grey suit, a blue tie that matched his eyes, smiling that cocky but somehow sweet smile. She imagined his strong biceps pushing inside the confines of his suit, the arms that had carried her to his bed. She remembered their talk in the early morning as he comforted her through her ever-present tears. But that had been all. She’d never seen or heard from him again until this moment.
And this time she was different. She simply needed closure to her year of grieving and one great night with James was the answer, she’d decided. Then she could move on with her life, clear her family’s name and find someone to share the rest of her life with. She knew the stakes were high for her and her family, even as she knew one last romp with James Putnam would get him out of her system for good.
She thought about her family’s land, a holding covering almost half of Indigo Island, the verdant forest of green, the freshwater stream cutting through the middle of the property. The Spanish moss hanging from hundred-year Live Oak trees, the signature magnolia tree shading her parents’ simple Low Country cottage. There was magic on her family’s twenty-five hundred acres of land, and deep roots, her parents always told her, although she’d never taken the time to fully believe it, to live in the moment here. She’d pouted when her parents made her spend holidays and summers here, instead of where “everybody else” was vacationing in Florida. So she’d missed out on loving this place and she was determined to fix that even as she was responsible for preserving it all somehow while trying to pay off the creditors. This was her destiny. She was the only one left. It was up to her to sort it all out. It was up to her to survive, alone.
The lump formed in her throat again, and the familiar tears sprang into her eyes. James started humming. The tune was familiar and yet Aubrey couldn’t place it. She wondered if it was one of the songs they’d made love to that night. Was he trying to seduce her already, she thought, as her stomach fluttered. Whatever the song was, the distraction had dried the near-tears and for that she was thankful. She’d had a long day. His was the final presentation.
Sitting beside her, Dirk, her forestry consultant, cracked a smile and said, “Well, aren’t you a clever one, Mr. Putnam. Where’s your father? The CEO too important to pay us a visit today on little Indigo Island?” Dirk wore a dark green polo shirt that he must have several of, she thought, because that’s all she’d ever seen him wear. Also ubiquitous, khaki pants and loafers. His hair was curly and blonde and his green eyes typically were warm and caring. But they weren’t now, not when he looked at James, Aubrey noticed.
“This land is your land, this land is my land,” James sang, ignoring Dirk’s question while smiling at Aubrey, answering her unspoken question about the tune he’d been humming. His dimple on his left cheek, the same dimple she remembered from their night together, was driving her crazy. She needed to focus. On her land. Not on him.
“All set,” James said, apparently finished with the power point presentation setup. He crossed the room to where they were seated behind a long rectangular table, to give them a copy of his presentation, she assumed. James held out his hand and Dirk shook it without standing. “To answer your question, Dirk, my dad is ill and addressing his health issues back in Atlanta, a fact most everyone in the industry knows. I’m surprised such an esteemed ‘Forestry Consultant’ wouldn’t know that.”
Aubrey watched as the two men stared each other down. The hostility was thick in the room, and Aubrey shifted uncomfortably. Dirk had told her he didn’t trust the Putnams, that their bid would be low and the costs of reforestation too high. He’d told her about James’ reputation as the billionaire playboy, a pretty boy who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and no business sense. But Aubrey had insisted on including Putnam Industries in the pitch. She was an Atlanta girl, she believed in family business, and, truth be told, she’d really wanted to see James again. It had become a point of closure for her, to be with him one last time to end her year of mourning. She was counting on his party boy reputation.
And something inside her had wanted him to see her as a businesswoman, a force to be reckoned with, and not just in bed. So, even if James’ bid wasn’t going to be taken seriously by her and Dirk, she was on this remote Sea Island for a few more nights, with a huge ocean view, king-sized bedroom suite all to herself just a few floors above where they were right now. She remembered what James could do in that type of situation. She’d scheduled his presentation last, hoping he wouldn’t fly back to Atlanta tonight.
James was standing in front of Dirk; the only thing separating them was the narrow conference table. He was so close she imagined she could feel his body heat. Aubrey had an urge to reach over and touch the top of his hand as it rested on the tabletop. Fortunately, she was able to cross her arms, quench the urge. She smiled up at him, but James’ attention was on the man seated next to her. James’ jaw was clenched but he had a smile stretched across his face. Meanwhile, Dirk had leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. His brow was sweaty. He seemed nervous, Aubrey wondered why.
“I have been named interim CEO of Putnam Industries, a position that will become permanent at the next board meeting.” James oozed confidence. “So the CEO of Putnam Industries is here, standing right in front of you.” James dropped the bound presentation onto the table in front of Dirk. Dirk jumped. “Any other questions about my company or my family’s sincere interest in this matter and all matters on Indigo Island, Dirk?”
“Whatever,” Dirk said under his breath. Aubrey watched as he bit his left thumbnail and flipped open the presentation, his green eyes darkened.
James turned to Aubrey. “As you may or may not know, Dirk’s family and mine go way back. My family’s roots dig deep into Indigo Island land and history, and it’s an honor to be included in the bidding process, Ms. Templeton. Here’s a copy for you,” he said, and then gently handed a copy to Aubrey.
As their fingers touched, Aubrey felt electricity surge to her core. She grabbed the presentation from James and flipped it open while holding it up in front of her face, pretending to be reading while actually hiding her blushing face. She could feel his presence, still standing in front of her.
“Oh, please don’t read ahead. I know you’ve had a long day of presentations but not like this one. I want my bid to be a surprise,” he said before he walked back to his computer.
She knew he must have felt their connection, too, as soon as their fingers had touched. All of her senses were alive in his presence, as if a whole year apart had evaporated with a simple touch. Of course, their night together was something so magical, so sensually intense, no one could have forgotten it, of that she was certain. Focus, she reminded herself, and turned her attention to the screen in the front of the room.
End of Excerpt