killer curves
THE FIRE STILL BURNS
Silhouette Desire
ISBN 0-373-7608-4

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the fire still burns

The charred remains of Edgewater stood like a massive black and silver mountain in the middle of a field of fried, brown grass. Colin McGrath gazed at the rubble of what was once one of Newport's glorious summer mansions.

Edgewater was gone. And with it, a piece of Newport’s great "Gilded Age." The architect in him mourned the loss of any magnificent structure, since he believed that they all had a soul of their own. But the purist in him wanted to thrust his fist in the air and holler, "Yes!" Good riddance to over-opulent, out-of-proportion, Italianate mausoleums. There were still enough of them in Newport, Rhode Island to attract tourists by the thousands.

But in his opinion, excessive extravagance had gone out with the old millennium. In the case of Edgewater, the exit had been accelerated by one strategically-placed lightning strike, and then helped along by high winds and a year-long drought. Mother Nature’s clean-up campaign. And what had started as a favor to someone dear to him had become a personal mission.

Colin’s vision for Edgewater’s replacement was so vivid, he really didn’t need the sketches in the worn portfolio tucked under his arm.

Just the thought brought a smile to his face as he sauntered toward the three-story carriage house, the only structure on the historic property that had survived the fire.

The finest architects in the country had been called to compete for this job. Colin paused and rolled his head a bit, working out a crick in his neck. He glanced at the sea of dark Brooks Brothers-type suits and stiff white shirts gathered in groups along the wraparound patio. A few women wore the female version of the same uniform.

Not a ponytail, earring or a pair of jeans in the whole gang. Until now.

He took the front steps two at a time, aware that conversations stopped and heads turned at his arrival. Nothing new. He’d been ruffling the feathers of the architecture world since he’d descended upon it six years ago. One thing was for sure: everyone in this group knew his name and his reputation.

But he hadn’t bothered to research the other firms. The only real competition for this job was Hazelwood and Harrington, and somewhere in this bunch was some muck-a-muck from that 150-year-old institution. Maybe even Eugene Harrington himself. It didn’t matter who H&H had sent to compete – there was only one person on their payroll he cared about and they certainly wouldn’t have sent her. No doubt His Highness Harrington kept the princess locked in an ivory tower. Protecting her from wolves...especially ones with long hair.

"The presentations have already started,” a gray-haired undertaker type said to him, making little effort to hide the ‘you’re late’ disdain in his voice. “You need to check in with the secretary in the house.”

Colin nodded his thanks, unfazed by the warning. Adrian Gilmore, the current owner of Edgewater, would meet with his ten candidates alphabetically. Colin might not know the competition, but he’d made sure he knew everything about the eccentric British billionaire looking to reconstruct his burned castle on Bellevue Avenue. Colin fully intended to land the job.

Only he had absolutely no intention of rebuilding Edgewater.

A young woman holding a clipboard stood in the two-story entryway, pacing in front of a set of closed double doors. Behind them, in what he assumed was the solarium, Gilmore was undoubtedly holding court – er, conducting presentations.

"You must be Mr. McGrath,” she said, slowing her step to let her gaze meander over his casual dress, lingering for a moment on the tiny gold hoop in his right ear.

He gave her a self-deprecating smile. “How’d you guess?”

"You’re the only person on my list who hasn’t checked in yet.” Her eyes sparkled with a flirtatious gleam. “And the only man not wearing a tie.”

He winked and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I don’t want to choke.”

She laughed lightly in response.

"Tell me he hasn’t reached M...yet.” He glanced at the closed doors.

"You just made it,” she said, chastising him with a wave of her pen. “You’re up next, right after Miss Harrington.”

"Miss Harrington?” For a split second, the world tilted on its axis. “Grace Harrington?”

Before the woman could answer, the double doors opened, pouring light into the dim entryway. Framed by the doorway and backlit by golden rays of sunshine, the woman who’d haunted his dreams for ten years stood looking as though she’d been beamed down from heaven.

Gracie.

For a moment, he didn’t breathe.

She smoothed a lock of honey blond hair, as if by some remote chance a single strand might have defied the rules of nature and wandered out of place. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, grazing her shoulders like blunt-cut satin. But her face hadn’t changed in ten years. Unless he called getting more beautiful a change.

She still had a milky smooth complexion, eyes the color of spring moss, and cheekbones designed by an artist. When she smiled at the receptionist, the dimples he remembered so well deepened, zinging arrows straight into his heart.

The memory of Grace Harrington could make his blood hot and his body hard. The sight of her nearly did him in.

"Hey, Gracie,” he said quietly, purposely staying out of the light.

Her eyes flashed, and for one second -- no, for one millionth of a nanosecond -- he saw them register with shock and...pleasure. The flicker dulled immediately into a blank stare.

"Excuse me?”

Which translated loosely into “no one on earth calls me Gracie and lives.”

He stepped out of the shadows. “Colin McGrath.” He held out his hand as though...as though they’d never had an intimate moment. Of course, that would depend on the definition of intimate.

She responded with a blank stare.

"Carnegie Mellon? Your freshman year?” He drank in her pretty face, lingering for a second on her slender throat and the exposed skin peeking from her ivory suit. He swore he could remember exactly what that skin tasted like. He leaned forward and added in a quiet voice, “The Buggy Races?”

A warm flush darkened her cheeks. She obviously remembered the night Lady Harrington had been anything but ladylike.

"Colin. Of course.” Her smooth New England tones remained rich with upper-class elegance. “I’d heard you’d opened your own firm, in, uh, Pittsburgh.” Was that a note of condescension when she mentioned his humble hometown?

But at least she knew something about him. Had she done an Internet search and followed his career as he’d followed hers? His occasional visits to various search engines had revealed that she’d obtained her Masters at the Rhode Island School of Design and joined her father’s revered architectural firm. He knew she lived in Boston and, son of a gun, somehow he’d managed to find out that she hadn’t gotten married yet.

"I’m still in Pittsburgh,” he said. “But I get around.”

Her eyes darted to his earring and his open collar. “I’m sure you do.”

Ouch.

"Nice to see nothing’s changed,” he said dryly.

Nothing had changed. Gracie was still a goddess who loathed him for the one night she’d fallen off her pedestal right into the arms – and the bed – of an unworthy rogue.

"Nothing’s changed?” She raised one delicate brow in question and shifted her portfolio from one hand to the other.

He took a step nearer to her, catching a whiff of lavender and stealing some of her personal space. “You’re still...” He grinned as her eyes widened. “gorgeous.”

"Mr. McGrath.” The receptionist’s voice pulled him out of the depths of Gracie’s eyes. “Mr. Gilmore is ready for you now.”

He saw Gracie’s narrow shoulders relax in pure relief. “Good luck with your presentation.”

He nodded a casual thanks, but managed to block her exit with a step toward the solarium doors. “Let’s have lunch when I’m finished.”

That spark lit her eyes again, but it died quickly, replaced by a cool, tight smile. “Thank you, but I have to drive back to Boston this afternoon.”

Of course, she’d say no. For the four years they were both at Carnegie Mellon, she’d barely been able to hide her utter contempt when their paths crossed on campus or in the architecture department. She would look away, without the slightest acknowledgement. And he knew damn well she’d juggled her course schedule to avoid having him as a grad student Teaching Assistant.

But ten years had passed. Nearly a third of his life, and hers. Someone or something had put them in the same place at the same time. Gram McGrath would call it his inexplicable good luck. “The moment you arrived the devil was having a fight with his wife, Colin McGrath,” she’d say, using her expression for the unusual combination of rain and sunshine. “So you were born under a rainbow and showered with good luck.” And Gram would twist his ear as though he were still five years old if she found out he’d run into this rainfall of good luck and hadn’t stopped to get really good and wet.

"Come on, Gracie. Tell Daddy you stayed to check out the competition.”

The secretary cleared her throat.

Gracie’s faux smile wavered, and he saw a tiny vein pulse in her throat. He’d kissed that vein.

"We’re not worried about competition,” she said as she managed to step around him. “Hazelwood and Harrington built Edgewater in the nineteenth century and we’ll rebuild it in the twenty-first.”

"Mr. McGrath, Mr. Gilmore is waiting.”

The humor had left the secretary’s voice, replaced by an edge of irritation.

"Goodbye, Colin. It was nice to see you.”

He wouldn’t let Gracie go without a fight. He’d done that once before. “No.” He reached for her arm and she snatched it away like she’d been burned. Easy, boy. “We should talk. About this project.”

"What’s the holdup, McGrath?” Adrian Gilmore’s British accent echoed from the solarium.

Colin pinned Gracie with narrowed eyes, and took a chance. “I need to tell you something,” he said slowly, deliberately. “About the night...of the Buggy Races.”

Her skin paled and she raised a defiant chin. “Ancient history, I assure you.”

"Diane!” Colin heard the scrape of Gilmore’s chair against hardwood. “Just skip McGrath and go straight to Perkins.”

Damn it. He touched her shoulder, lightly this time. “Wait for me, Gracie.”

Before she had a chance to respond, he strode into the solarium and across the expanse toward Adrian Gilmore’s desk. “Don’t even think about skipping this, Adrian. I’ve got the winning designs right here.”

The Burger Boy billionaire didn’t laugh. “I like confidence, McGrath, but don’t test my patience again.”

"The only thing I plan to test is your imagination, Adrian.” Colin shook hands with the youthful-looking fast-food tycoon and gave him a cocky smile that belied the war going on in his head.

He opened his portfolio, took out his first sketch, and tried to concentrate.

Would she stay? And if she did, should he tell her the truth? That during the one night they’d shared all he’d done was watch her sleep it off?

She had awakened in his bed and in his arms, hungover for the first – and he was willing to bet – the last time in her life, believing that he’d taken her virginity. But she wouldn’t listen to his denials. He couldn’t really blame her for being so certain about what had happened. Not when they’d awakened with her in a state of total undress and his bed in a classic morning-after mess. Would she believe him, now? Or was ten years too late and too long ago?

"What the hell is that?” Gilmore asked, pointing to the black and white elevation draft that Colin had pulled out.

"That, Adrian, is Pineapple House, and it stood on this property a hundred and fifty years before Edgewater. I’m going to design and build it for you.”
Just as he began his pitch, Colin realized that should he succeed, it would probably cost him any chance with Gracie he’d ever have.
But Adrian suddenly looked very interested.