“I don’t want a woman, Maddie. I’m already married.” Max fingered his platinum wedding band, a ring that had rarely left his finger since the day he’d gotten married, and would remain on the same damn finger even after he was dead. Technically, he was still married. Mia’s body had never been recovered, nor had she been declared legally dead.
He took a deep breath and slowly let it out, savoring the smell of barbeque and the outdoors. They were having an “end of summer” picnic, a rare time when friends and family were able to get together in one of the local parks and act like kids again, and forget that they were a bunch of the wealthiest people in the world with more responsibility hanging over their head than the average person. Today, they could just be ordinary, and Max didn’t want to have this conversation with his newfound sister. He just wanted to savor the fact that he actually had family, a sibling he had never known existed until earlier this year. Just for a few hours, he wanted to enjoy the company of the people he cared about and try not to think about the woman he’d lost. Finding Maddie had been a miracle, a gift that he didn’t want to squander.
Maddie chewed on her lower lip, looking at him with a concerned expression across a picnic table to which they had been banished by Maddie’s husband, Sam Hudson. Sam was barbequing and wanted his pregnant wife away from the fire. Max smiled, wondering how his friend and brother-in-law was going to survive this pregnancy with Maddie. She was only a few months along and Sam already treated her like she was as fragile as blown glass. He could only imagine how insanely protective Sam would become as her pregnancy progressed. It wouldn’t matter that Maddie was a physician and perfectly capable of knowing what she could and couldn’t handle; Sam would hover. Honestly, Max couldn’t blame him. He was feeling more than a little brotherly protectiveness himself. His sister was thirty-five, two years his senior, and she wanted this baby so desperately. He’d definitely breathe a sigh of relief when the baby was safely delivered. Any other result would break Maddie’s heart, and his sister had already had enough adversity to fight through in her life.
“I just want you to be happy,” she answered softly, tugging nervously on a strand of her curly red hair.
Oh hell, he hated that sad look on her face, but somehow he needed to make her understand that he wasn’t interested in a female companion. Sometimes there was no ecstatic happiness like she had with Sam. It definitely wasn’t in his future. He’d had the love of his life…and had managed to fuck things up completely. His sister had been trying to hook him up with various women all summer, and it needed to stop. “I feel the same way about Mia as you feel about Sam. I loved her. I still do. Her death didn’t change that. There isn’t anyone else for me, Maddie. She was my one and only.” Max knew Maddie would understand. After all, she had waited over a decade for Sam. “I can’t be with anyone else. Not now. Not ever.”
“You feel that way now, Max, but someday—”
“I’ll feel exactly the same way next year, ten years from now, and every day after that.” He wasn’t going to bullshit her. Not anymore. In the past, he’d changed the subject every time she mentioned that maybe he should find some female company, but he wasn’t backing down. Maddie’s quest for his happiness was endearing, but misguided, and it only reminded him of what he’d lost. “If something happened to Sam, when would you be ready to be with someone else?”
Her face fell and Max felt like a complete asshole. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Maddie. He knew she meant well and wanted him to be as happy as she was now with Sam, but he couldn’t take it anymore and he desperately needed her to back off. He’d spent the last two and a half years trying to just stay sane, the pain in his chest never going away, trying to function every day and push through the agony of living without Mia. It was better not to think about romantic relationships at all. There was no happily ever after for him. There was only survival. And he was much better off working, exhausting himself into sleep, and being grateful for the family and friends he had. He didn’t want another woman. There was no substitute. He just wasn’t built that way. Apparently, he and his sister shared that same trait: fall in love once and it lasts forever.
“Never,” Maddie admitted sadly, her hazel eyes meeting his, finally comprehending what he was trying to convey. “I’d never be ready because Sam was the only man for me. I understand. And I’m sorry. I just feel so damn helpless. I want to help, but I don’t know what to do.”
Max got up and moved around the table, seating himself beside his pregnant sister and taking her gently into his arms. He closed his eyes, savoring the feminine embrace of his compassionate sibling as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and squeezed. His voice was husky as he told her quietly, “You already help me. Just by being my sister. I don’t need anything else.” He was lying, and he knew it. But what he needed wasn’t possible. Mia wasn’t coming back, and he needed to accept it. He just…never really had.
“Hey. You two better break it up before Sam comes over here and breaks both your arms and kicks your ass.” The casual, masculine voice sounded behind them; his brother-in-law, Kade, was moving toward them with Tucker, Max’s sad-looking hound dog—or rather, Mia’s dog. Tucker was a stray that Mia had adopted, and Max had never really figured out his actual breed. He looked like a pathetic cross between a bloodhound and basset hound, a canine that did very little except eat and give Max disapproving looks with eyes that peered through a wrinkled face. He wasn’t sure how Kade had even managed to get Tucker to move. The lazy, spoiled dog generally just gave anybody who wanted to go walking his doggie look of disdain and went back to sleep. The canine could be a pain in his ass, but Max had never been able to get rid of Tucker, no matter how many accusing looks the dog gave him, as if Max had been responsible for Mia going away. She had adored Tucker, and the ugly hound dog had been completely enamored of its mistress. Man and dog had called a truce for just that reason, had learned to tolerate each other. Max knew Tucker still pined for Mia, as if still waiting for her to come home. In that respect, man and hound were similarly pathetic. In some strange, screwed-up way, it made Max feel better knowing that there was another soul still mourning Mia’s loss, even if it was a sixty-five pound, incredibly ugly dog.
Kade limped toward them, Tucker lumbering behind him. The dog was panting, its pink tongue hanging from its mouth as it plopped at Max’s feet and gave him an irritated stare.
“It’s not my fault. You went with him,” Max answered Tucker’s silent castigation, glaring back at the hound. Like Tucker didn’t know Kade? His brother-in-law, Mia’s brother, pushed himself on his mangled leg as though he had something to prove. When he’d had the motorcycle accident that had ended his stellar professional football career, his doctors hadn’t even thought he’d keep his leg. But he did, and Kade was still in better physical shape than any man Max knew.
Max released Maddie, who smiled at Kade as he plopped his ass onto the bench beside her, leaving her sandwiched between them. “Did you two have a good romp?” she asked, reaching down to pet Max’s pathetic hound. Tucker was already snoring, but released a satisfied doggie whimper as Maddie stroked his head.
“Yeah. Tucker completely wiped me out and worked me out. The dog sets a brutal pace,” Kade answered facetiously and smiledat Maddie as she leaned up again, looking like he could hike at least another several miles without breaking a sweat. Max was positive that Tucker had waddled along at a snail’s pace, which had no doubt irritated the hell out of Kade.
God, he reminds me so much of Mia.
Kade and Mia had the same deep blue eyes, blinding smile, and blond hair. At the moment, Kade’s hair was disheveled and longer than usual, touching the collar of his incredibly ugly, garish floral shirt. For some reason, Kade had always been a prime candidate for the Worst-Dressed list. It certainly wasn’t because he had no money. His brother-in-law was beyond wealthy, his net worth probably greater than Max’s. He’d taken over the Harrison Corporation along with his twin brother, Travis, when their parents had passed away over four years ago, and he’d been a star quarterback for a Florida pro team for years before his accident, commanding a huge salary and lucrative endorsements. Max was willing to bet that even though the shirt looked like it needed to be tossed in the nearest trash can, it had a designer label. Honestly, Max was pretty certain that Kade dressed the way he did just to annoy his twin brother. Travis was completely anal and meticulous—traits that Max also had—which should have made him closer to Travis than Kade. But after losing Mia, Max and Kade had gotten closer, spent more time together. Kade had been willing to talk about Mia; Travis remained stoic and secluded.
“Well, it was very sweet of you to take Tucker for some exercise,” Maddie told Kade, leaning over to peck him on the cheek.
“Hey, knock that off. Sam puts up with Max getting a little affection, but if you aren’t related, you better keep your distance.” Simon Hudson, Sam’s younger brother, approached the table with his very pregnant wife, Kara, his voice holding a serious note of warning.
“We are related by marriage…sort of,” Kade replied, grinning as Simon helped Kara step over the bench on the opposite side of the table and sit. “She’s the sister of my brother-in-law. That should count.”
Simon was frowning, his concern for his ready-to-pop-any-moment pregnant wife evident by the stressed look on his face. Kara was glowing, her face rosy from her walk with her husband. Simon finally glared at Kade as he sat beside his wife and commented gruffly, “Doesn’t count. If you aren’t related by blood, forget it.”
Kara smacked her husband in the arm. “Kade’s like family. Leave him alone, caveman. We happen to like it that he treats Maddie and I like sisters. I’ve made Kade and Max my honorary brothers.”
Max barked out a laugh. “So can we come on over there and give you a brotherly little hug, Kara?” he asked, watching Simon carefully. Honestly, he really shouldn’t bait the poor guy. Simon was obsessively jealous and his wife was nine months pregnant, but Max just couldn’t help himself. Shooting Kade a conspiratorial glance, both men began to rise.
Simon growled—actually snarled—as Kade and Max stood.
Kara beamed, delighted, looking pleased with the idea of giving both men a brotherly hug.
“Come one step closer and you’ll both end up in the hospital,” Simon warned dangerously.
Max smiled, while Kade laughed uproariously. Yeah, it was definitely not nice to tease Sam and Simon about their women, but since neither Kade nor Max actually had a woman, it was just so entertaining to watch Simon’s reaction. Both of them sat back down, knowing better than to push the jesting any further. Max had no doubt that Simon would make good on his promise.
“Just wait,” Simon warned. “Payback sucks.”
Max’s smile faded. While Kade had recently been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, his brother-in-law would probably find a good woman someday and get paid back for teasing Simon. But Max knew he never would. And he’d never treated Mia the same way Sam and Simon treated their wives. His parents had loved him, given him everything an adopted child could ever want, and in return, he’d always tried to make them proud by behaving with control. Not that he hadn’t wanted to go completely cave dweller on Mia at times—actually pretty much all the time—but he hadn’t allowed those emotions to claw to the surface. He’d ruthlessly crushed those feelings, burying them deep inside him, and he had loved Mia with the same tepid, felicitous affection his dad had shown his mom. But, Holy Christ, it hadn’t been easy. Max knew his possessive, animal instincts had been there with Mia, snarling to get out, but he’d always hid them, constantly struggling to keep them leashed. Now, he wished he would have set them loose and loved her wholeheartedly. He’d been afraid of scaring her off, freaking her out with his irrational behavior. But watching the other men with their women, he wasn’t entirely certain that she wouldn’t have wanted him that way. Kara and Maddie seemed happy, entirely certain that they were loved. Had Mia felt that way? Max wasn’t sure she had.
Sam brought over a huge platter of freshly cooked burgers and hotdogs. Picnic tables were hastily pushed together to seat everyone, the wood nearly groaning with the weight of all the people and enough food to feed a small army. Kade slid in next to him on his left, and Maddie slipped into the seat to his right.
Max’s eyes scanned the crowd sitting at the table and then around the perimeters of the park, wanting to laugh at the amount of undercover security that surrounded them. Already knowing Sam and Simon would have the park surrounded, he hadn’t bothered to include his small security team in this event. Now, he was really happy that he hadn’t. It would have definitely been overkill. The Hudson siblings practically had an entire SWAT team around the park to guard their wives. Not that Max really blamed them. Maybe if he had been firmer with Mia about her security, maybe if he hadn’t let her convince him that she didn’t need to be followed every minute of the day, maybe…
He was reaching for a hamburger bun when he saw her, his hand stopping abruptly before it reached the platter, his entire body frozen in place as he met the stare of a woman about fifteen feet from him, her body still and half hidden by a palm tree. His heart surged and then plummeted to his feet as his eyes locked with hers, eyes so very much like Mia’s. He might have been able to blow off the fact that her eyes were the same azure blue as his deceased wife’s, but he couldn’t ignore the sense of recognition he felt and saw reflected back at him from her gaze. Sweet Jesus. “Mia,” he whispered huskily, his hand lowering to the table as he openly gaped at her.
Hearing Max’s quiet declaration, Kade looked at Max, following the direction of his stare, looking at the woman for a moment and then back at Max. “Don’t do this to yourself, man. It isn’t her,” Kade told him harshly.
Yeah. Sure. For the first year after Mia’s disappearance, Max had seen her everywhere he went, in every crowd. But this wasn’t the same thing. “I feel her,” Max answered, his eyes never leaving the woman, his body tensing as he rose to his feet.
Kade grasped his arm. Hard. “Her eyes are the same color, but that’s all. It isn’t her. Look at her, Max. She has short, dark hair. She’s thin. Nothing is the same except her eyes. There are lots of women with blue eyes. Stop torturing yourself. Mia’s gone and she’s never coming back.” Kade’s voice was low, grating, his head turned so only Max could hear him.
Max ignored him, shrugging off his brother-in-law’s hold as he stood, the sorrow that he felt coming from the woman beckoning him, calling to him. Stepping over the bench seat of the picnic table, he kept his focus on her. The sense of recognition he felt made every sound fade around him until all he could hear was the thundering sound of his heart pounding in his ears, and all he could feel was the eerie sensation of knowing the woman who was so close to him, yet too far away.
Those were exactly the same sensations he had experienced the moment he’d first looked at Mia and had fallen into her deep blue eyes.
As he took a step toward her, she bolted. Breaking his gaze, she pivoted and started sprinting away from him, her slim, bare limbs exposed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, moving gracefully in quick, fast strides.
Dammit. No. Don’t run. Please don’t run.
Excerpted from "The Billionaire's Salvation:: (The Billionaire's Obsession ~ Max)" by J.S. Scott. Copyright © 0 by J.S. Scott. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.