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But at the age of forty-six, Merit Alexander is shocked to discover that she wants more. A discreet affair with a much younger man seems to be just what the doctor ordered - and his strict discipline and dominant personality soon awaken her to a whole new world of submissive pleasures. But when the dark secrets of Victor Crowne's blue-collar past threaten to destroy everything she cherishes most, can Merit find the courage to make the most difficult decision of all?
Victor Crowne - The Ultimate Rebel. A renegade biker with a chip on his shoulder, Vic has been fighting all his life for independence and respect. The last thing he wants is to become the pampered plaything of a rich and powerful older woman - even if Merit Alexander's cool demeanor and aristocratic good looks soon ignite the young biker's most primitive desires.
Vic's stubborn pride makes him spurn the lavish gifts and luxurious lifestyle his new lover is happy to offer him. Merit's total and willing submission is the only gift he craves. But tough, blue-collar Vic is also a man of honor, and he'll do anything to keep his woman and her children safe - even if it means turning his back on the promise of a better future.
Merit didn't mean to make Victor her lover at first. Her morning ride along the woodland trail was a time for her to clear her head, to focus on the blessings of nature and the lavish beauty of her vast private estate. But suddenly the wealthy woman on horseback came face to face with a trespasser - badly injured but still devastatingly attractive. He was young, and in spite of his cheerful wisecracks, it was obvious that the hot- bodied hunk with the teasing blue eyes and jet- black hair had no money and no insurance. He needed rest and care, and her stately home was just over the hill.
Vic didn't mean to make a play for the gorgeous doll in the fancy riding clothes. Not at first, anyway. He didn't like women who gave orders, and he didn't like being carried up the hill to her white-columned mansion and put to bed like some helpless cripple. Victor Crowne didn't do helpless. So when the knockout blonde with the chiseled features and the cool gray eyes came to check on him, he made it real clear to her that he took charity from nobody.
But when she gave him that regal and haughty look, and told him he could pay her back nice and slow, any time and any way he desired, something just snapped inside him. Vic wanted to teach the rich woman a lesson, but he knew a simple spanking wouldn't be enough. He was going to have to teach Merit Alexander everything about being a woman with a dominant man - especially how it felt to be his.
Merit Alexander rode along the forest path, managing a fine thoroughbred with perfect ease. The powerful head of Alexander Industries was used to being in control. At forty-six, she had it all. Money, position, respect, a circle of devoted friends and two creative children she adored. Prescott Alexander was gone, but all around her were the tall trees her late husband’s grandfather had planted to shelter the Alexander estate from prying eyes. It was quite a joke on her husband’s family when she donated the wooded trail that encircled her property for public use. But more, it was a declaration of independence from the powerful older man who had once ruled her body and soul. Merit had learned eagerly, savoring each lesson he had to teach her. But she was her own ruler now. And on a morning like this her domain felt boundless. Life was so perfect it was almost boring.
Vrooom! VROOOM!! VROOOM!!!!
Merit hated motorcycles. But the wealthy woman on horseback assumed the coarse, raucous clamor came from the nearby interstate. Lost in her own private thoughts, she didn’t even bother to rein in her horse until the reckless rider rounded the corner.
Vic saw the crazy woman on the big black horse just in time. Swerving to avoid her, he spun out of control. His bike sideswiped a tree, pain shot through his leg and he heard a woman scream.
Lying by the side of the road, he realized that he was going to live. But with the way things were going in his life, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. Crowne’s Garage had been in his family for sixty-five years. All he had to do was make his regular payoff on time, but he couldn’t even do that right.
Victor Crowne had to laugh to keep from crying.
“There’s nothing funny about careless driving,” said a soft yet steely voice over his head. “You could have killed us both just now. And I happen to enjoy living. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, beautiful. Is your horse all right?” Vic focused on the ruffled blonde standing over him. She was a sexy older woman, with good skin, high cheekbones and icy gray eyes. She looked like the duchess in an English storybook. Everything about her spelled money, and plenty of it.
“Charlie is fine.” Merit’s voice was clipped, her manner cool and impersonal. Years of corporate warfare had taught her how to conceal her feelings, even when her emotions were roiling and she felt dangerously unsettled. The unexpected brush with death had sharpened all her senses. She was intensely aware of her frantic pulse, and the way the big, unshaven biker’s electric blue eyes made her heart turn flips. He hadn’t even been wearing a helmet! How typically, stupidly male.
“He looks a little tired,” Vic wisecracked. His leg was starting to hurt. The big black horse was nibbling on some tall grass nearby. “You sure he likes having you on top of him all morning?”
“Let’s focus on you for a moment.” Merit looked him over slowly. “From the looks of your leg, you won’t be riding anything, or anybody, for quite some time. Do you have health insurance? Do you have a job? Do you even own that big noisy motorcycle of yours?”
“Yes, I have a job,” Vic ground out, through tightly clenched teeth. “I run Crowne’s Garage, but I’m a little behind on my insurance payments right now. In fact, I’m a little behind on everything. Just call an ambulance, will you? And call the police. They’ll throw me in jail, and you can get back to buying up whole towns, or whatever it is you do for a living. Besides riding fancy horses, I mean.”
Vic didn’t have anything against rich people. He just hated the way the sexy older woman was making him feel. Exposed, vulnerable. Other people only saw the muscle power and the cocky grin. But the well-kept older woman’s cool gray eyes took in more than just the muscles. She saw how bad he was hurting. She didn’t see muscles and bone. She saw him.
“Are you in some kind of trouble, handsome?” Merit found herself enjoying the exchange with the big biker. Already, she could tell he had a wicked sense of humor and a quick mind. He was in trouble but he didn’t show it. Even in pain, he controlled his tongue and his temper. He was quite good-looking, too, with piercing blue eyes and jet-black hair. And that body!
But it was his personality that intrigued her the most. After so many boring years of being the one in charge, ruling her world with unquestioned authority, it could be rather exciting, she thought to herself, to be challenged by a man. Before she knew it, Merit had made her decision. “Since neither of us needs or wants publicity at this time, the police are not necessary. And neither are the insurance companies. We need your bike towed, and we need an ambulance, a private ambulance, to take you back to the house.� I’ll pay for all the expenses involved, medical care, repairs to your bike, whatever you like.”
“What’s the catch?” Vic’s hoarse voice held a note of suspicion. “Is this a reward for my bad driving? Or are you just out to rescue a dumbass in distress?”
Merit laughed aloud, something she hadn’t done in a long time. “From the looks of things, I’d say you’re the catch.”
“You sure it’s not the other way around?” Vic’s low growl was both a challenge to her authority and a throaty promise of passion. “I’ll tell you right now, Victor Crowne isn’t for sale.”
“I believe you. After all, what woman could afford all this?” Merit swept a manicured hand across the wreckage on the ground. Both man and machine had been damaged by her carelessness. “Seriously, Victor, I want to apologize for my rude behavior a few minutes ago. It was my fault you crashed just now. I should have been paying more attention to the road. This trail used to be private property. But it isn’t anymore. I donated it to the town for public use years ago.”
“Yeah, when I was just a baby.” Victor couldn’t help himself; he just had to make a crack about the age difference. Not that it turned him off. Just the opposite, in fact. And anyway, teasing a beautiful woman took his mind off the throbbing pain in his leg. “What’s your name, anyway? You don’t look nearly old enough to be donating streets. Or shopping around for younger men.”
“My name is Merit Alexander. And I’ve never even looked at a younger man . . . until today.”
“Yeah? Well you hit the jackpot.” Vic couldn’t help being cocky, even though his leg was really hurting by now. “I’m a little bruised, though, so handle with care.”
“That works both ways, Victor. Now shut up and let me call for help.” Merit fished a slim silver cell phone from the pocket of her black velvet riding jacket. On the outside she was cool and in control, as always. But on the inside she felt afraid, excited, guilty and eager all at the same time. She knew she was quite safe, of course. She had money, power, and position to protect her.
But she hadn’t done anything so reckless in years!
“No bones broken,” said Dr. Betty Chang, smiling as she rose from the huge four-poster bed. “But the knee and the ankle are both badly sprained, and those bruises will be painful for days. The shot I gave you won’t last for long, just a few hours. I’ll write a prescription for you before I go.”
“No, you won’t.” Victor was getting drowsy, and he didn’t like it. He should never have let the white-coated lady doctor shoot him up with painkillers in the first place. “I can handle pain,” he mumbled, trying to focus his droopy eyes on Dr. Chang instead of giving in to the pull of slumber. “Done plenty of motorcycle racing. Crashed a lot.” His eyes closed, and he almost went under, sleep teasing him with a vivid image of the classy blonde riding him just like she rode that thoroughbred. Fighting to hold sleep at bay, he glared at the take-charge lady doctor. “How much do I owe you?”
She gave him a funny look, her slanted black eyes almost pitying. “You don’t owe me anything, Mr. Crowne. Merit is a dear friend of mine. She built the new wing at the hospital.”
“I need a new leg, not a new wing,” he murmured, cracking wise with half-closed eyes.
“You need sleep,” the doctor told him gently. “Give those beautiful blue eyes a rest, okay?”
“Okay.” Vic gave in with a sigh, his eyes closing just as the pretty little Asian doctor left the room. He listened to the sound of her high heels clacking down the hall, and he pictured her slim figure without desire. Dr. Chang was a looker, all right. But she couldn’t compete with the knowing smile and timeless allure of the sexy older woman who’d brought him here. Would she visit him later? Why was she so keen on keeping him confined to the enormous bed? Sleep was a top priority, sure. Right now he had to follow orders. But later, when he felt more awake, he needed to get hold of the Risotto Brothers. He had their money. He just needed a little more time. More time . . .
“How’s the patient?” Merit looked up with a smile as Dr. Chang entered her private office. “Just a minute, love,” she said, putting her older daughter’s long-distance call on hold. In the same fluid motion she minimized the search screen on her computer. Merit was used to multi-tasking.
“He’s resting, which is exactly what his body needs. Right now I’d say Sleeping Beauty is living up to both parts of his name.” Both women laughed, but then Betty Chang turned serious. “I gave him a shot, but he won’t admit that he’s in pain. He won’t let me prescribe the usual painkillers. He won’t even allow you to pay for my visit. It’s like he won’t take anything from anyone.”
“Stupid,” Merit agreed, leaning back in her high-backed leather chair. “But typically male. How much do I owe you for the house call, Betty?”
The doctor’s serious, bronzed features lit up in an unexpected smile. “Actually, I agree with the gorgeous mystery man down the hall. This one’s on the house, Merit.”
Merit shrugged. “Have it your way, then. Dinner on me next week?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The doctor threw a mock salute, preparing to leave. But Betty Chang turned around at the door, a look of concern in her lustrous ebony eyes. “And, Merit? Be careful. Sleeping Beauty won’t sleep forever. He’s likely to wake up stiff, sore and grouchy.”
“Dinner next week,” Merit repeated, dismissing her friend with a wave of her manicured hand. She took her daughter off hold, thinking of how blessed she was. She would never endanger her children, or her business empire. But Merit was bored with being safe, bored with being in charge.
Victor Crowne could be just what the doctor ordered.�
“. . . way more expensive, but definitely worth it,” her daughter was saying. At twenty-two, Madeline Alexander was a promising young artist based in London, one who painted with passion while moving in the best social circles. But establishing a presence in the London art scene cost money, even for an artist who was engaged to a prominent gallery owner nearly twice her age.
“Of course, darling,” Merit soothed. “I’ll wire you the extra money right away. I do want your first show to be a success! Now tell me, when are you coming back to the states for a visit?”
“Let’s not make plans, mom. Okay? You know that’s a form of parental blackmail.”
Madeline was right, Merit reflected, feeling a pang of guilt as she hung up the phone. She was hoping for a visit, and that was why she had given in right away, giving her daughter twice the money she actually needed. She should have been tougher. With an angry frown, Merit resumed her Internet search, determined to get the full story on Victor Crowne, the ridiculously good-looking garage owner who went around crashing his bike and admitting that he was hopelessly in debt.
Yet who wouldn’t take a dime from anyone.
When he woke up the next morning, Vic could have kicked himself for the way he’d slept. Part of it was the shot, of course.� That had knocked him for a loop. But it was also the feeling of being safe, protected, shut away from the world in the fancy bedroom with all the curtains drawn. When he opened his eyes, Vic couldn’t see any sign of sunlight. But he knew what time it was. His body knew. He’d slept all afternoon, all through the night, and well into the next day.
“Hey!” the tough biker called, pulling on the curtains. “Hey! Hey, somebody! How about a little help in here?” The big house was spooky even in the day time. Any place was when you were alone. Vic wondered what kind of servants Merit Alexander kept around the place. He pictured someone like Lurch coming in, saying “you rang” in that deep graveyard voice.
Of course even that would be better than having Merit Alexander hand him a bedpan.
Luckily, the first person to show up in his newfound sanctuary was a slim young man in hospital scrubs with a friendly face and a gleaming smile. Merit probably borrowed him from the hospital she owned. (Could one woman really own a hospital?) From his jet-black skin and the way he talked, he was most likely Haitian or Dominican, so new to America he practically squeaked. But he was damned good at his job. In no time at all, he got Vic out of his bed, and into the bathroom. The guy let him take care of his personal business without any help, but he also came on very strong with the royal treatment, bathing Vic, helping him shave and calling him “sir.” Vic didn’t like that. He growled that he wanted to be called Vic.����
“Yes sir, Mister Vic! Someone will be here with breakfast right away.”
“Thanks.” As he let the kid settle him back into bed, Vic couldn’t help wondering whether that someone might be Merit Alexander. Obviously the lady was loaded, with enough money to buy a dozen servants to keep him entertained while he recovered from his wounds in splendor. But when he’d been lying on his ass by the side of the road yesterday, her interest had seemed more . . . personal. The spark between them was real. He hadn’t imagined it, no matter how hurt he was at the time. The only question was, did Merit plan to make the first move?
And how long would it be before he could make a move of his own?�
“Good morning, Mr. Vic! Jean says you are ready for your breakfast, yes?”
“Yeah, thanks. Breakfast sounds good.” And then I want to wrestle your boss to the ground and screw her senseless, Vic thought. But he wasn’t raised to be ungrateful to people who were trying to help him. So when the huge, coffee-colored woman in the frilly maid get-up came in wearing a smile and wheeling a huge breakfast cart, the bedridden biker smiled right back.���
“Goodness, Mr. Vic. You have a tremendous appetite. An appetite the size of a horse!”
“Yeah, and I like to eat, too. Especially when the cook is a looker with all the right skills.” Vic winked at the hefty Haitian housekeeper, who immediately went into peals of laughter, her body jiggling all over. Maybe this was a test, he thought. Merit Alexander was giving him the royal treatment to see if it would go to his head. She was surrounded by servants, and she was clearly the type of woman who cared about her people. So if she took a lover, she’d want to be sure that he was the same way, too. She’d want someone with genuine class, who treated the little people like people.
Especially if he was one of them himself.
“I want to see your boss,” Vic said seriously, as the jolly housekeeper served his meal.
“By and by, Mr. Vic.” The big black woman gave him a beguiling smile. “Miss Merit is a busy lady. She will come and see you by and by. You don’t mind waiting in bed, do you?”
“That’s not what beds are for.”
Eating breakfast all alone in the secluded splendor of a canopy bed didn’t dull Vic’s appetite for the lady of the manor. If anything, the food only made him hungrier for Merit. But afterwards, the only person who came by was the smiling Haitian housekeeper. Vic yawned as she took away the tray, ignoring her crack about how some people used beds for sleeping. Merit would come to him when she was good and ready � just like all the other women he’d known. The big biker closed his eyes, figuring he might as well dream about the elusive older woman.
But he made up his mind to be extra nice to whoever woke him up.
Vic really poured it on as he went into the last turn. The race was all sewn up, but in the dream he was having, that wasn’t enough. He wanted his old man to see that he wasn’t just a punk. That he had the guts to put everything on the line for what was right.
Just like Vincent.
Victor hated this nightmare. He always died at the end. But this time something woke him up just before the fiery crash. It wasn’t a loud noise. In fact, it wasn’t a noise at all.
Victor sensed someone was in the room.
“Hey!” he snarled, tossing aside the fancy curtain that hid him from the world.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” The intruder had huge emerald-green eyes, and a snub nose. Guilt was written all over her freckled face.
“Why were you going through my wallet?” Vic demanded as he sat up in bed, scowling at the pain in his leg. Being a prisoner was bad enough, but being robbed by a little girl was downright embarrassing.
“I didn’t mean to � my name is Maggie, and I live here with my mom in the summer. My room’s right down the hall.”
“It figures. Well, don’t feel too bad, Maggie. Everyone else has already been in to see me this morning � even Charlie the horse!” Vic frowned, remembering the spill he took on the woods trail. Probably that was what had brought the bad dreams back again. He hadn’t had one in months.
“You’re Victor Crowne,” the girl was saying breathlessly. “Mom says you almost hit her and Charlie on your motorcycle yesterday, but it was her fault. She says you’re a very good driver!”
“Yeah, can’t you tell?”
The kid nodded gravely. “My mom says you’re lucky to be alive. When I came in just now I thought you might be dead. But you looked so angry and fierce I knew you were still alive.”
“You’re a real smart cookie, Maggie.” Even though his leg was still killing him, Vic couldn’t help smiling at the sunburned little girl with the big green eyes. The kid with the chopped brown hair and freckles had to be Merit Alexander’s daughter. But she didn’t look like her at all. She looked wild and untamed in that feathered Indian war bonnet. And she had tiger stripes of red and black war paint running down both her cheeks. “So are you a Native American princess?”
“Kind of,” Maggie said. “I’m going away to a Six Nations camp in a couple of weeks. We’re going way up in the Adirondacks! A lot of it’s going to be hiking and cookouts, but there’s also going to be classes in healing and the arts. It’s going to be a real immersion in the culture. I’m going to be a spirit woman, a healer or a witch. If I don’t get in trouble first.” The girl backed up a pace. “I only looked in your wallet because I wanted to see who you were!”
Vic’s smile turned to a grin. Now he knew why the kid was so afraid of getting into trouble. Going away to camp was a real adventure. “Yeah, well, the Indians knew a lot of things, Maggie Mag-witch. Like you don’t make friends by snooping. You make friends by introducing yourself.” He leaned over in bed and ruffled her short dark hair. “How do you do, Princess Maggie?”
“How do you do, Mr. Crowne?” Maggie’s giggles were contagious. The two of them were still laughing together when Merit Alexander entered the room.
“What did I tell you about disturbing our guest, young lady?”
“It’s all right,” Victor said quickly, his dark blue eyes twinkling. Merit looked like a million bucks. She was dressed for work, and he guessed she pushed herself pretty hard. He also noticed that she looked sexy even in a sensible business outfit. There was something about all those gold buttons on her chocolate brown jacket that made him want to pop them open, one by one. He groaned aloud, a ridiculous fake moan of pain, making Maggie giggle again. “I woke up alone, with a terrible pain my heart, and this beautiful Indian maiden came in to keep me company. With her super powers, she could hear me moaning and groaning all the way down the hall!”
“A likely story,” Merit scoffed. But she was smiling. She could see her baby girl liked the big, tough biker with the kind blue eyes. A bittersweet feeling, it made her all the more determined to handle Vic with caution. “Pumpkin, will you give me your word never to enter any adult’s room without knocking, and never to come into Mr. Crowne’s room unless he invites you?”
“I promise I won’t, ever!” Maggie nodded vigorously.
“That’s my girl. Now go wash up, and then you can help Caroline in the kitchen.”
“Cute kid,” Vic rumbled, when they were finally alone together. “Do you really need her to help out in the kitchen? Or are you just trying to save a couple of bucks?”
“Helping is what we do,” Merit informed him. “Maggie enjoys it, and learns from it. We can’t always count on having servants, not in today’s world. It’s better to rely on ourselves.”
“Rich but down to earth, huh?” Vic was amused. And impressed. He watched with raw male interest as the sexy single mother sat down in an antique straight-backed chair close to the enormous four-poster bed, carefully arranging her dark brown skirt so that it only displayed so much. All the same, any fool could see that Merit Alexander had a fantastic pair of legs. “Still it must be tough, growing up in a museum like this without any other kids to play with. Is Maggie an only child?”
“Maggie is my younger daughter,” Merit said quietly. “Madeline is my oldest. She’s an artist, and she lives in London, but her career is still in its early stages.”
“Meaning she doesn’t make much money.”
“Correct.” Merit felt a smile tugging at the corners of her carefully glossed lips. The man on the bed had been taking it easy all day, resting his injured leg. Someone had bathed him and dressed him in a fresh pair of dark blue silk pajamas. Still, the contrast of his hulking body and bulging muscles sprawled out on decadent satin sheets and lace-trimmed pillows was wickedly exciting. Victor Crowne jarred her senses. And it wasn’t just his looks. She could sense that he had secrets. Merit had to keep her mind focused, and keep her eyes off his body. “Listen, Victor. Since you were asleep most of the morning, I thought I should call your garage. Your chief mechanic has been worried sick about you. And about other things, too.”
“Thanks.” Vic knew his garage was in trouble. But he wasn’t the kind of guy who screwed his way out of debt. If he’d wanted to cash in on his looks, he’d have become a network newscaster.
“I wasn’t trying to pry,” Merit hastily assured him. The huge man in the luxurious bed was gazing at her without expression. “It’s just that Manuel said you haven’t missed a day in three years. He says you’re always the first one there and the last to leave. He even told me about the weight set you have out back, how you made it yourself out of scrap metal and cinder blocks.”
“So it appears to me you’re a hard-working man in some serious financial trouble.”������
Another man would have tensed up, barked an angry denial. Victor stretched luxuriously, lying back on the soft pillows, flexing his massive muscular arms high over his head. “You know,” he said lazily, “my motorcycle got pretty banged up yesterday. Is it still in your garage?”
“Of course.” Merit frowned, thrown off-balance. The relaxed and sensual response to her probing made her feel funny. As if she was the one in trouble. She fiddled with her lace cuffs.
“No one’s touched it? No one’s messed around or tried to fix it?”��
“That’s good. No one touches my bike but me. And that goes for all my other stuff, too.”
Merit blushed, feeling there was a delicate double meaning in the words. Once again she had underestimated the man. It was surprising, really, how subtle Victor Crowne could be. He looked like a brute who would only speak in grunts and tear a woman’s clothes right off her back. Pushing that image aside, she cleared her throat. “Look, the accident yesterday was my fault. I realize that now. But you were going awfully fast on that great big motorcycle of yours. Clearly you were in a hurry. If you missed an appointment because of me, I’m responsible for whatever consequences there may be.� I’ll help in any way I can.”
“The hell you will,” Victor growled. “You may be rich as hell and smart on top of it, but you can’t solve everyone’s problems. If I were you I’d think about your own needs for a change.”
“My own needs?” Merit tried to laugh, but it was a nervous little flutter of sound. Unconsciously she reached up to loosen the frilly lace cravat that served as a necktie for her suit. “Surely you don’t think I need anything, with all the wonderful blessings you see around you. I have two wonderful children, a wonderful home, and a career any woman would kill for.”
“Sure,” Victor acknowledged. “I see all that. But your oldest daughter is five thousand miles away. And your younger daughter is running around dressed up like an Indian.”
“Maggie is fine,” Merit said crisply. “Her grades are excellent; she’s fearless and creative. She needs boundaries, like any child. But she also needs freedom to be herself.”
“She comes on like she’s fearless,” Victor agreed.� “But deep down she’s scared. She was snooping through my things just now, like she’s afraid you’re inviting me to stay. Are you?”�
“Am I?” Merit tugged at her silly cravat, which came off in her hand. She felt . . . busted was the only word. It was a ridiculous word, but it fit. And that made her angry. “I’ll speak to Maggie, Mr. Crowne. Her behavior was inappropriate.”
“Yeah, it was,” Victor said quietly. “But I already explained that to her. You don’t have to spank her on my behalf.”