Authors: Laurie Paige
Had she gone to another man? It hadn't been Flynt, Tyler, Luke or Spence, the four bosom buddies of his rival, Ricky Mercado. However, someone had helped her escape him and their coming marriage. Carl Bridges? Most likely.
Ah. An idea dawned as bright as a summer morning. If the foundling were in his care instead of Flynt Carson's, would the elusive Haley come out of hiding?
The fury rose. He soothed it until he could once again think in the frigid clarity of total logic, without emotion.
A few minutes later, smiling slyly, he decided it was time the whole Mercado clan learned a lesson about thwarting Frank Del Brio. They thought he was ruthless, but they didn't yet know what ruthless meant. They would learn.
“I'm off,” Spence said. “Sunday isn't a rest day for me like for the rest of you bums. I have reports to read.”
“See ya,” Michael said as his friend left the res
taurant. Suppressing a yawn, he thought about his afternoonâhe'd go home, take a nap, get his laps in, thenâ¦
He tried to think of something exciting, but only Susan came to mind. Yeah, he knew what he'd like to do in that department. She'd got under his skin, way under. In more ways than he could count.
Thinking about her conjured up an image. No, not just an image. She was here in person, walking toward the diving pool with the jock he'd seen at her table last weekend. Inside, something hot and jealous arose.
Hey, she isn't yours, he reminded the stubborn streak that thought she was, or should be.
While he watched, Susan and her friend entered the gate to the pool. Laughing at some no doubt lame joke, she tossed a robe and towel onto a chair, then headed for the high dive. Michael's heart thundered. Leaping to his feet, he ran across the lawn and garden toward the diving area at a dead run. No use in yelling at her. There wasn't a prayer she could hear him above the shrieks from the children's pool, which was close by.
She did a neat swan dive into the cool waters just as he reached the gate.
He raced inside, kicked off his shoes, tossed his wallet onto the concrete and did a running dive from the side.
“Hey!” the lifeguard yelled.
Michael dove to the center bottom where the suction from the pool filtering pump was pulling at Susan's feebly struggling body. Slipping an arm around her waist, he kicked toward the surface.
Their heads broke the water just as the lifeguard shouted into a bullhorn, “You, sir, remove yourself from the pool immediately!”
Michael refrained from telling the young man where he could go. He hauled Susan over to the side. “Here, take her. She's in a faint.”
“I'm not,” she denied, but so breathlessly weak his heart contracted in pity.
The lifeguard, fear suddenly on his face, lifted Susan from the water while Michael hauled himself onto the side.
“Lay her down,” he ordered, then bent over her supine figure and checked the pulse at her neck. “Too fast,” he muttered. “You're missing too many beats.”
“Whatâ¦happened?” she asked, still gasping.
He scowled at her. “You went from hot to cold in an instant, from less pressure to greater. Your body couldn't handle the demands of the sudden changes. When are you going to stop this childish behavior?”
“Who the hell do you think you are to talk to her this way?” her date the jerk demanded.
“Her heart doctor,” Michael answered in a snarl. “She can't do this kind of thing anymore.”
“Her heartâ What kind of thing?” the younger man spluttered. “What are you talking about?”
“Her life,” Michael said, looking into her eyes. “Her death,” he added only for her ears.
She sighed and closed her eyes.
Michael sent a visual challenge to the jerk. “I'm taking her home. Now.”
The guy spread his hands in surrender and stepped back out of way when Michael lifted Susan. “Get her things,” he ordered. “And mine.”
The man silently did as he was told, helping get Susan and their things stored in Michael's car. “Let me know if there's anything I can do,” he said, after closing the car door and stopping by the driver's side.
“Thanks. I can handle it.”
The younger man, subdued and worried, waved them off. Michael decided the guy might not be so bad after all.
Once at his house, Michael wondered if he should have taken her to her home rather than his. But he knew he wasn't going to. Not unless she requested it.
Ignoring her frown, he carried her to the patio, wrapped the terry robe around her shoulders and got them each a glass of raspberry tea before going to his room to change. He returned and sat in a cushioned chair with a sigh.
“I ruined your day,” she said, “not to mention your clothing. Send me the dry-cleaning bill.”
“Thanks, but they're washable. The housekeeper will take care of it.” He studied her face. “How do you feel?”
“The way anyone would who made a spectacle of herself. Like an idiot.”
Seeing her humor assert itself, he relaxed and took a long drink of the fruit-flavored tea. “Well,” he said agreeably, “you should.”
She burst into laughter. “Please don't be polite. Just say whatever you think.”
She looked into his eyes. The laughter died way. His grin faded. He gazed into her eyes and saw everything he'd ever wanted, just an arm's length away.
id you happen to bring my bag?” Susan asked. “I'd like to change clothes.”
She pretended not to notice his dexterous fingers as they brushed along her forearm. Grabbing the glass of tea as an excuse to move away from him, she took a big drink, choked, coughed, then managed a smile.
“In the car,” he said. “I'll get it.”
When he was gone, she sighed and laid her head back, her eyes closed. She was suddenly, unaccountably weary and mentally tired. Tired of fighting. Tired of being cool and in control. Tired of denying what she felt around this man. She wanted to quit worrying and simply live.
“Here you go.”
She looked at him, this tall man with magic hands, blue eyes and a beautiful smile. Taking a slow, calming breath, she stood. “Where can I change?”
Following at his heels, she observed the house as they walked through it. The living room was huge, with a vaulted ceiling, the wall facing the patio filled
with windows. The entryway, kitchen and a den with pocket doors flowed around it in an open floor plan made for entertaining.
The floors were polished natural stone tiles throughout, in colors ranging from tan to golden beige to pale brick-red. Inlaid oak strips outlined an Oriental rug, which in turn defined a seating arrangement in front of a fireplace faced with blue-hued stone interspersed with the tan and beige. There wasn't any other furniture.
Going down the hallway, she noted a library off to the left, a bedroom to the right. Neither had furniture. A second door to the right disclosed a bathroom. He indicated she should enter the third door to the right.
At the end of the corridor, she noticed double doors, both open. Inside them, she spotted the master suite that spanned the width of the house on that end. She got a glimpse of a broad bed and shades of blue and tan.
“Would you like the ten-cent tour?” he asked.
Startled, she realized she'd been standing there, staring at his bedroom and thinking aboutâ¦things.
“Uh, no. I'd better change.” But still she paused. “You haven't furnished your home here.”
He glanced at the empty room across the hall. “I'll let my wife do that. When I acquire one.”
“You sound as if you'll order a bride from a catalog. When you get ready to acquire one,” she
added, mocking his choice of words. “What if you fall madly in love before you're ready for the acquisition?”
His expression changed, becoming more guarded. “I expect love will grow from mutual interests and respect, much like my parents shared.”
She thought of her parents and the divorce that had taken place before she'd ever known of days when they'd been one family unit, supposedly happy. Suddenly, although she hadn't lived much during that time, she missed it.
Once, she'd believed passionate attraction was the beginning of true commitment. Michael obviously didn't. Depression darkened her spirits. Around this man, her emotions seemed to go awry.
“I thought attraction was the first key to romance and perhaps a lasting love,” she said, a question in her voice.
His eyes probed hers. “I admit there are feelings between a male and female, very intense ones. To put it bluntly, attraction usually starts from passion, which is a sexual need that has nothing to do with love.”
“I don't think there can be great passion without great feelings. Sex is a natural part of any attraction, but so is love.” Until that moment, she hadn't realized she felt so strongly on the subject.
His smile was fleeting. “You're a romantic,” he accused softly, a seriousness about him that intrigued
and alarmed her. “But then, your life has been built around romantic fairy tales.
Romeo and Juliet. Swan Lake.
Why are they all tragedies?”
“Not all. Some end happily.” Not sure where this was going, she wondered what had ever induced her to broach the subject. “I'll only be a second,” she said, taking her bag from him and practically running into the guest bedroom.
“The bathroom connects to this bedroom, if you want to take a shower. Warm water, not hot,” he advised. “Yell if you need anything.”
If she felt faint,
she interpreted his statement, resentment rising at her physical condition. “It isn't fair,” she muttered.
“It isn't,” he agreed, understanding in his eyes, “but it's the way life is. Some people get lemons and make lemonade.”
He hooked a finger under her chin and peered into her eyes. She flashed him a sarcastic smile. “So get over it and get on with it?” she asked.
“Maybe it's time for you to try a new course,” he suggested softly. “Maybe that's what your heart is telling you. I believe in listening to the body's messages.”
For a second she was swept into a maelstrom of hope and a vision of a future that encompassedâ¦what?
Home? Husband? Children?
Teaching? Gardening? Sewing?
For an awful second, she thought she would burst into tears. “I think I will take a shower, if you don't mind.”
His eyes darkened. “Not at all.”
Carrying the straw beach bag, she went into the room and closed the door. Here, the bedroom furniture was minimalâa single bed, a bureau, a small, rickety table with a mirror mounted on the wall over it.
The bathroom made up in elegance what the bedroom lacked, though. It was tiled with pink marble. No, granite, she realized as she peeled out of her swimsuit and robe and stepped into the huge tub-shower combination.
The granite covered the floor, walls and ceiling, making the room a beautiful grotto. Real ferns grew in brass pots beside a window.
The faucets were brass, flat and three inches wide so that the water cascaded from it in a waterfall. The showerheads, one at each end, were the same, but each had a regular spray attachment connected.
The tub was formed of the pink granite with tiny black flecks embedded in it. The twin sinks were black porcelain, as was the toilet, tucked into its own alcove.
Seeing a brush and comb on the counter, she wondered who stayed here with him, then recalled he had a niece.
Not that she cared in the least.
She found she did care, and it wasn't a good feeling. Jealousy wasn't something she recalled ever experiencing.
With a deep sigh, she washed and rinsed, then dried off on a pink bath sheet. Dressed in a shorts and T-shirt outfit, wearing her favorite espadrilles, she quickly dried her hair, put on lipstick and went to find her host.
“I'm ready to go home,” she announced, finding him on the patio again.
“I think we need to talk.”
“I'd rather not.” In those moments of weakness and panic at the pool, she'd decided to accede, but now she felt much better, her old self, really. The fear had gone.
He indicated the chair. “I poured you a fresh glass of tea. Sit a spell and relax,” he invited.
“I think I'd better go home. I've been taking a nap in the afternoon of late, on your advice to take it easy.”
“Good. The chairs recline. I usually take a nap out here myself. It's warm enough.”
She found she didn't really want to leave. Tension hummed along her nerves. She'd been lying again. It wasn't a nap that interested her. She wanted to stayâ¦with him.
Dropping her bag by the patio door, she joined
him. “Your view is wonderful. I didn't realize you could see so far from here.”
“The ridge is over fifty feet high. Around here, that's a mountain.”
His laughter flowed over her, deep and melodious, causing vibrations that disappeared into some hidden place inside her. She laughed, too.
For the moment, she felt young and happy and foolish. And she didn't care. If he touched her again, she wasn't going to run like a frightened antelope.
“You want a bowl of ice cream?” he asked.
She lazily shook her head and lowered the back of the chair down a couple of notches. While he went to the kitchen, she surveyed the land spread out before her like a tabletop, rolling and rougher to the west, but flat toward the east.
On Lake Maria, she could make out small sailing prams, powerboats pulling water-skiers and the marina on the distant shore. Over there was a swimming area and a place visitors could rent paddleboats and fishing dories.
From the larger lake, Mission Creek coursed merrily down to the dam put in by the town fathers, where it formed a small recreation lake and also supplied the area's drinking water. This dam had cut off the supply of water to the Wainwright ranch, but a pipeline had restored it.
All's well that ends well, she reminded herself. Except it hadn't. The Carsons and her family were
still enemies, her sister had married a Carson, and
was in the home of a man known to be friends with the Carsons.
Restlessness, of an unknown cause, poured over her like a sudden rain shower out of a clear sky that they sometimes got in the summer. She gazed moodily at the landscape again.
It was midafternoon now. The sun was drifting toward the west, casting longer and longer shadows on the grass under the mesquites and oaks east of the house. Pines dotted the slopes of the rolling hills and ridges on this side of the wide tableland.
She'd missed it. All the years she'd lived in Houston hadn't erased her ties to this land, this place where her ancestors had forged their homesteads.
Michael returned. Her heart sped up a bit. Smiling, she acknowledged the attraction. It had been a long time since she'd felt this kind of tension around a man.
“Bite?” he asked.
The cold spoon touched her lips. Opening her mouth, she met his gaze as she accepted the treat. He'd made a sundae with sliced bananas, pecans and fudge sauce over the ice cream. It was delicious. They practically licked the bowl.
“You have a sweet tooth,” she told him.
He admitted it with a nod. “Ice cream is my downfall. When I was a kid, we had a neighbor who
made the best homemade ice cream and fudge sauce I ever ate. She used to let me lick the pan after she poured the sauce. I've been hooked ever since.”
She envisioned him as a tall, lanky boy, one mostly ignored by his well-meaning older parents, but whose neighbor let him be a kid. It was a nice image.
“I'm surprised you Texans don't put jalapeÃ±os in your ice cream. I've found it in everything elseâpizzas, beans, slaw, corn bread. I had to get used to eating hot peppers in self-defense,” he complained.
“You weren't born in Houston?” For some reason, she'd assumed he was a native.
“No. Tennessee. Both my parents taught at a university there. I did my internship in Houston and decided to stay. There was nothing to go back home for.”
Although he spoke cheerfully, she detected loneliness behind the tone. It touched a chord in her, echoing her feeling of isolation of late. Rolling her head to the side, she studied him.
His blue eyes were framed in dark lashes that matched the black of his hair. His eyes and bright smile contrasted nicely with the tan of his face, caused, she knew, by rounds of golf with his friends and the swimming workouts he'd mentioned.
Rose said Matt and Flynt considered Michael an all-around good guy. Thinking of the dinner with the Carson brothers and their wives, she thought of how
it could be if she and Michael were a couple, if they married and settled here.
“What are you thinking?” he asked suddenly.
“About us,” she said truthfully.
He closed his eyes and muttered, “Damnation,” then he stood, bent and scooped her into his arms.
The next thing she knew she was ensconced in his lap, both of them in his chair. It felt perfectly natural. She slipped one arm behind his neck, the other across his chest and laid her head on his shoulder. Better.
For a long time they sat there like that, then he combed his fingers through her hair, toyed with a strand for a while, then ran his palm along her shoulder and arm.
“I love the way you feel,” he murmured, resting his cheek on her temple. “Strong and supple and smooth.”
“You're the same.”
“But not as soft,” he contradicted with a laugh.
“Hairier,” she added, and ran a hand under his polo shirt and gave a little tug.
He caught her hand, pulled it free and kissed the palm, then lingered to run his lips along each knuckle. His chest pressed hers as he inhaled then exhaled sharply.
She was aware of his hunger and her own, of the tension that spiraled around them in silken threads
of longing. She wondered how much of herself she was willing to share with this man.
For a second, worry arose at the thought of a serious involvement, then it simply vanished. At this moment, it just didn't matter.
“If I have the operation,” she began, then stopped. She tilted her head back on his arm. “Some people don't make it through surgery.”
His eyes met hers, open and candid and honest. He didn't deny the possibility she'd been about to voiceâthat
might not make it.
Taking a deep breath, she faced that possibility and the fact that she didn't want to die before knowing passion with him. If it was the last thing she ever had, then she wanted to grab it with both hands.
“I want to make love,” she said. “With you.”
He stroked her cheek with his long, supple fingers. “It's an idea I've been mulling over for the past eight days.”
“Since last Saturday when you nearly ran over me?” she teased, striving for a light note when she felt so sad deep inside, as if this truly was the end.
“It seems longer, doesn't it?”
“Sometimes people can share a lot in a short time. That makes it seem a lifetime.”
“It could be for me.”
He laid a finger over her lips. “Not with me as your doctor. I won't allow you to die.”
She believed him. At that moment, she did.