I could go to prison. Ann Snyder took a deep breath to calm herself. She tried again to get the handcuffs clamped around her wrists off.
They were part of a Halloween costume she planned to wear, and she’d put them on to see how she’d look when she was hauled off and locked away. Only now she couldn’t find the key. But that was the least of her worries right now.
She’d practically worn a hole in the hardwood flooring with all the pacing back and forth. She pivoted, then stopped abruptly. It was time to act. Knowing who she had to turn to didn’t make it any easier to swallow. She pressed a hand against her stomach, the handcuffs jiggling while her trepidation grew to the size of a small truck.
Usually, she was the calm one—if she didn’t count dumping a bowl of melted chocolate over Monica Sinclair’s head. But the woman had slept with Ann’s fiancé and then gloated about it all over town. She’d waltzed into the chocolate shop recently and made snide comments about Ann having put on a few pounds. Monica had had the chocolate coming. Even after losing her fiancé to a woman like that, Ann had tried to find the bright side, to look for the positives, the rainbow after the storm.
But there was absolutely nothing positive about what was happening now. She’d been stabbed in the back. Now, because of her misplaced trust, the business she loved could go belly up. For the love of her business—and for that reason only—she was ready to face attorney Eric Maxwell, the man she’d done her best to avoid since high school. She needed him to keep her next fashion accessory from being an orange prison jumpsuit, and she needed him to save her business. She had no choice except to throw herself on his mercy. Under the pinch financially and too proud to ask her family for a dime, she’d have to see if she couldn’t get him to skip the retainer and take small payments. Maybe he’d be willing to do that.
She changed—with much difficulty—out of her paint-stained jeans with the holes in the knees into a simple black skirt, pairing it with low-heeled shoes. Her shirt would have to do. She couldn’t change it thanks to the handcuffs. For good luck, she added one of her mother’s antique necklaces. Leaving her shoulder length brown hair down, she added a touch of lipstick, and headed out.
The trip through the heart of Sweet Creek never failed to make Ann appreciate the sight. She’d been born and raised in the small town. She loved the simplicity of the place, the feeling of neighborliness, and the beauty of the quaint buildings. Singing along with the James Morrison song on the radio, she tried to keep the worst of her fear at bay. By the time she parked her little pale blue Volkswagen in the lot behind the building that housed the law firm where Eric worked, the sky had opened up and unleashed a steady shower of rain. Rain in October and the chill in the air always made her feel the pang from missing her late parents. Had they been alive, they would no doubt have been disappointed in her latest failure. No, Ann shook her head. Her business wouldn’t fail. She’d poured her heart into it and every bit of her savings. Failure couldn’t happen.
Squaring her shoulders and swallowing her pride, she stepped out into the rain, then dashed for the protection of the awning. She jerked open the office door, rushed into the foyer, and promptly slipped on the slick floor.
To keep from face planting, she slammed her hands against the wall, wincing when the force stung her fingers.
“Are you okay?”
Through the strands of her dripping hair, she locked gazes with Eric Maxwell. The floor she was standing on free-fell a hundred stories. His dark chestnut hair glistened under the lighting. Instead of his usual suit and quirky nerd ties, he wore a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, which were as soaked as her own clothes. The T-shirt clung to his wet skin, providing a great outline of his nicely muscled abs.
When did he get those, and where has he been hiding them? He hadn’t had them in high school.
Remembering him as a teenager brought back the sting of how he’d humiliated her. His friends had created a fantasy girl draft and listed all the girls in their school and their physical attributes in great detail. When one of them had mentioned her name, Eric had quickly and loudly said, “Ann Snyder doesn’t belong on that list. She’s not in the same class as those girls.” His voice had carried down the hallway to her, and she’d been on the receiving end of laughter and pitying glances.
She’d ducked into the girls’ bathroom and cried. She knew she wasn’t the beauty her sisters were, but to hear it confirmed had hurt. As the years had passed, she’d chalked it up to high school drama and thought maybe Eric hadn’t meant what he’d said. Especially after he’d blatantly hinted that he liked her. She’d even considered going out with him.
But then she’d overheard him, again, at her sister Abby’s diner with his old high school friends. Loudmouth Jerry had laughingly asked, “Did Ann Snyder ever make your fantasy list?” and Eric had looked disgusted and said that she’d never be on such a list.
After that, she’d cold-shouldered Eric, never wanting to feel that way again.
She blinked and pushed the hurt aside. This wasn’t high school anymore, and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t as pretty as her sisters or any of the girls on his fantasy list. She had a good life and her business. If she could keep it. She took a deep breath. “First, get me out of these handcuffs.”
His mouth dropped open, then he snapped it closed. He stared at her for a second before he said, “I don’t even want to know. Your private life is your business.”
Swallowing the embarrassment of what he must be thinking, Ann said, “Can you help me or not? It’s not what you think.” Her gaze drifted across his muscles before she snapped her attention back to his eyes. “Keep me out of handcuffs. Legally. Not that I would need you illegally.” She pressed a hand against the side of her head for a second, then rattled the handcuffs. “Well?”
He stepped closer and raised her arms. Lowering his head, he leaned in to examine the handcuffs. “Where’s the key?”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be wearing them.”
He patted the pockets of his jeans. “I don’t have anything that could cut them.”
“Would you normally?”
“I like to be prepared.”
“Hold on.” He gripped the chain between the cuffs and pulled. It snapped like it was nothing more than paper.
Ann licked her lips. “Um…thanks.” She rubbed her wrists. After she left here, she’d figure out how to get the bracelet part of the cuffs off. Surely her thoughts were a bit fuzzy because she’d skipped breakfast this morning. But those muscles… She snuck another glance before blurting out, “You’re wet.”
He gave a look that said that was obvious. “I got drenched on the way in.” He crossed his arms, jerking his head toward the entrance. “You’re the last person I expected to come through those doors.” His tone wasn’t exactly unwelcoming, but it wasn’t welcoming, either. She couldn’t read what was going on behind that mask of his.
“I never thought I’d ever have a reason to come to your office.” Ann glanced around at the empty area surrounding them before looking back up at him. His gaze held hers. Uncomfortable with the prolonged silence and the butterflies in her stomach, she asked, “Where’s your secretary?”
“I gave her the day off. I have some business to take care of with my family.” His lips tightened when he mentioned family, and he shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What do you need?” he said, his deep voice slightly exasperated.
“I told you already. You.” Keeping her focus on his handsome face, she said, “I need you. Desperately.”
He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms, staring at her without saying a word. How can he say so much without speaking? She hated feeling like she’d rolled into town and fell off the turnip truck. Embarrassed and irritated with herself, Ann clarified, “I mean, I need your services. Your skills as an attorney. Nothing else.” She blinked away droplets of water that dripped from her hair onto her eyelashes.
He gave her a long, steady look from his dark chocolate eyes, and Ann’s stomach tightened. She hated that. Hated that she couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. There was that tension she noticed every time she was around him, making her feel awkward and definitely not calm or quick-witted.
Finally, after lasering her with his eyes, Eric motioned her forward. “Come with me.” He led the way to his spacious, richly furnished office and disappeared into a small adjoining bathroom, then returned with two oversize towels. “This should help absorb some of the water.”
Ann took the towel he offered and began drying the ends of her hair, then rubbed it along her arms, darting a glance at him as he slipped off his T-shirt, giving her a front row seat to his impressive physique. She gaped as he dried himself and then put on a clean shirt.
When he saw her watching, he said, “It’s the only T-shirt I have at the office. I would have offered it to you, but I didn’t think you’d want it.”
Checking out the Star Wars logo on the shirt, Ann said, “I love Star Wars.” What’s going on? I sound like Nerd Girl, and Eric looks too hot for words. Maybe I hit my head when I slipped.
“You want me to take it off? That way you can wear it and get out of your wet clothes?” He walked around the expansive desk.
She lifted her gaze to his. Is he teasing? No, he couldn’t be. His expression was serious and besides, Eric never playfully teased her. Still, there was something about his voice that suddenly sent shivers chasing up her spine. Get a grip, girl. “Thanks for the offer, but if I take you up on it, then all I’d have on is a T-shirt.” Duh. She gave herself a mental forehead slap.
His gaze dropped to her legs.
Her insides heated up hot enough to deep fry something. All the air in the room snapped with increased tension. “You taking off the T-shirt would be a bad idea. Gorgeous men without their shirts on are always…” Her voice trailed off, and she gritted her teeth. Why am I babbling?
“Gorgeous men?” He frowned, and his gaze sharpened into something she couldn’t define. “Are you saying you think I’m gorgeous?”
“No, of course not. I’ve never noticed your looks.” And Ann’s nose grew two sizes that day… Ann squelched the taunting thought. She’d seen Eric hundreds of times but never really paid attention until…now. Was she ever paying attention now. And it was unfair that he was so polished and smooth, so him, and she still felt as gangly and awkward as she always had.
He inclined his head slightly, waiting for her to speak.
Uncomfortable with how he was watching her, and telling herself to stay focused, she searched through her purse, removing the papers she’d been given. “I think I’m in trouble.” She unfolded them and passed the stack to him, hating how her hand shook slightly. “When I arrived at my business this morning, it was crawling with various alphabet agencies. The expressions on the faces of everyone there scared me. I asked one of the agents from the FDA what was going on, and she gave me those documents.” Ann shuddered at the memory of the exact moment she’d realized everything was about to hit the fan.
His gaze sharpened. “Your business was raided? What would they want with Chocolate Cravings?”
“I know, right? I was about to make a joke about them jonesing for chocolate, but then one of them handed me a search warrant. I think I’m in trouble.”
He skimmed the papers, his expression darkening. Then he looked at her, his expression incredulous. “If any of these accusations are even remotely true, you’re right about being in trouble.” Tapping his index finger on the first sheet of paper, he said, “This says that you engaged in deceptive trade practices, among other things.”
“Deceptive trade practices?”
“Your company sold goods labeled as one thing when they were actually another.”
Ann put the towel down on the leather chair across from the desk and took a seat, hoping to keep the wet material of her skirt from dripping onto the expensive furniture. “I would never do something like that. All the labels on my chocolates are correct, and the ingredients are clearly listed.”
He shook his head and explained, “They’re not talking about the chocolates. What they’re saying is that you sold health supplements under your company’s name claiming they cured illnesses.”
“But I didn’t sell any supplements.” Her heart beat faster. She didn’t like the sound of this.
He shrugged. “According to these papers, you did. With the FDA and the IRS both involved, this is the big league. It’s federal level, meaning federal courts. There’s a copy of a cease and desist letter that was sent to your company four weeks ago. You were warned to stop selling the supplements.”
Her fear rose along with her voice. “Today is the first time I’ve seen it. Lewis always picks up the mail.” Because she’d trusted her manager. That rat. She’d never even laid eyes on the cease and desist letter. Wait a second. Hope rose within her. She couldn’t be responsible for something she didn’t know anything about, and she’d tell the FDA exactly that. Maybe then they’d realize that this was all a huge mistake. She told Eric as much, then smoothed her skirt and smiled. “Who knows? Maybe I won’t even need an attorney.”
Eric leaned back in his chair and narrowed his eyes. She’d never noticed before today how tall he was and how well he filled out his clothes. His slight smile made her restless. “Your business became financially successful pretty fast. Quicker than normal, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well…yes,” Ann said, not understanding. So what if her business had taken off? She’d put in plenty of long hours and hard work to make it happen, even peeling off the layers of old wallpaper herself. Many evenings she’d worked past midnight, scraping the walls until her fingertips cracked because she couldn’t afford to hire help.
“With the amount of money you made, there’s no way you were only selling chocolates. The supplements were shipped in bags with your company logo. You don’t know anything about those?” Eric steepled his fingers, one eyebrow raised.
Her temper rising at his skeptical tone, Ann glared. “It was only chocolates, and no, I didn’t know about the bags.”
“But you knew about the supplements?”
“Weren’t you the one who ordered the bags? Didn’t you notice how many bags you were going through versus how many ‘supposed chocolates’ you were actually selling? You recently took a trip to Hawaii. How’d you afford that? Did you jet off to relax while preying on the hopes of other people?”
Ann blinked, taken aback by his rapid-fire questions and his air quotes around the words supposed chocolates. “Yes, about the bags—”
“So you admit you knew the bags were used for the supplements?”
“What?” Ann stammered out. “No! And ‘supposed chocolates?’ Preying on the hopes…” Ann shifted her feet, preparing to stand. She couldn’t wait to get out of his office. Granted, she and Eric weren’t friends, but she’d never expected him to be so hateful, like he was enjoying her misery. Before she could stand, he fired another round of questions at her.
“You and your manager Lewis are involved romantically, correct? You’d do anything for him. Was the plan to scam people solely your idea or was it a joint effort?”
“Lewis and I were friends, nothing more, and I haven’t scammed anyone.” She’d thought that Lewis was different. That he was trustworthy. He’d been so kind, always thoughtful. Ann cringed inwardly. Of course he had. He’d only acted like a great guy so he could use her business. She’d been an easy mark. Why did she always have such bad luck with men? Did she have a giant bull’s-eye on her back?
“I think that you knew what Lewis was doing but decided to turn a blind eye toward it.”
“I didn’t know.” Ann had to fight to keep from crying. “I’m leaving. Coming here was a mistake. How can you speak to me like this?”
His voice gentled. “I don’t for one second believe you’re guilty of anything, Ann. I talked to you that way because that’s exactly how a prosecutor will come at you. Nothing will be off limits. Your character, your relationships, everything about you will be called into question. Just because you’re innocent doesn’t mean anything. Do you see how easy it is to fluster someone?”
“You said those things just to prove a point?” Ann slumped in the chair, suddenly drained.
“I did. If you were honest with yourself, you’d admit that you need me and,” his voice deepened, quiet and sexy, “you want me.”