Authors: Linda Conrad
But his mother was unduly worried about his isolation and absentmindedness. And he knew she thought Annie could bring him back to the world of the living.
In his opinion, Annie was
“Please come with me, Nick,” Annie said as she looked up at him with those spectacular emerald eyes, flashing in both vivid color and obvious heat.
He had never seen a woman with such vibrance and fire. It fascinated him how different from Christina she was. Of how different Annie was from any woman in his experience.
But he couldn't let her touch him. Not while he was
so vulnerable today. He had to find a way to push her away, make her leave him alone.
“All right. You go ahead. I'll be right behind you,” he said in his most demanding voice.
She screwed up her wide, full mouth in a frown for a second. But then she swung around and took a couple of steps toward the house before turning back to make sure he was following.
He started out, but soon realized that he'd made a huge mistake. He should've taken the lead. That way he wouldn't be stuck walking behind her and admiring the way she looked as she swung her hips in those sexy, too-short white shorts.
Even in the dull light of the prestorm sky, Annie was radiant and energetic enough to make him forget his vows of celibacy since his wife's death. She made him think instead of how he would dearly love to run his fingers through that mass of fiery red curls. Or to place his lips against the adorable rusty freckles that spattered across her nose like paint spills.
Her energy snapped about her as if she were static electricity during a thunderstorm. He found himself nearly drooling at the thought of capturing her to him and tasting all that vividness.
Instead, he fisted his hands and stuck them in his pockets. Concentrating on what hurricane preparations might be left to attend to and on how ferocious the storm might actually become, he vowed to keep his growing lust a secret.
He'd always thought that sex was a sacred trust. One best shared only once in a lifetime and mostly for procreation. Fidelity and honor meant more than mere bod
ily urges. And he would not betray Christina's memory by jumping the first woman that had turned him on since her death.
Annie stirred the stockpot on the range as she heard the first tinkling sounds of rain against the shuttered windows. Before he left for the mainland, the chef had given her instructions for keeping herself and Nick fed during the storm and its aftermath.
The freezer was stocked with things that could be defrosted and heated up on the outdoor barbeque grill after the storm. She was making a big pot of her mother's Irish stew that could be reheated on a small propane gas stove during the storm if the island's electricity went out.
Annie could hear Nick in the other parts of house as he rummaged around, locating kerosene lamps, flashlights and candles. She didn't worry about his physical ability to move through the house anymore. Not like she had when she'd first come and he'd been so unsteady on his injured knee.
It had taken all her knowledge of anatomic kinesiology and experience with physical conditioning in people with limited mobility to help him reestablish the strength in his legs. And then, of course, there had been the whole problem of motivation. Every time she'd pushed him a little further than the time before, he'd blazed with anger and backed away from her, almost as if her touch had somehow burned him.
Lately, the tension in the air between them was thick enough to make her more nervous than she liked to admit.
“Would you care to join me in a cup of tea?”
The sound of his voice startled her and she dropped the spoon into the stew pot. “Darn. You surprised me. Don't sneak up on me like that.”
He reached for a pair of tongs from the round carousel that held kitchen utensils. “Sorry.” Dipping the tongs in the stew, he retrieved the spoon, wiped it off with a towel and handed it back to her with a polite bow. “Here you are,
No harm done.”
“Pretty slick, Nick, and how very European of you. I didn't realize you were so familiar with a kitchen. I just imagined you'd always had a chef and would barely be able to find the kitchen, let alone know where things were kept in one.”
“Don't tell anyone,” he said with a frown. “I've been sneaking into the kitchen for most of my life. Ever since I found out that's where the sweets are kept.”
Annie giggled, put the lid back on the pot and turned the heat down under it. “If you're serious about making tea, I'd love some.”
“Certainly,” he said with a formal air. He began opening jars and putting fresh water into the tea kettle.
She stood aside to watch him work and waited, she supposed, for him to drop something or in some other way need her help. Which she knew would not make him happy.
Sure enough, her hovering angered him. “Sit down. This will take a few minutes.” The darn man intimidated her, but she couldn't let him know that.
She did as he asked and sat at the narrow kitchen table, but the nervous energy spilled off her like rapids over a waterfall. “I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. I'm just not used to sitting while someone else
works. I really appreciate you letting me stay here with you through the storm. I never would've been able to stand being in the U.S. not knowing if you were okay.”
Her words gushed out. “I mean, I've never been through a hurricane before. Is it going to be terrifying? I think we're all set, don't you? Should I be doing something?”
“Calm down.” He turned away from the counter. “You're becoming hysterical. Everything will be fine, trust me,” he said with a rare smile.
There it was again. Lately whenever he smiled, an odd feeling that a big change was coming flew through her mind and heart. She'd been having these mystical sensory imaginings for daysâno maybe it was weeks now.
It was something her mother would no doubt call Irish intuition. Fate appeared to be poised for stepping in and stirring its own pot of mischief.
But Annie was sure whatever it was couldn't be connected to the impending storm. The hurricane had been planned for and watched over for days. No, this would be some major change for her and Nick personally, she felt it in her bones.
Hw was much healthier now than when she'd first arrived on the island and better able to take care of himself. Maybe he was considering letting her go. That wouldn't be too much of a shock, even though it would make her sad to have to leave him. But she'd known all along that this was not a permanent assignment.
“Do you always talk so fast when you're nervous?”
“Yes. I guess I do.” She watched as he moved smoothly around the stainless steel kitchen, putting together tea and water and then setting china cups on the table.
The man was going to use real china for their casual tea. Wouldn't Ma think that was something?
He set the silver teapot down to steep on a little cart next to the table, and then he pulled out a chair and sat down beside her. “There's no need to be worried about the storm, Annie. I've been through several hurricanes. Proper preparation is the key. Most storms are not direct hits and end up just being long, boring ordeals.”
She wasn't nervous about the storm. If she was worried about anything, it was the fantasies she'd been having lately about the man who was her boss and the possibility that soon she might never be able to see him again.
Sitting next to him now was making her thighs tingle. And wasn't that an odd thing?
“Would you like biscuits with your tea?” he asked.
She shook her head and tried a half smile. He was close enough that she was catching his scent. The smell of salt spray, a whiff of some expensive aftershave and the musk of a light sheen of sweat lingered in the air and made her feel warm and itchy. There was something wild in that combination that she didn't quite recognize, but today it was definitely doing strange things to her body.
“You know why I didn't want you to stay here on the island during the storm?” he asked as he poured the tea.
“You weren't worried about my safety.”
“No. I'd planned to ask you and the rest of the staff to leave me and go down to the village today so I could be alone in the house,” he said. “The storm put a crimp in my plans.”
“You wanted to be alone today?” She knew this was
a special day for him. But if it had been her, trying to get through the anniversary of the death of a loved one, she would've wanted all her family and friends around for support.
He tilted his chin with a sharp nod. “It's just a little ritual of honor that I began last year that helps me bid Christina goodbye again. A commemoration I suppose you'd call it.”
“Will that be all ruined now?”
Nick studied her for a moment. “Not if I can help it. Since you have insisted on staying on the island, I want you to spend the balance of the night in your suite alone. You should be able to find things to occupy your time there while I'm in my office.”
He was such an annoying prickly loner of a man. “I guess that would be okay,” she said through gritted teeth. “As long as you promise to call me if you need anything.”
On the other hand, who could complain about being alone in that fabulous suite with her CD player and the luxury of being able to read her books without being interrupted? It had been a dream of hers since she'd been a little girl.
Not that she hadn't loved growing up in a houseful of kids, but family sometimes became so overwhelming.
“Just try to sleep through the storm, Annie. It's the easiest way. The whole affair is usually so dull.”
She would never mention it to him, but nothing could ever be dull while he was around. He had created a gray world for himself here, but her world had been full of nothing but exciting living color ever since the day they'd first met.
fter dinner, Annie cleared the dishes, put the pans into the sink and ran water over them. “Would you like coffee with your dessert?”
“Yes, thanks,” Nick answered as he stood and backed away from the kitchen table. “Is there something I can do to help?” He needed to get this damn meal over with so he could be alone.
She laughed and the sound lingered in the air, stirring his blood as if she were a real-life wizard with a magic wand. “You volunteering to do the dishes, Nick? I can just see that now. It would be almost as odd as seeing you eating dinner in the kitchen with me has been.”
“Well, perhaps I might be slightly too fumble-fingered to actually wash. But I feel competent enough to dry the dishes if you wish.”
He'd actually liked eating in the kitchen at the same
table with her. It had been strangely cozy and warm. And as much as he wanted to be alone, prolonging the intimacy for just a little longer might not be so terrible.
Besides, drying dishes would give him something to do with his hands as he tried to get his needs under control.
Using the back of her suds covered hand, Annie flipped the hair back off her shoulder. “I'm going to let them soak. Until youâ¦retire for the duration of the storm. Just let me set the coffeepot up, then I'll get the lime custard pie out of the refrigerator and flame the meringue.”
“You know how to do that?”
She tsked at him. “I've been taking cooking lessons from your French chef. I even wrote down the instructions.”
“I can't imagine that you'd want lessons in cooking,” he said unwarily as he finished the coffee. “Didn't you tell me that you came from a big Irish family? I thoughtâ¦”
“What?” she interrupted as she stood still and glared at him. “That poor kids from the other side of the tracks had better learn to feed themselves? Or maybe that all Irishmen ate nothing but boiled potatoes and wouldn't be interested in French cooking.”
“No, not at all. I didn't meanâ¦” Whatever he'd said was the wrong thing and he didn't know how to make it right.
Annie shook her head and then smiled. “Never mind. I overreacted. Sorry. Sit down and I'll start the show.”
She lit the small propane torch, ran the flame over the white fluffy top of the pie and the smell of burnt
sugar suddenly filled the air. “Oh, by all the saints, how I love the way that smells,” she moaned.
And oh how he loved the way she had closed her eyes and groaned in pleasure. It was a sensual, earthy sound that put stinging darts of desire right down his spine.
But he desperately needed to stop listening and lookingâ¦stop everything when it came to her. This was all wrong. He simply could not sit here lusting after her. For him to even promote their burgeoning friendship would be dishonorable.
His feelings toward her ran too strong. If there was one thing he had learned in his life, it was that friendships didn't last. And when they were ripped away, a huge part of your soul went with them.
No, friendship and love were illusions. He had never in his life been in love and didn't even have the foggiest idea what that emotion would be like. His one and only friendship had been with Christina and that had obviously worked out in the worst possible way.
So Nick was determined to keep his distance from Annie. He had even come to the conclusion that after the hurricane, he would be forced to let her go. Before it was too late.
When the dessert was perfectly browned, Annie poured the coffee and sat down at the table with him. Her eyes blazed as she lifted the fork and drew hot sugar and cold custard into her mouth.
“This is so decadent. My mother would call this combination of tastes a sin.”
Only one of the many ways of putting yourself in hell, Nick thought. He had to get her talking. Sitting close and watching her lick the sugar off her lips was
slowly but very surely sending him straight to the devil.
“Tell me about your mother,” he said as he pushed his half-eaten dessert aside. “Tell me about your whole family.”
She looked up at him with wide eyes. “Really? There's a gazillion of them. It might take some time.”
“A gazillion?” he asked with a chuckle. “How many is that exactly?”
“Well, I've told you that I have three brothers and three sistersâ¦all older. My mother is one of ten children, and my father is the youngest of thirteen. And I have nine nieces and nephews and sixty cousinsâso far.”
“I guess that does qualify as a gazillion. I was an only child. I have a couple of cousins that live in the U.S., but I can't really imagine having as much family as you. Do you all live near each other in Boston?”
“Mostly,” she said as she pushed her empty plate aside and took a sip of coffee. “Two of my cousins joined the army and went off for a while. But when their hitches were up, they came right back home to settle down.
“I do have one daring uncle who took his family back to the homeland to live,” she continued. “Claimed he could only breathe the air if he was in Ireland.”
Nick caught the sour facial expression. “Interesting. Ever give much thought to moving to Ireland yourself?”
“Me? No. It would be too much like homeâeveryone knows everyone else's business and has to put their two cents worth into it.”
“Your family are gossips?”
“It's more like they all just read each other's mindsâ¦and then don't like what they see and insist on correcting the other person's shortcomings. My mother is the worst of the lot.” She said the last with a twinkle in her eyes.
“My mother tends to be a busybody, too.”
mother is a saint! You have no idea what a professional âstick-her-nose-in' can be like.”
He laughed, maybe harder than he had in years. Maybe ever. Annie was a true gem. A tempting emerald set in a ruby cluster, and he was beginning to covet her more than he shouldâmuch more than he could stand at the moment.
“Tell me about what it was like to grow up with so many brothers and sisters,” he said quickly when his thoughts strayed off the topic again.
She shrugged and sighed. “There's good things and bad about it.”
“Tell me something good.”
“You are never lonely.”
“Well, that sounds nice. Now tell me something bad.”
“You are never lonely,” she said with a wicked grin.
Nick smiled but Annie could see shadows behind his eyes. She knew he was lonely. He'd locked himself up here on his island and had spent so many hours alone since his wife had died that it was a small wonder he still knew how to speak to other human beings at all.
He did speak to her, though. He spoke straight to her heartâwith words or without. She could feel his pain in her chest right now.
But she knew she wouldn't be the one to break the
spell on him. What he needed was some sophisticated blond princess, not a scraggly redheaded Irish kid from the poor side of town.
“Why do you spend all your time alone, Nick?” she asked brazenly, trying to break his bad mood. “You're like a prince who's been put under a spell. It seems you should have friendsâ¦and girlfriends. I can't understand why you don't.”
“My friendâ¦the one woman who was my only girlfriend and my wifeâ¦died,” he said softly. “It would dishonor her memory if Iâ¦” He stopped and looked guilt-stricken.
“You don't have to tell me, Nick. I really don't need to understand. It's your life.” She watched the deep blue in his eyes turn stormy. “But I'm a good listener in case you need one.”
He hung his head and silently stared down into his coffee cup.
“My grandmother is a very great lady,” Annie hurriedly told him with a small laugh. “And really old. She always says that it's good to talk about people who have gone on to heaven before us. Talking about them keeps their memories fresh and alive. Telling stories about lost loved ones is a way to see them clearly in your mind and to bring them closer to your heart again.”
Nick gave her a small shake of his head but didn't look up or make a sound.
“Of course, Gran doesn't just tell stories about family and friends,” Annie added. “Once she starts the stories, she goes on to tell the ones she learned in her childhood in Ireland. Those are wonderful stories about mysticism and magicâelves and sorcerers. I couldâ¦”
“I met a woman with magic,” Nick interrupted. “It was in New Orleans six months ago right before I hired you.”
Annie silently gave a sigh of relief. He was actually talking again. Thank heaven.
“She was an old gypsy and she gave me a book,” he added with a scowl.
Nick nodded once and his eyes became glazed. “It was the oddest thing. She gave me this obviously expensive and antique book and said it was my destiny. But then she disappeared before she told me why.”
“What kind of a book?”
“The cover says it's the original Grimm's stories.”
“The fairy tales?”
“I suppose so.”
“But you haven't opened it?”
“No. I didn't think that fairy tales were my kind of reading material.” He'd said that softly, almost wistfully, and it made Annie more than a little curious.
Interestingâand completely confusing. “So how do you know this old gypsy woman had magic?”
“Iâ¦I'm not sure. I just felt it. I think the book is magic, too.”
“But you haven't read it yet?”
“You may read it if you want. I'll let you see it sometime.”
He was somehow nervous about the magic, she thought with a sudden insight. But considering her background,
wasn't afraid of gypsies or magic. Just curious.
Nick had actually told her about something impor
tant to him, though. Annie thought that might be some kind of breakthrough, so she tried a friendly push to keep him talking.
“I'd rather hear your story than read one,” she told him. “Tell me about Christina. Talk about how you two met.” She'd put her hand on his forearm to let him feel how much she cared, but the electric shock she felt when she'd touched his skin made her draw the hand back in a hurry.
Annie got up and began to casually clear their dessert dishes with feigned indifference. She knew she was probably being pushy with a man who was her boss, and she didn't want this to seem like an interrogation. But he needed to talk.
And she needed to get over whatever these odd feelings were toward him. Even though he was sometimes infuriating, he was a nice man and obviously hurting. And she just wanted to helpânot jump him.
“Umâ¦well, Christina's father and my father were old friendsâmore business partners than friends, I guess you would say. My father does not cultivate friends that serve no purpose.” He'd said that with a rather strangled sound in his voice, but Annie had her back to him and couldn't see his expression.
She let him talk while she busied herself at the sink.
“Anyway, Christina and I knew each other all of our lives,” he said quietly. “When I was old enough to leave Europe for the United States to attend university preparatory school, Father informed me that our families would be well served if the two of us were joined.”
He took a deep breath, and it was all Annie could do not to turn around to see his face. “I understood his point completely and recognized my obligation,” he began
again. “And spoke to Christina about our future so that we would have an understanding before I left Alsaca.”
That did it. Annie spun around. “You became engaged as teenagers? Just like that?”
He looked up at her with slight confusion in his eyes. “Yes, of course. I know that isn't the way it's done in the United States, but in Europe it's quite common for two prominent families to join like that.”
“But what about love?”
“Christina and I had a close relationship. We had always been friends. It was just natural.”
Natural, maybe, Annie thought. But definitely not romantic. She sighed softly. What about the magic? But she managed to kept her mouth shut.
Nick got up and moved to the sink to stand beside her. He picked up a towel. “If you've changed your mind about washing the dishes now, may I help?”
Annie looked down at the sink and realized she'd been washing and stacking the dishes while she listened to him talk. “I guess so. If you really want to.”
“Yes. The time goes by faster if you stay busy.”
How right he was. Annie had learned that lesson early in a home where too much time on your hands only brought more teasing from older siblings.
“So how long were you two married?” she asked as she handed him a dish.
“We celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary right beforeâ¦”
Oops. “Four years?” she broke in hurriedly. “Boy, that's so short a time. But you didn't have any kids?”
“No.” The answer came slowly, almost as if it pained him just to admit it.
Annie figured she'd managed to make one more mistake with her big, fat mouth. But never let it be said that she knew when to just shut up.
“I'll bet you two were so busy with your lives and being newlyweds that you didn't want children to intrude on your happiness. Kids can be a real pain.”
“On the contrary, Christinaâ¦weâ¦wanted very badly to have a child. The doctors told us it would be impossible for either one of us to have a natural child of our own.”
He finished drying a plate and carefully put it aside. “And before you ask, Annie” he added wryly. “I suggested that we adopt. But Christina could neverâ¦I think the American saying is âcome to grips with the idea.'”
“I'm sorry. That must've been difficult.”
“Christinaâ¦ Well, she was devastated. But it spurred her into planning for the creation of this marine mammal research center. It was a project that had been very dear to her for many years.”