Tyler can't believe how much Andrea has changed. Sexy, sultry and passionate, he can't get her out of his head. Too bad he doesn't deserve her. The town may think he's a hero, but he's got a secret that could destroy everything….
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"I think you ought to seduce him."
Andrea Hastings turned her surprised gaze toward her friend, who was currently binding her into the breath-stealing corset necessary to give authenticity to her early-nineteenth-century costume ball gown. "How the devil am I supposed to do that?"
Sloan Caldwell Kendrick simply—and wickedly— raised her eyebrows.
Andrea scoffed and faced the full-length antique oval mirror again. "I know how in the technical sense…"
"But not so much in the practical. You're too smart for your own good. I've got a book—"
Andrea waved her away. Being Palmer's Island's librarian, Sloan always had a book. "Get real. I'm not going to seduce Tyler Landry with printed instructions."
Sloan smiled wide. "There are illustrations, too."
Closing her eyes, Andrea felt her face heat. Despite her confident exterior, she still had a hard time with emotional vulnerability, and she considered sex to be the ultimate moment of exposure.
Especially with Tyler.
Well, she assumed with Tyler.
She'd tutored him in high school math and had fallen
like a brick for his easy smile and bright blue eyes. His ability to excel in everything except algebra had earned him a scholarship to the Naval Academy, and, at the beach party the night before he was due to leave, she'd offered herself to him.
To, hopefully, find the G-spot, not the x- and y-axis.
He'd either been too embarrassed or too noble to accept. She'd never found out which, since she'd run away like a silly little girl, which she'd certainly been.
In the years since, she'd tried to think like her high school buddy Sloan—confident and willing to take a chance. Professionally, she'd succeeded. In her personal life…not so much.
She'd had lovers; she'd moved on. But she still burned a ridiculous, unrealistic candle—okay, flaming torch—for Tyler. It was an embarrassment, something a woman who'd traveled the world, who worked for a global insurance company, who knew art, history and finances, who freakin' specialized in spotting forgeries, should be able to shrug off without a backward glance.
Sloan jerked the corset strings again, then tied them.
Andrea winced. "Authenticity, my ass."
"Actually, the authenticity is necessary for your waist." Sloan turned away to snag the elaborate lace-and-silk gown off the bed. "And aren't you always telling me the proof is in the details?"
It's pretty crappy to have your own words thrown back at you on a regular basis.
That's what recently moving back to her South Carolina island home had gotten her—old friends she couldn't snow with her degrees and put-upon self-assurance. People like Sloan knew she was a nerd—always had been, always would be—but still thought she was pretty great anyway.
"The details in my industry involve lots of chemistry," Andrea pointed out.
"Good. So does seduction."
As Sloan dropped the frothy gown over her head, Andrea focused on the anticipation of the party that was due to start in less than an hour. Her friend and her husband, Aidan— who could challenge even Tyler for the Hot and Beautiful Man of Palmer's Island prize—had organized a fund-raiser with an 1812 theme to support the efforts of the island's historical society, of which Sloan was a dedicated member.
Together, Sloan and Aidan had restored an elegant, nineteenth-century home to its former glory so that now Batherton Mansion was once again a prize of island preservation.
Staring in the mirror as Sloan snapped, hooked and bound her into her costume, Andrea watched herself be transformed from the practical insurance appraiser into an elegant lady of the past.
The pale blue silk and white lace-trimmed gown hugged her curves, which she certainly had more of after the torturous corset did its thing, boosting her bust to new heights. And either her self-consciousness or the lack of oxygen to her brain had caused a nice flush to her cheeks. Her light green eyes were highlighted from Sloan's makeup job and bright with promise. Her golden-blond hair, lifted in ringlet curls, exposed her neck and the throbbing pulse just below her jaw.
Andrea braced her palm against her stomach. "It's quite a switch."
Laying her hands on Andrea's shoulders, Sloan met her gaze in the mirror. "You look amazing."
She wasn't sure it was her—though with her devotion to history, it somehow should be. Certainly the charade wouldn't last, but it would be fun to pretend to be the beauty instead of the brains for one night. She lifted her fingers to her face. "Are we sure that's me in there?"
Sloan's eyes narrowed with annoyance. "Of course it is. Aren't you the one who walked me through the Met and the Louvre?"
"That doesn't have anything to do with—"
"Sure it does. You know your art and you show it. You know you're desirable and you show it."
There was logic in there somewhere, but Andrea still somehow felt her words were being turned on her. Like she was on a ledge and being pushed into a bottomless abyss of confusion and uncertainty.
Gee, Andrea, dramatic much?
She hugged her friend as much as the wide-skirted dresses would allow. When they leaned back, the anxiety that had fluttered almost constantly in her stomach since her old crush moved back to the island last month intruded again. She met her friend's gaze. "But am I ready to face Tyler Landry?"
Sloan braced her hands on her hips. "Hell, yes."
Eyeing Sloan in her plum-colored-satin and black-lace dress, her voluptuous body seemingly made for seduction, Andrea laughed. "You certainly are."
"I'll stick with my husband, thanks." She paused, angling her head. "Come to think of it, that's whose advice you need."
"What am I? A community project? Hey, let's finally give the geek girl her dream night with her forbidden crush."
Sloan steered her from the bedroom suite into the hall. "You're not a geek, and he might have been somewhat out of reach before, but not forbidden. Now, he's certainly neither."
"Maybe not in the personal sense." Though Andrea still couldn't imagine looking Tyler in the eye and inviting him into her bed. That was disturbing. Where had her nerve gone? Why did she have to let this one man get to her so thoroughly? Maybe he'd take one glance at her and invite her into his bed.
Hey, if she was going to fantasize, she might as well give it her all.
"He's running for sheriff," she said to Sloan. "He needs to win votes. Even your dad's endorsement might not save him if he does something scandalous. You know how people talk on the island."
"You're planning on taking out an ad?" Those brazen eyebrows winged up again. "I finally screwed the delicious Tyler Landry! Check my blog for pictures!"
"Oh, sure. I'll be sure to send copies to my boss, too."
"Actually," Sloan continued as if Andrea hadn't spoken, "regardless of gossip, naked pictures of him would probably assure victory."
Since Andrea had been avoiding him in the flesh, she only had campaign posters and her teenage memories to fall back on. "He still, you know… looks that good, does he?"
Sloan's bright blue eyes twinkled. "Better."
"I didn't need to know that." Andrea stopped in the hall, on the breezeway overlooking the dramatic two-story foyer. "My life is complicated enough. Looking after Finn is a challenge."
"Your brother is twenty, not twelve."
"And I have lots of responsibility at work. The stress—"
"You're working on a consulting basis. You've only taken on three cases since you've been home."
"But when I take them, they're stressful. And I have that big assignment in London next month."
"Uh-huh." Sloan urged Andrea forward again. "Whatever. This doesn't have to be complicated. You don't have to marry the man. It's one night."
"Is that what you told yourself when you met Aidan?"
"Somehow, that's not encouraging."
"Since when are you opposed to marrying the man of your dreams?"
"When he comes along, I won't be."
"Why can't Tyler be him?"
"Why not?" Sloan insisted.
Andrea stared at her. "He's him, and I'm me."
"Sure," Sloan said, her sarcasm clear. "How obvious."
"He's Tyler Landry. War hero. Sports hero. Hometown hero. He's spent the last decade in the Commune For Those Who Are Worshipped As Heroes. He's a hero."
"Oh, so he's too good for you."
Suppressing a wince, Andrea placed a hand on the staircase railing as she started down. "It's not about good and bad."
"So it's a level of degrees thing, then. He's up here—" Sloan held her hand high above her head "—and you're not fit to lick his boots."
"Stupid, right? Stupid is the word you're searching for. Probably." She paused, as if considering. "Or maybe idiotic is better."
Scowling as they reached the foyer, Andrea turned and headed toward the kitchen—only to be nearly mowed down by her brother, running down the hall toward the front door.
"I'm late," he said briefly as he grabbed her shoulders and kissed her cheek.
"And why's that?" she returned, pleased to note he was freshly shaven and his usually spiky blond hair was tamed in a conservative style.
"The Sisters made me rewash the floors in the rec room."
Finn was a convicted felon, but, thankfully, Sister Mary Katherine's latest project. As a result, he worked for the church and had an apartment of his own on the grounds. He was rebuilding his life one brick at a time, and Andrea was proud of his dedication to leaving his old life behind.
"You look nice, Andy, but I gotta go," Finn said, scooting off. "Thanks, Mrs. Kendrick," he called over his shoulder.
Tonight Finn had been hired by her friend to valet park cars during the party. Funny, since he'd gone to prison for boosting one.
Moving toward the kitchen and endeavoring to set aside any worries over her brother, Andrea's thoughts immediately went back to Tyler.
Sloan had a pretty undeniable point about her insecurities involving him. She wasn't a kid anymore, but a grown woman. Why should she be worried about—
She stopped as she noticed the man standing in the kitchen, directing the catering staff, who were rushing about with platters and glasses or stirring luscious-smelling dishes on the stove.
Stunning and darkly gorgeous in period formal wear, Aidan Kendrick could make any woman at any time forget how to speak, but with the added effect of his bright and lustful smile—aimed at his wife—he was positively drool worthy.
"Does he have a brother?" Andrea whispered to Sloan as Aidan approached them.
"Ladies," Aidan said, then brushed his lips across Andrea's cheek. He slid his arm possessively around Sloan's waist and kissed her as well.
With considerably more and lingering heat.
"It's a good thing I have the new sheriff attending the party," he said, studying them both when he leaned back. "We'll need crowd control to keep the men at bay."
"Tyler hasn't won yet," Sloan said.
"But he will," Andrea assured her.
At her confident tone, Aidan raised his eyebrows. "A fan of Lieutenant Landry?"
How did she clarify? She'd known Aidan only a few months, and explaining she had the hots for a hot guy to an equally hot guy was somehow embarrassing. "He's…"
"The object of her undying worship and lust," Sloan answered, her lips cuving slyly.
"Used to be," Andrea returned, glaring at Sloan. "A long time ago."
Sloan's smile widened. "Right. She's moved on to action these days. Get some of her pride back after the first failed seduction. She's going to succeed this time. I suggested the blue suite."
Andrea clenched her teeth. "Shut up immediately."
Aidan captured Andrea's hand and squeezed. "Self-assured women are irresistible."
Sloan elbowed her husband in the stomach. "Are they really?"
"Certainly." His silver eyes gleamed. "You are their queen, after all."
Seeing the answering desire in her friend's eyes, Andrea started to back up. They were newlyweds, after all. "I'll just… disappear."
"No, don't." Sloan moved away from her husband. "Come check out the decorations with me." She met Aidan's gaze. "If you keep looking at me like that, we'll be late greeting the guests."
"And why would that be a problem?" he asked reasonably. Though he didn't pull her back, his eyes clearly reflected his intention to resume this moment. Later.
With effort, Andrea suppressed the urge to sigh lustfully. Sister Mary Katherine—the spiritual leader of the island—would distinctly not approve. And, of course, Andrea herself knew it was wrong to covet her friend's husband, even in a conceptual, non-skanky way.
"I'll have one of the waitstaff send out champagne for you to enjoy on your tour," he added.
Andrea cast a glance over her shoulder.
Maybe just a mini sigh.
As she left the kitchen with Sloan, her friend whispered, "How can you see that and not be inspired for seduction?"
"I'm definitely hot and bothered. But it could just be the costume cutting off my air supply."
A few minutes later, a tuxedoed waiter approached with a tray, expertly balancing two glasses filled with fizzing champagne. After giving their thanks, Andrea and Sloan headed into the dining room, where, while they'd been getting dressed, the decorator had transformed the period chandelier and formal table with flowers, greenery and candles. Varying shades of green and blue melded together with the golden lights, which wound up somehow being both simple and elaborate. Stuffed peacocks, both large and small, and their feathers accentuated the decor.
One sideboard was lined with chafing dishes, ready to accept the contents of the dishes the caterer and her staff were rushing to finish in the kitchen. Another held sparkling white-and-gold china, crystal and silverware.
"Wow," they said together.
In an impressed haze, they wandered through the foyer and front parlor, which had been given the same treatment. The windows and side door leading to the garden had been left open to catch a cool breeze. While most points north were shivering in mid-October, the island had been enjoying wonderfully balmy days and nights.
As she sipped champagne, the atmosphere, the pep talk and her own transformed appearance sent a burst of excitement through Andrea's veins. Like viewing a priceless work of art for the first time, she felt capable of anything.
And suddenly the idea of seducing Tyler seemed possible.
She'd tried it once without success. Was she crazy to attempt it again? Or did she have to try once more, just as Sloan had suggested, to get her pride back, to honor the memory of a nervous girl who longed for someone she'd always known she could never have?
With the memory, though, came resentment. How could she burn a torch and hold on to the anger of her rejection at the same time? Could seduction bring that decade-long dichotomy to a close?
"Oh, Andrea, I nearly forgot."