On any other day, Zach Monroe would avoid the very tempting, sexy Sophie Allen for several very valid reasons. First, she looked too damn good in her little skirts hugging those round hips. Second, she was dating some prick who didn't deserve her, so Zach had no business lusting.
Most of all, though, he'd ruined her life years ago. He'd been cocky when he should've been responsible.
In a move that shocked him, Sophie had called earlier in the day and asked him to come by her office. Actually she'd called his work line, which rang to his cell. Apparently she wanted to keep this impromptu meeting professional. Whatever. The sooner he figured out what she wanted, the sooner he could leave and get back to his work. A career in construction meant limited time talking to people and plenty of time hammering out frustrations.
Zach tugged on the old oak door of the little town house where Sophie's real estate office was located in Haven, Georgia. A single bell chimed, indicating his arrival.
The second he stepped over the threshold the scent of something floral hit him in the gut.
Sophie. Anytime he'd been around her she'd always smelled like flowers, like freshness and summertime.
Great, now he was sounding like a damn woman describing Sophie's signature scent. He totally lost all control of his thoughts when he was anywhere near her.
A penance for his crime much worse than the year he'd spent in jail.
The small office space with the pale yellow walls, various green plants in colorful pots adorning the waiting area, looked inviting the way he imagined Sophie would want. Sunlight flooded through the wide front window, casting a beam directly into her little space in this world.
The woman he'd once considered a good friend, and possibly something more, rounded the end of the hallway, a document in one hand, pen in the other. She had one of those damn body-hugging skirts that stopped at her knees, this one in dark purple, paired with a simple gray sleeveless sweater and little flats in some animal print. Her golden hair spiraled down around her shoulders in soft curls he'd give anything to feel over his body. She never failed to steal his breath. That instant punch to the gut happened every single time she came near.
Sophie probably just saw him as a scruffy construction worker who drove a beat-up old truck that sounded worse than it looked.
Whereas he saw her as everything his life wasn't: polished, beautiful, and pure. His childhood demons alone were enough to prove how different they truly were.
But it was her limp that got him in a stranglehold and tightened a vise around his chest. Some days her gait was more pronounced than others, but her handicap was always there, always twisting that knife a little deeper into his gut. Visual reminders of his screwups gutted him quicker than anything.
Sophie's bright green eyes came up to meet his. “Zach.” Her shoulders stiffened, the grip on her papers tightened. “I'm still waiting on the others, if you want to have a seat in my office.”
Attention on her physical beauty and all he'd thrown away held him speechless. Then her words penetrated through the haze. “What others?”
“Liam and Braxton.” She turned and disappeared back into what he assumed was her office.
What the hell was this about?
Like the proverbial moth to a flame, Zach followed her. His mood plummeted from intrigued over the meeting to irritation with the impending get-together with his brothers.
Sophie's office was just as inviting as the lobby area. The cheery yellow curtains, the fresh, vibrant floral arrangement in a small vase on her desk, and the picture in a silver frame. Zach's eyes immediately went to the photo of Sophie standing with Zach's late sister, Chelsea.
Chelsea, who was taken from them all too soon. She'd been vibrant, full of energy and life, and always seeking the next adventure. The fact that she'd died in a freak skiing accident was enough to give him some warped sense of peace. She hadn't suffered and she'd been doing what she loved. Still . . .
“Seems unreal, doesn't it?” she asked, her eyes traveling to the photo as she stood behind her desk. “I don't know how many times I've started to text her or I've turned down her street and caught myself. I miss talking to her, miss her laugh.”
Zach swallowed hard. Yeah, he'd done the same. He didn't think he'd ever get used to not having his full-of-life sister around. She was the only one out of all four adopted siblings that ever “got” him.
Pausing at the two chairs in front of Sophie's desk, Zach opted to stand against the wall. No need to get cozy here when he was damn near a panic attack at being so close to Sophie in such a small space.
Zach hadn't seen Sophie since the funeral four months ago, when she'd cried in his arms, clinging to his shirt at the graveside. Zach doubted she'd specifically sought him out for comfort. He just happened to be the one in line behind her when she'd broken. He'd been hesitant to embrace her, but once he had, he'd entered into another level of hell because now he knew how perfect she felt in his arms. He realized what all he'd thrown away.
When she'd pulled herself together, though, she'd released him like she'd been burned and turned on her heels for her car. He hadn't seen her since.
He'd been so caught up in his own grief, he hadn't considered how she was coping. Zach figured her hoity-toity boyfriend with his polished cuff links had probably patted her on the back. While Zach had mascara on his dress shirt, he couldn't imagine Sophie's man letting his suits get ruined.
Seeing her walk away from that graveside had shifted something in him. Something he couldn't define and something he'd had no choice but to ignore.
The bell on the front door chimed again. Zach raked his palm over his face, his whiskers bristling against his palm. Which brother would step through the door next? The one Zach actually still talked to, or the one Zach avoided at all costs?
“We're in here,” Sophie called as she crossed her office to greet the new guest.
Folding his arms over his chest, Zach kept his eyes on the floor. Focusing on his scuffed work boots against the pristine white carpeting was far better than seeing Sophie's limp as she left the room.
“Wow. This must be something major for you to show up.”
Zach glanced toward the door at his younger brother, Braxton. “I have no idea what we were called in for.”
Braxton sank into the chair across from Sophie's desk. “You gonna have a seat?”
On his feet, he was one step closer to the exit, right where he preferred.
Looking closer at Sophie's office area gave him an insight into her life, her personality, whether he wanted to learn more or not. She obviously loved the color yellow. She also had an eye for art, if the pencil sketches randomly displayed were any indicator. The sketches of landscapes and old homes and buildings were so detailed.
Before he could study the artwork much more, the bell chimed for a third time. Perfect. The final piece to this missing, awkward puzzle had arrived. Let the party of anger and shouting begin.
Sophie led Liam in. Liam froze as his eyes landed on Zach. “What's going on?”
Zach forced himself not to look away from the scar running down the side of Liam's face. So much pain in this room, pain that none of them would discuss.
“I need to talk to you guys about the property Chelsea left you.” Sophie skirted around her desk and took a seat. Lacing her fingers over the rich wood top, she eyed all three men. “I apologize for not telling you all on the phone what was going on. I figured if I told Liam that Zach was coming, or vice versa, you all would find an excuse not to be here, and I needed all three of you in the same room.”
“What's so important with the property?” Liam asked, taking the seat by Braxton.
They'd still not decided what to do with that monstrosity of a home on the edge of town. Their sister had bought it at a good price because it needed so much work, but Zach never did know what her true intentions were for the Civil Warâera mansion.
Just a month ago he, Braxton, and Liam had been informed they were not only the new owners, per Chelsea's will, they also owed the back taxes Chelsea had failed to pay. Perhaps it was a good thing Sophie called this little meeting, considering the brothers needed to figure out the tax issue and decide what to do with the property.
“The city council is interested in buying the estate,” Sophie went on. “They want to turn the main house and the two smaller cottages on the property into a museum and tourist attraction. With being so close to Savannah, and all the historical value of the home, they're positive it will pull in more tourists.”
Zach snorted. Whatever his sister had wanted to do with the home was a mystery, but he sure as hell knew she wouldn't want a museum. An old, stuffy museum was the total opposite of his free-spirited, fun sister.
Beyond that, there was no way in hell Zach would sell to anyone associated with the mayor.
He glanced at Braxton, trying to gauge his brother's reaction to this news. Anytime the mayor's name was brought up, Zach cringed for Braxton. Betrayal ran deep in this family.
“We haven't discussed what we're doing with it yet,” Braxton said through gritted teeth.
Sophie offered one of her signature sweet smiles. “I understand this is a difficult position. I really am just trying to help you guys get out from under such a burden.”
Zach waited for Braxton to say something more, or even for Liam to jump to his defense. When both remained quiet, Zach chimed in. “We need to pay the taxes first.”
“Actually, if you sell the home, the taxes would come out of the amount of the sale.” Sophie opened a folder and slid a paper out. “This is what the city is willing to pay for the place. It's a good price. The taxes and mortgage would be paid off.”
Zach didn't move from his spot against the wall. Hell, he was still grieving. How could he think about facts and figures right now? Facts and figures proposed by a man who had stabbed Braxton in the back only a few short years ago.
“Looks good to me,” Liam said after looking at the paper. He settled back into his chair and crossed an ankle over his knee. “I'm fine with selling, but Braxton needs to okay this.”
Silent, Braxton still studied the numbers. Whatever emotional turmoil Braxton struggled with, the man was always business first. More than likely Braxton was pushing back that slice of pain and crunching numbers in his head. Zach, on the other hand, didn't need to see the paper.
“I'm not okay with this.” The words were out of Zach's mouth before he thought to keep them in. Someone needed to stand up for Braxton and for what Chelsea would've wanted. “We can't decide this second to sell. There's too much to think about and we need to sit down and discuss this privately.”
Without turning, Liam snorted. “When the hell have you ever thought about a decision? You rush into everything.”
The barb hit home, but Zach wasn't about to dredge up their past here. Or ever, if he could help it.
“Martin has convinced the mayor to offer a very generous amount.” Sophie stared at him across the room. Apparently thinking he was crazy. “You don't want to sit on this.”
Zach didn't give a shit what her boyfriend, Martin, had done or how generous the mayor's offer was. Both were assholes as far as Zach was concerned.
Even though Zach was currently working on a project for the city, the project he was near completing was all business. This deal that Sophie was proposing on their behalf was crossing into the personal territory.
Beyond Braxton's hatred for Mayor Stevens, Chelsea loved that property and it had been her dream to own it someday. How could they just sell?
The preâCivil War home had housed slaves in the underground tunnels that led from the main house to two other homes on the estate that overlooked a lake. No boring museum would be going in there. He'd find a way to . . . hell, he didn't know, but he knew he wasn't selling to the assholes in suits.
“You have to pay the taxes somehow,” Sophie argued. “This is the best way to pay off the debt and not have to worry about what to do with such a large, empty estate.”
Still sitting forward in his seat to look at the paper, Braxton glanced over his shoulder at Zach. He merely stared back, waiting for Braxton's thoughts. Hurt settled in Braxton's eyes, but there was an overlying mask of anger.
Braxton shifted back around and faced Sophie. “We need to discuss this. We can't decide right here.”
“And we'll get the damn taxes paid,” Zach muttered just as Sophie opened her mouth. “Let us worry about Chelsea's property. You can tell your boyfriend and the mayor we don't want the offer.”
Sophie's shoulders stiffened, her eyes narrowing in his direction. “I'm only trying to help everyone here. You don't have to be a jerk.”
Yeah, well, he felt like a jerk, so how else was he supposed to act?
“What do you want to do with the property?” Liam asked, turning in his seat just enough to see Zach.
“Pay the taxes and figure it out from there.”
“I don't have time to invest in that place,” Liam countered. “I understand why Braxton would hesitate, but you have to think about what a liability that property is going to be. I don't want to sink money into something that will have no benefit to me.”
Zach uncrossed his arms and stood straight up. “Well, I'm not ready to get rid of that land. Chelsea loved that old house and she had a vision. She used every bit of her savings and her portion of the inheritance from Mom and Dad to buy the place, and you're ready to just give it away for some museum? Or if that's not enough, perhaps you've forgotten aboutâ”