Sweeter Than Revenge
It's Complicated, Book 4
Spoiled rich girl Maria Johnson enjoys her life of leisure. Until her father decides to cut off her funds unless she gets a job.
His infuriating pick for her new boss?
Sexy David Hunt, the man who walked out on her four years ago…
If you love passionate and emotional contemporary romance, read Sweeter Than Revenge today!
Read an Excerpt
Getting back on her unsteady feet, Maria watched him come closer and wondered how she could survive this encounter with the man who’d loved and left her.
Well, left her, anyway.
David had changed. She saw that right away. Once he merely walked. Now he prowled with supreme confidence, owning the ground and the world around him the way Chris Rock owned the stage during one of his shows. He’d thinned down and muscled up, too. The slight breeze pressed his short-sleeved blue silk shirt against a torso that had zero body fat on it. The height, the wide shoulders, the narrow waist and the endless legs—none of that had changed.
But flecks of gray dotted the wavy black hair at his temples now.
And his face. That was different.
Not the laughing brown eyes or the clean-shaven, deep chocolate skin. His cheekbones. That was it. Before they’d just been high. Now they were sharp and arrogant. So were the heavy, quirked brows and the long, straight nose. Faint, interesting wrinkles bracketed his mouth and lined his eyes, giving him a wiser, more mature air. He looked amused and cynical now, as though the whole world was a joke. As though he’d seen and done it all and didn’t know what she—or anyone—could possibly say to interest him.
He stopped in front of her and gave her a swift once-over. His cool, assessing gaze slid up over her mostly nude body, touching her legs and arms, lingering on her hips and breasts.
Her face burned but she held still, trying not to fidget under this inspection. Modesty was a worthless virtue. Why bother? Hard work in the yoga studio and at the gym kept her body fabulous, and she knew it. But now her near-nakedness made her feel exposed and vulnerable, as if she needed to grab her towel and cover herself.
Crazy, right? David Hunt knew her body better than anyone else on the planet, including, probably, her. There was not one inch of skin, curve, hollow or hair follicle with which he was not intimately familiar.
But, of course, that was the old David Hunt who’d loved her body.
This David Hunt was a stranger.
She knew nothing about what he’d done since then. She hadn’t Googled him.
She’d done her best to pretend he’d never existed.
He finally looked her in the eye.
One brow arched skyward. One corner of his mouth inched up in a disquieting half-smile.
The syllables pulsed through the air, slid under her skin and pooled into a painful mass of loss and longing low in her belly. If she’d thought—hoped—he was a figment of her overwrought nerves, she now knew better. That low, deep voice—as thrilling as helicopter skiing and as smooth as black velvet—couldn’t belong to anyone other than David Hunt.
“You came back,” she said, an unfamiliar Marilyn Monroe breathiness in her voice.
Her father cleared his throat before David could answer, stepping forward to press a light hand to the small of her back.
“Now, Sugar. Is that any way to treat an old friend? Besides. I told you. He’s the new director.”
Maria and David stared at each other, neither of them blinking nor acknowledging that Ellis had just spoken. The world shrank down to the two of them, to the intensity in David’s eyes and the leashed tension that pulsed between them.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d come back?” David asked her.
Maria shivered, wondering what to make of his tone. He sounded as if he wanted to rip the bikini from her body and fuck her now—hard, fast and furious. He also sounded vaguely threatening, as if he wanted to rip her limb from limb, to punish her, to humiliate her.
God, what was he doing? Why was he here?
“Yeah, you told me you’d come back,” she said, keeping her voice steady even though it wanted to quaver. “I just didn’t think it’d take four years.”
With that, she turned, sat on her lounge chair, stretched her legs out and tried to pretend he wasn’t there while watching him from under her eyelashes.
Ellis shifted on his feet and coughed uncomfortably.
David’s jaw tightened, but he managed to look supremely unconcerned.
His gaze flickered over her body again.
Maria prayed for the strength to remain detached. And for the hot tears that burned her eyes to wait until later, when she was alone, before they fell.
Ellis cleared his throat.
“Well, David,” he began, “why don’t we go in and—”
“Where have you been?” Maria asked David.
She regretted the foolish words even before she got to the question mark at the end of her sentence. Where was her pride? Why couldn’t she keep her big mouth shut? She would not give this man a reason—another reason—to laugh at her, nor would she act like she cared one iota about where he’d been or what he’d done. No, she would not.
David turned to her, looking amused and vaguely reproachful for her rudeness. In a gesture of consummate indifference, he slid his hands into his pants pockets, leaned against one of the pergola posts and crossed his ankles.
“Oh…here and there.”
“‘Here and there’?” she said. “Is that near Duluth?”
The men laughed, which only fueled her anger. The ancient scar over her heart, a memento of her affair with David, began to ache with renewed pain.
So much for acting cool and aloof. She couldn’t even manage it for five lousy seconds.
Why was he here? To finish her off for good? What right did he have to show up, unannounced, back in her life? To look and sound so good and act bored when he hadn’t laid eyes on her for four years? Didn’t he have anything to say to her?
David turned to Ellis. “Can you give us a minute? I’d like to talk to Maria.”
“Sure.” Her father clapped him on the shoulder and favored him with the kind of loving smile he normally reserved for her. “It’s good to have you back, son.”
Maria wanted to scream.
David nodded, looking unaccountably touched. They shook hands and pulled each other into one of those gruff male hugs. Finally, her father extracted himself.
“Come inside when you’re finished,” he said. “Miss Beverly’s fixing up salmon salads for lunch. Then we’ll head on down to the office and I’ll introduce you around.”
Ellis strode off toward the house, his step so springy that Maria wondered if he wouldn’t break into the kind of triumphant dance receivers did in the end zone after a touchdown. Her uneasiness grew. If only she could call him back so she would have some buffer, some layer of protection, no matter how thin, between herself and the man who could still tear her to pieces with just a look.
She wasn’t safe alone with David.
He stared down at her for a long, considering moment, igniting every inch of her bare skin with a heat that should have given her third-degree burns. Her poor heart hammered so strongly against her chest that she was amazed it didn’t bulge out like one of those horrible incubating creatures in Alien. More embarrassing were her heaving breasts, the result of her heroic struggle for breath in this man’s presence, and pointed, aching nipples.
Misery threatened to undo her. How could she do this? How could she talk to this man who’d killed her dreams and still owned her body?
Ignoring the numerous other loungers, chairs, benches and assorted seating devices available, David sat on her lounger, his butt brushing her thigh. Facing her, he rested one hand on the other side of her legs and caged her. One muscular forearm brushed her skin, branding her with his warmth.
At this distance, the intoxicating, familiar smell of his cologne—one of those fresh, clean linen scents that she remembered so well and that immediately shifted her mind to sheets and beds—filled her nostrils and made wet heat flow between her thighs.
She waited, frozen.
Her pride wouldn’t let her rub her leg against him or shrink away, both of which she wanted to do.
He leaned closer. “Take your glasses off, Ree-Ree.”
“No.” The use of his nickname for her was an unbearably low blow. The knot in her belly tightened. “And don’t call me that.”
He made an irritated noise, snatched the glasses off her nose and tossed them onto the table, out of reach. She cried out with surprise. Then she defiantly met his gaze, blinking back the sudden infusion of sunlight.
Their gazes held for what felt like a millennium. Finally, one side of his mouth turned up. “You look good.”
Her mouth opened to say something cool and disdainful.
“So do you,” she said instead.
A soft light appeared and immediately disappeared behind his eyes. His jaw flexed with some dark emotion she’d never be able to identify. Turning, he looked out across the pool.
“So,” he said, his tone as mocking as it was infuriating. “How’s married life treating you?”
“Much better since the divorce.”
His gaze, sharp and narrowed, swung back to her. “Find someone richer already, did you?”
“No. He found someone with a warmer bed than mine,” she told him, having long since gotten over the humiliation of her husband’s defection.
That glittering, insolent stare drifted down to her breasts again, then back up.
“No one’s bed’s warmer than yours, Ree-Ree,” he said softly.
She gasped even as desire—powerful, hot and wet—pulsed through her core. She wondered if he had the faintest idea of what his presence still did to her. If he could smell her arousal through the tiny scrap of thin nylon that stood between them.
Pulling away with no particular hurry, he stood and resumed leaning against the pergola. “I assume you made him pay for the affair.”
“Oh, I made him pay.”
“Good.” He laughed.
When his amusement faded away, they stared at each other in a silence that seemed to throb with energy and meaning. Thinking was a struggle.
Speaking was worse. Still, she wanted to tell him something she’d never had the chance to say.
“I heard your father died last year,” she said softly. “I was sorry to hear that. I…always wanted to meet him.”
He blinked. Once…twice…and then he turned his head to look off toward the rose garden. When he turned back, he swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing in the strong column of his throat, seemingly unable to speak.
Oh, no. The last thing she’d intended was to upset him about his father. She waited helplessly for him to recover and say something, but he didn’t.
“I’m sorry,” she began. “I didn’t mean—”
“No,” he said, his voice strong. “It’s okay. Thanks.”
She recovered a little, and her curiosity got the best of her.
“Where have you been?” she asked again. “And don’t say here and there unless you want me to shove you into the pool with your clothes on.”
He laughed again. “Seattle.”
“Are you…married?” she asked, forcing the word out like a woman birthing a twelve-pound baby.
“No.” One eyebrow arched toward his hairline. “And my last physical and credit reports were fine, before you ask. Or maybe you’d like to see the files…?”
“Did you bring them with you?”
Throwing his head back, he laughed the roaring laugh she remembered so well, devastating her. Not until this very second had she realized how much she missed the sound. Missed him.
The empty place inside her, where he’d been, grew into an abyss.
“Where are you staying?” she asked, just to make sure he really would be nearby, where she could find him if he disappeared again.
“I assume in one of the fifteen bedrooms in this castle. Don’t worry. It’s just until my house is finished.”
“I’m back to stay. So I’m having a house built. It’s almost done.”
“Oh,” she said, grappling with the idea that he really was back and she really would have to deal with him whether she was ready to or not.
“You don’t seem too happy to see me, Maria.”
To her utter disbelief, his eyes flashed as if he was the wronged party. As if she was the one who’d hurt him. They stared at each other in a seething silence while she tried—and failed—to understand him.
Until suddenly she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Not the tension or the confusion, and definitely not the uncertainty.
“Why are you here?” she demanded, getting up. The need for answers outweighed every other consideration, including the need to protect her pride and ego. “Didn’t you do enough damage the last time you came to town?”
He blinked innocently, as if he didn’t know what in the world she was talking about. But he did know. She felt a tremendous new energy from him, a surge that felt like satisfaction.
“Damage?” he asked. “What damage?”
“To my heart.”
“You have a heart?”
“Yes! And you broke it!”
Shrugging, he slid his hands into his pockets and watched her through flat eyes that were also somehow feral and malevolent.
“Ah, but luckily you landed on your feet, didn’t you, Maria?” He sidled closer. “You got over our little affair in no time at all. Wedding of the year. A rich husband. So it was all for the best, wasn’t it?”
To her mortification, a dry sob erupted from her mouth before she could stop it. He stilled, studying her as though she was some vaguely interesting oddity, like a two-headed turtle at the zoo.
Though the answer was painfully obvious, she had to ask the question.
“Did I ever mean anything to you?”
He growled. Actually bared his teeth in a nasty sneer and snarled like a rabid pit bull in the millisecond before the attack. One of his arms lashed out and his strong, hard fingers clamped down around her bicep and formed a hot manacle, hurting and binding her.
“I could ask you the same question, couldn’t I, Maria?”
Fear paralyzed her, but only for a second. Then anger took over. She had no idea what was running through his mind or what right he thought he had to be upset with her, but she certainly wasn’t going to stand there and let him manhandle her.
“Let go of me. Now.”
He did, jerking his hand away as if contact with her flesh tainted him. They glared at each other, their mutual hostility as dense and noxious as ash from an erupting volcano. After taking a deep breath or two through his flaring nostrils, he seemed to calm down a little.
“Is there anything you want to tell me? About your wedding?”
His arrogance and gall were absolutely mind-boggling. “No.”
There was a long pause, as though he wanted to give her time to rethink or amend her answer. Maybe phone a friend. When she didn’t, he snorted.
“This is a terrible idea. I don’t want to work for you and I don’t want you living here.”
Genuine amusement lit his eyes, but he didn’t smile.
“Thanks for the update. But guess what? You don’t get a vote.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I decided to move back home to Cincinnati. I made a few calls. Lo and behold, Ellis wanted to cut back on his hours and asked me to take over as director. So here I am. End of story.”
“But why did you decide to move back?”
“I have unfinished business here.”
Maybe it was his low, dangerous tone, or maybe it was the wild glint in his eyes. Whatever it was scared Maria worse than anything else had so far that morning, and that was saying plenty.
Punishment was the thing he had in mind, she realized suddenly. That was why he’d come. Whether he admitted it or not didn’t matter at all. He was here to take a pound or twenty of her flesh.
He looked at his watch. Actually checked the time.
“Now that we’ve got that straight, can I go eat? I’m starving.”
When he turned to go, she took two hurried steps after him and touched his arm. His eyes widened with surprise and wary interest.
He waited while she gathered her thoughts.
“Please don’t do this,” she asked through dry lips and a tight throat.
Hurt me again, she wanted to say. Break my heart, make me look at you, make me wonder what might have been, dredge up memories better left forgotten.
“Go back to Seattle. Don’t stay here.”
The hard, absolute determination on his face told her she’d have better luck asking the moon not to come out tonight. He shifted with impatience, making an irritated sound. She had the feeling she made him sick and he didn’t want to spend another second in her toxic presence.
“I’ll expect you at the office at eight tomorrow,” he said.
Without waiting for any response, he spun on his heel and strode past the pool and up the stairs to the veranda without looking back.
Devastated, Maria waited until he was safely gone before she pressed a hand to her roiling gut and crumpled to her seat.