he ear-shattering wail of a cranky toddler startled Lauren awake. Flinching, she blinked herself to a blurry awareness of where she was and what had happened.
“Welcome back.” Sky was gazing down at her with eyes the color of Texas bluebonnets. Still groggy, Lauren pushed herself upright. They were no longer alone in the waiting room. An elderly man sat in the rocker with an open Bible across his knees. A tired-looking woman with a squirming two-year-old in her arms sat on the far side of the room, watching cartoons on the wall-mounted TV.
Lauren raked back damp tendrils of hair where her head had rested in the warm hollow of Sky's shoulder. “I can't believe I just drifted off like that. How long was I out?”
“Not long. A little less than an hour.”
“And no word yet?”
“If there was, we'd both have heard.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Don't worry. These things can take a while. Want some coffee?”
“Thanks. Cream, no sugar.”
He rose, walked away, and came back with two steaming insulated cups. Lauren took the one he handed her and sipped the hot brew, feeling the welcome jolt of caffeine. “I let Tori show me the Axelrod house today,” she said, deciding to tell him. “It would need some renovation, but it's not that bad, and the price is a bargain.”
“So you're really going to make the move?”
“I told you I would. But now it might have to wait. How can I leave my father after something like this?”
Sky's lips parted. Then he shook his head and took a sip of coffee, as if he'd thought better of what he was about to say.
“Tell me,” she challenged him. “I want to hear what you're thinking.”
He exhaled slowly. “All right, but you might not like it. Your father's not above using this episode to control you. If you can't walk away because you're afraid he'll shoot himself again, or overdose on pills and liquor, he'll have you right where he wants you.”
And what would you do then, Sky?
Lauren stared down into her cup, not daring to voice the question. Would Sky have the patience to wait for her? Would he be supportive, or would he throw up his hands in disgust and turn his back?
Before she could voice a reply, the double doors to the E.R. swung open and the doctor walked toward her. He was tall and bespectacled with a beakish nose, his expression telling her nothing.
“Your father's out of surgery, Miss Prescott,” he said. “We were able to remove the bullet and close the wound. He should make a full recovery. But for now, with so much alcohol in his system, we're giving him extra fluids and keeping a close eye on him.”
Lauren stood. “Is he awake? Can I see him?”
The doctor shook his head. “He'll be sleeping it off tonight. You might as well go home, get some rest, and come back in the morning. He should be alert by then. Meanwhile, don't worry. He'll be in good hands.”
“Thank you.” She turned to Sky as the doctor walked away.
“I guess you might as well take me home. Since you'll need to be working tomorrow, I can drive myself back here. That way I can stay as long as I need to.”
They crossed the parking lot in the twilight. Her fingers crept into his big, comforting palm. She felt his hand close around hers. Had things shifted between them? Could they go forward from here, or was he only being kind in her time of need?
Sky opened the door of the truck so she could climb in. Lauren settled back and fastened her seat belt as he went to the other side.
“Hungry?” He started the engine.
Lauren glanced down at her bloodstained shirt. “I can't go into a restaurant looking like this. But you must be starved. We could find a drive-through. Or, if you can wait that long, there's leftover pot roast in the fridge at home.”
“The pot roast sounds good.” He shot her a sidelong glance, and Lauren realized she'd just invited him in. Had he read more into her words than she'd meant?
there more? Her cheeks warmed in the darkness of the cab. What were the odds they both had the same idea?
The house was dark and silent when they arrived. Sky had driven in the back way, but there'd been no need for it. The news crews had gone. Whether they'd show up again tomorrow was anybody's guess.
“Don't worry about playing hostess,” Sky said. “I'm a great hand at rustling up supper with a microwave. You must be anxious to get out of those clothes.”
“Thanks. And yes, I am,” Lauren said, thinking she'd throw out everything but her boots. “While I'm at it, I could use a shower. Don't wait for me if you're hungry.”
“Take your time.” He'd opened the fridge and was perusing the shelves. “While I'm thinking about it, where are the keys to those two cars out front? I'll move them around to the back, in case the sharks start gathering before you're ready to leave tomorrow.”
“Thanks, they'reâoh.” A groan escaped Lauren's lips as she remembered. “I left my purse in the den. The keys to the Corvette are in it. And the spare keys to Dad's Cadillac are in the desk. I'm sorryâsuch an awful mess in there.”
“Don't worry about it. For what it's worth, I have an old high school buddy who runs a cleaning business. He specializes in disasters and he's smart enough to be discreet.”
“I saw a gangster movie where Harvey Keitel did something like that. Is it that kind of cleaning business?”
His grin flashed. “Go,” he said.
By the time Lauren came back downstairs, Sky had moved the cars and warmed the pot roast. His eyes drank her in as she entered the kitchen, dressed in black leggings and a long, white tee that outlined just enough to let him know she had nothing on underneath. With her damp hair framing her fresh-scrubbed face, she took his breath away.
An aching need uncoiled in the depths of his body. It was all he could do to keep from yanking her into his arms and taking her right there in the kitchen. But she'd been through a hell of a time today, seeing her father almost kill himself before her eyes. He couldn't assume that an invitation to supper meant anything more than what it was.
“Oh, you set the table,” she said, eyeing the mismatched plates and cutlery he'd managed to find in the cupboard.
“I guessed you might be hungry, too,” he said. “Sorry, I looked around for candles and wine, but no luck there.”
An impish smile lit her coppery eyes. “I don't know about candles, but I'll be right back. She darted into the dining room. A light flickered on, and Sky heard the sound of rummaging. A moment later she was back with a dark wine bottle, two goblets, and a corkscrew.
“Someone who wanted a big favor gave this to my father,” she said, handing him the bottle. “You can do the honors.”
Sky glanced at writing on the label.
La Romanee Bochard Pere et Fils, 1988.
He couldn't understand a word of French, but he got the general meaningâthe wine was very, very expensive.
“Lauren, are you sureâ?”
She thrust the corkscrew into his hand. “Go for it. Daddy's a hard-liquor man. He'd just regift it to somebody else.”
They ate their warmed-over pot roast and vegetables on mismatched plates and drank the vintage French wine from crystal goblets. The wine had a nice earthiness to it, but Sky had to confess that, to him, it didn't taste much different from the $20 California muscatel they sold at Shop Mart.
Lauren's laughter was like the forgotten sound of rain. “That's what I like about you. No pretensions whatsoever.”
“As long as you like me, I guess that's all that counts.” He leaned back from his empty plate, studying her across the table. “Will you be all right?” he asked her.
“Don't worry about me. If I survived Mike's suicide, I can survive this.” She took a sip of wine. “I never told you the story behind that, did I?”
“You only told me he drowned. If you feel like telling me the rest, I'm ready to listen.”
She poured a splash of wine into her glass. “Mike was an only son, from a long line of achievers. His father was a doctor. His uncle was the lieutenant governor of Maryland. His cousins . . .” She shrugged. “All superstars. You can imagine the pressure. It finally got to him. He started drinking, missing his classes. When he flunked out of law school, it was like he'd betrayed his whole family. He couldn't handle it. I got the call after the police found his body in the river.”
“He had you, and he still drowned himself. That's a hard one to believe.”
Lauren drained her glass and set it on the table. “I guess that's one reason it hurt so much. Having me and being loved wasn't enough to keep him alive. I'd already bought my wedding dress. I donated it to charity and went off the deep end for a whileâas you know. But, yes.” A shadow crossed her beautiful face. “I'm a big girl. I'll be all right.”
“It's getting late. I know you're tired.” He rose. “If you want to turn in, I can clear the table and load the dishwasher before I go.” There it was. Sky had laid down his cards. The call was hers to make. When there'd been nothing but sex between them, it would've been easy just to reach out and grab her. Now, with feelings involved, everything had become more complicated.
“We needn't bother,” she said. “Miguel will be here in the morning. He's used to cleaning up when he comes in, and he'll enjoy what's left of the wine.”
“You might want to lock the den so he won't walk in on a surprise.” Sky turned toward the back door, then turned to look at her. “I'll talk to my cleaner friend. Is it okay if I give him your number?”
“Yes, of course. . . .” She reached for the wall switch, then turned out the kitchen light.
He sensed her hesitation but knew he mustn't push her. Not tonight. Steeling himself against the raw burn of desire, he took a step toward the door.
He turned at the cry of his name. Back-lit from the hall, she stood with one arm reaching out to him. Even from the far side of the room, he could tell she was trembling.
Two long strides carried him across the floor. He caught her in his arms, molding her body against his. Through the thin shirt he could feel every curve of her, the smallness of her bones, the ripe tautness of her little rump, the firm breasts that seemed fashioned to fit his cupped palms.
Bending, he found her mouth. With a whimper she circled his neck with her arms, pulling him down, binding him close, as if she needed to keep him from leaving her.
His need was a bonfire, but he kissed her with a tenderness that astonished even him. Lauren could have died today when she flew across that desk to wrestle her father for the gun. Sky was just beginning to realize what he might have lost and how precious she was.
“Don't go, Sky,” she murmured. “Stay with me. I don't want to be alone tonight.”
He scooped her up in his arms and carried her into the hall. “Show me the way,” he said.
In her room he shed his clothes and slipped naked into bed beside her. She came to him, nestling like a child in the circle of his arms. Her lips skimmed his nipples as she pressed her face against his chest.
“I should have showered,” he said. “I probably smell like a stable.”
“No,” she whispered. “One thing I love best about you is the way you smellâlike sun and wind and, yes, horses. I love having your scent all around me. It makes me feel safe. And tonight safe is how I want to feel.”
He cradled her close, kissing her hair, her closed eyelids, her willing mouth. She'd stripped off her leggings and was deliciously bare below the hem of her shirt. The awareness sent a jolt to his sex, which had sprung to full readiness. But even then, he couldn't let himself forget what she'd suffered today. “We don't have toâ” he began, but she stopped him with a finger to his lips.
“Shut up and make love to me, Sky Fletcher,” she muttered.
With a rough laugh, he rolled her onto her back and lost himself in her wild, sensual sweetness.
Afterward Sky lay awake in the dark, his arm curled protectively over her sleeping body. He'd bedded his share of women, but never before had he felt as if he'd just made love. It was an experience he wanted to repeat again and again, and only with Lauren.
But making love to her was one thingâoffering himself to her as a suitable husband and a father to her children was something else. The last thing he wanted was for this lovely, well-born woman to be ashamed of the man she'd married. Before he'd let that happen, he would walk away and never look back.
A heavy decision hung over himâone he couldn't resolve until he'd found Jasper and learned all there was to know about his beginnings.