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Excerpt: Love Me

Book 1: Coopers Creek

Chapter One

Manhattan, New York

Tyler Jefferies had ridden rampaging bulls, with horns long enough to gore vital organs, and bucking stallions, whose kicks could’ve left him permanently singing soprano, but the little girl standing crying in front of him was more terrifying than any beast he’d ever faced. He found himself momentarily helpless in the face of her sorrow, with absolutely no clue how the hell to handle the situation.

His seven-year-old niece, Hayley, looked up at him with misery shining in her big brown eyes. In that moment, she looked so much like her mother, Lizzie, that pain ripped through him. Tyler had thought the anguish of Lizzie’s death would lessen over time, but he still missed his little sister as much as ever. He’d lost his only sibling and a big part of himself the day she’d died.

Then four weeks ago, his mother, Maggie Jeffries, had also passed away, leaving Tyler to raise this sad and frightened child on his own. And it scared him to death. He was supposed to have looked after Lizzie and had horribly failed her.

Here he was, a wealthy, powerful investment broker who’d faced, and ruthlessly conquered many formidable opponents, yet one tiny girl had the power to bring him to his knees.

“I made a mess.”

“I see that, sweetheart.”

It came to him in a flash of insight—he needed a nanny. He knew nothing about raising kids. As he gazed at his seven-year-old niece, he told himself to man up. He needed to make sure that she was properly cared for. Life had dealt Hayley some very cruel hands.

Right after she’d turned three, she’d lost Lizzie, and now Tyler’s mother was gone, the only mother that Hayley had ever really known. Too many people had been taken from her. The agony of such loss was written on her little face and Tyler would do anything to erase it.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ty.”

He looked at the carton of milk lying on its side on the kitchen floor, from which milk dripped and spread across the very expensive limestone tile.

Picking Hayley up, he grabbed a dishcloth, and wiped milk off her little pink sneakers before carrying her upstairs.

“It’s okay, honey. It was just an accident. You know what they say, no use crying over spilled milk.”

Hayley smiled faintly at his lame joke and Tyler felt proud that he’d made her feel a little better.

“It’s been a long day. Why don’t you get ready for bed, and then I’ll come read you a story?”

“Any story I want?”

“Yeah. Any one you want,” he replied, hugging Hayley closer.

Her tiny arms wound tighter around his neck. “You won’t leave me, will you? I’ll be all alone if you do.”

Her words cleaved him in two. She’d been clingy ever since he’d brought her to New York City three weeks ago. It was so different from her home in the backwater town of Cooper’s Creek, near Denver, Colorado. Already struggling with her loss, Hayley was having a hard time making the transition from country life to big city living.

Her world now revolved around Tyler, her only living relative. She panicked if he wasn’t around, if he got home late, or if he didn’t call her at least once a day. He couldn’t blame her. What kid in her situation wouldn’t be scared to death?

“I’ll never leave you, Hayley. We’re a team now, and teams stick together.”

Hayley was quiet for a moment before softly asking, “Can Aunt Emily come and visit me? I miss her…” She dissolved into tears against his shoulder.

Tyler closed his eyes against the pain lancing through him. “She’s not really your aunt, sweetheart.”

“She’s my godmother. Nana told me that she’s my back-up mommy. She was Mommy’s best friend. I miss her, Uncle Ty. I miss Cooper’s Creek and my friends. I wanna go home!” she cried as she clung to him.

Tyler’s throat constricted and he couldn’t answer. Guilt ravaged him. He knew Hayley wasn’t happy in New York, but what could he do? This was where he lived and worked. He needed to find a solution—and soon. He hadn’t protected Lizzie when it had counted, but he’d damn well protect Hayley.

She wanted Emily.

Emily. He didn’t want to think about Emily. Until three weeks ago, when he’d had to face her over his mother’s coffin, he hadn’t seen Emily since his sister’s funeral four years prior. But she still filled his dreams and he hated his renewed weakness for her. He vowed to put her out of his head. He’d done it once before and he could do it again.

Tyler lowered Hayley unto her bed. “I’ll be up soon. I just have to talk with Allison.”

He watched with a breaking heart as Hayley slid off the bed and slowly walked with downcast eyes into her bathroom.

Tyler sighed and went back downstairs to take care of the mess in the kitchen, but Allison, his elderly housekeeper and temporary nanny, had already beaten him to cleaning up the spilt milk.

“I’m sorry about that, Allison.”

“Hey, accidents happen. She’s a good little girl.”

He gave her a bland smile as he ran a hand through his black hair. “Thank you for agreeing to move in and watch Hayley until I find a replacement. I have no idea how long that will take. I’ve had trouble finding anyone suitable.”

“Well, you’ve only got another week before I leave on my cruise.” She wrung out the cloth over the sink. “I fed her at six. There’s some food in the fridge. I wasn’t sure if you’d be hungry.”

“Thanks.” He had no appetite.

“Oh, by the way, a woman dropped by this afternoon. Said she was a friend of your sister’s and wanted to see how Hayley was,” Allison said. “I told her Hayley was at dance class. She left her cell number and the name of the hotel where she’s staying. She wants you to call her.”

Tyler’s breath caught in his throat. She wouldn’t dare. Casually, so he didn’t convey the sudden tension in his body, he asked, “Did she leave a name?”

Allison nodded. “Emily Stanford.”

Painful memories warred with erotic images of a curvaceous, sexy blonde rolling around naked in his bed. Images from four years ago that still burned in his mind.

Guilt swamped him as it always did when he thought of Emily his younger sister’s best friend. Lizzie… a single mother at eighteen, dead at twenty-one, she’d been wild and uncontrollable. But he should’ve tried harder to reach her. Being three years her senior, he should’ve taken his role as her big brother and protector more seriously. If he had, she might be alive today.

He would always blame himself—and Emily.

Blame her for distracting him, and worse, for covering for Lizzie. If only she’d told him what Lizzie had been up to that night, Lizzie would be alive today, and Hayley would still have a mother.

Tyler would never forgive Emily. His fist tightened around the piece of paper, crushing the note Allison handed him into a ball before shoving it into the pocket of his navy blue suit jacket. He’d call Emily when hell froze over.

His cellphone rang. He pulled it from his pocket and looked at the number lighting the screen. He silenced the call from his latest lover with a heavy sigh.

Allison raised an eyebrow. “I’m here. You haven’t been out for almost four weeks. That’s not healthy for a handsome young man like you.”

He bent and placed a kiss on his elderly housekeeper’s forehead. “What would you know about handsome men like me?” he teased.

“I was young once, you know. And I know you. I’ve found enough women’s lingerie left around here to open a Victoria’s Secrets store.” Her raised eyebrow and waggled finger told him what she thought about his life-style.

Tyler began pulling his tie from around his neck as he made for the stairs of his Central Park penthouse apartment. “I’ll read to Hayley first, and then maybe I’ll go out if you don’t mind.” He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs.

“Be happy to.”

“Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary. You’ve done a lot for me over the last few years.”

“You’re sure I can’t persuade you to stay on? I’ll double your salary. I mean it. I’m that desperate.”

The smile left Allison’s face. “I wish I could, but my husband and I have our trip planned. At our age, you can’t take anything for granted. It’s our time now.”

“What about when you get back? I’ll find a bigger place and you and your husband could move in with us.”

“But we’ll be away for an entire year on our world trip. You need someone now, so you better get on it. I’m sure you’ll find the right person. Or better yet, you might meet a nice lady and settle down.”

Tyler laughed. “Why is it that women always push men to get married? I’m perfectly happy on my own.” He grinned. “I’m not lacking for female company.”

“But Hayley is. Your priorities have changed now, Mr. Jeffries,” said the no-nonsense housekeeper. “Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to give her a cousin to play with?”

Her words drew him up short. He tried to imagine what his childhood would’ve been like without Lizzie in it. And God knew how lonely he’d been since she’d been gone. He didn’t want Hayley to be lonely, but have his own children?

Instantly he pictured the day his father walked out their door and never came home. He wasn’t his father, was he?

Having a family wasn’t in any of his plans for the future. His corporation, Horizon Enterprises, and making money, were both his baby and his mistress. He loved the rush of the deal almost as much as he loved sex, and he was equally skilled at both.

Alison interrupted his musings. “Well, I can see I’ve given you enough food for thought. Go read to Hayley and then go have some fun.”

“Okay. Thanks again.” As he went upstairs to his warm bundle of responsibility who waited for her story, he thought that blowing off steam was definitely in order.

Thinking about the women that the employment agency had sent filled him with dismay. The first four he’d interviewed had immediately been rejected by his niece. It had pained him to decline number three, a sexy brunette with breasts the size of ripe melons, but he’d realized that sleeping with the help wasn’t a good idea.

He hadn’t been sure he’d be able to resist the temptation. He also didn’t want Hayley to get used to a woman he’d soon tire of and let go. His rule of thumb was to keep his relationships brief and casual so no one got hurt. He never wanted to endure that kind of torture again.

Later, as he stood under the shower spray, after having read to Hayley until she’d fallen asleep, he thought about the woman who visited his dreams far too often of late. The image of Emily naked as she swam at their favorite watering hole slipped into his brain.  

Tyler genuinely liked women and loved sex. Always the considerate lover, he enjoyed giving as much pleasure as he received. There was nothing better than feeling a woman come alive, surrendering herself under his talented hands and mouth.

But Emily was the one woman he’d never stopped craving. Even now, his body hardened as memories of what it had felt like to have her slim legs wrapped around him as he’d sunk deep into her slick heat. Christ. His hand strayed lower over his tight groin. Maybe he should take the edge off before he went out tonight. He was a cocked gun, primed and ready to go off.

No. He’d been doing too much of that lately. Damn you, Emily. He’d thought he’d crushed her memory under the weight of her betrayal. He turned the shower jet on cold to cool his overheated body, but it didn’t work very well.

Thirty minutes later, the memory of Emily’s gorgeous face and the pleasure they’d once shared were still with Tyler as he drove his silver Porsche through the city streets. He wished the memory of her taste, touch and scent no longer haunted him. But, more than anyone, he knew you didn’t get anything by wishing, only by taking action.

When he’d left his apartment, he’d been determined that at least for tonight, the woman who’d ripped his heart from his chest would be vanquished from his mind in another woman’s bed. So why was his Porsche heading downtown, when his current lover lived uptown?

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