Authors: Marie Ferrarella
“Oh, low blow.” She grinned, and somehow the storm stepped back a few feet away from them. “I like that. You’re beginning to show promise.”
The look in her eyes warmed him.
The crack of thunder made Traci jump back to her feet. “I think it’s time to take this show on
the road before there isn’t a road to take it on.” But even as she said it, Traci found herself not wanting to leave just yet. As if, once she walked out the door, she’d be closing a chapter of her life forever.
It was a silly thought, but she couldn’t shake it.
“You might be right,” Morgan agreed and then grinned at her. “I guess there has to be a first time for everything.”
“Just because I said I liked that low blow doesn’t mean you should get carried away. A little sarcasm is a good thing, but there is such a thing as overkill.”
“You ought to know,” he murmured. There was humor in her eyes and he was drawn to it.
Every inclination directed her toward the door and the road beyond. She was right in wanting to leave before the road became impassable. And yet something—she wasn’t sure just what—was telling her to linger a little longer. Linger despite common sense and a whining dog to the contrary.
She supposed there was no harm in giving in for a couple more minutes. Traci pretended to look around for her purse, stalling.
“You never told me—why are your parents selling the house now?”
She would have thought that was something they would have done during that low period they’d experienced, not now, when, according to her mother, everything was going so well for
them. Jim Brigham’s company had not only regained its former ground but grown beyond it.
Morgan paused, looking for the right words to frame his answer. “They want to be free to travel around in, to put it my mother’s way, ‘the sunset of their years.’“ He shrugged, looking around as if he hadn’t done so a dozen times already before she’d arrived. “My guess is that the house was beginning to need too many things—”
“Like good storm windows?” There was a definite chill in the air that seemed to be coming from outside despite the fact that everything appeared to be locked up tight.
He’d noticed the draft earlier; he nodded. “And other things.” He was warming to his explanation. “They were beginning to think of it as a burden, so they asked me to sell it for them.”
She could guess at the practical reasons behind it, but she wasn’t all that crazy about practicality. No matter how much Daniel swore by it, she thought suddenly. The unexpected thought unnerved her.
“Seems a shame to let it go.”
He studied her closely. “Why? It’s falling apart.”
She sniffed her contempt of his view. “You
only see that.”
Morgan set his jaw hard and folded his arms before him. “What do you see?”
Her expression softened as if she were looking beyond the walls. “Memories.” Habit as ingrained as breathing had him challenging
her. “I don’t need a building to see that. Memories are in your head and your heart and, occasionally, in an album.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him. “Why, Morgan, that’s positively poetic.”
Morgan knew better than to take her comment at face value. He waited for a punch line. She wasn’t about to disappoint him.
“Limited,” she added airily, “but poetic.”
He knew he could count on Traci. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why limited?”
She glanced toward the fireplace in the living room and wished for a fire. It only reminded her that she really should be leaving.
“Because if we followed your way of thinking, no one would have ever bothered with preserving historic landmarks.”
He couldn’t help laughing at the comparison. “This house is hardly a historic landmark.”
The man was hopeless. “No, not to the world. But to those of us who spent a lot of time here.” She stopped and looked at him. “You don’t feel anything, do you?”
“Confused,” he volunteered. “Does that count?”
Traci laughed as she hit his chest playfully with the flat of her hand. “No, that doesn’t—”
The next thing she knew, Jeremiah was up and growling at Morgan as fiercely as if he’d just uncovered an entire battalion of enemy soldiers—or cats.
Traci made a grab for the dog’s collar a second
before he reared at Morgan. Teeth snapped with a menacing finality.
Morgan took a step back uneasily. “What’s his problem?”
“I guess Jeremiah thought we were fighting and he was coming to my rescue.”
Those teeth really did look large close up. And lethal. So much for thinking the dog a wimp. “Better tether him if you and Daniel ever argue.”
Traci stroked Jeremiah until the dog calmed down again. With a tentative yawn, he lay down at her feet. “We don’t argue.”
Morgan laughed out loud and Traci looked at him accusingly.
“Oh, come on, Traci. This is me. I know you. You’d argue with God.”
She stuck by her statement. It was the truth. “Daniel and I don’t argue.”
As she said them, her own words made her think. Why
they argue? Normal people argued. She more than most, although she wasn’t about to admit that point to Morgan.
He looked at her closely. “You’re really serious.” True concern nudged him on. And maybe just a little bit of hope. “Traci, I was only kidding earlier, but maybe you should really think about this. He obviously can’t be the one for you. You need passion in your life, zest. The kind of man who can make you argue. A man who can periodically take you and shake you up—and you him.”
Realizing he was saying a hell of a lot more
than he intended to, Morgan abruptly stopped talking.
He wasn’t telling her anything she hadn’t thought herself, in the wee hours of the morning when the world was its blackest and doubts loomed their largest. The fact that she agreed, however, wouldn’t have stopped her from taking umbrage at his words.
What stopped her was the look in Morgan’s eyes. He wasn’t baiting her, wasn’t trying to arouse her ire. He was serious.
As if he cared.
The way she had cared when she had thought of Morgan throwing away his life on someone like Cynthia. It gave her pause and momentarily took away her tongue.
When she found it, she spoke quietly. “He’s a good man, Morgan.”
Morgan wasn’t quite sure exactly how he had gotten in so close to her, he only knew that, somehow, they were standing almost toe-to-toe and the distance was rapidly shrinking, even though neither one of them was moving a muscle.
“So’s the pope. You’re not marrying him.”
A half smile curved her full mouth. “No, he didn’t ask.”
Her answer told him more than she realized. “So, you are marrying Daniel?”
She thought that one over carefully. Slowly, she nodded. “I think so.”
Morgan resisted believing her. Because he didn’t think that in her heart she believed herself.
“That doesn’t sound like the Traci I know. The one who runs headlong into things without thinking.”
No, it didn’t.
She forced a smile to her lips. “Maybe I’ve grown up.”
He remained unconvinced. “I don’t think so. Not you. Not like this.”
She lifted her chin, suddenly feeling very uneasy, as if the ground beneath her feet were liquefying. But that was impossible. That happened only during an earthquake, and they didn’t get earthquakes out here.
Like the one swirling around her now.
“What would you know about it?” she challenged, digging for some of her customary bravado. “You haven’t seen me in, what, eight years?”
“Nine,” he corrected softly.
Very lightly, he feathered his fingers along her face. He couldn’t seem to help himself. Nor could he help this feeling that was taking hold of him against his will.
against his will, wasn’t it?
“And I know.” He smiled into her eyes, quieting her protest, as if anything earthly actually could. “I read your strip.”
“I already told you, Morgan. All that’s exaggerated.” The words were supposed to be shouted. But they merely dripped from her lips like a faucet that wasn’t quite turned off.
“Yes, I know.” His face, his lips, drew closer. “But so are you.”
Something was twisting inside her stomach. “Morgan?” she whispered.
“Hmm?” She seemed to be all around him, invading his senses like a virus.
She ran the tip of her tongue over her parched lips. “You’re standing too close.”
He cupped her cheek. “No, I’m not. I can’t kiss you from across the room.”
“Oh.” Slowly, she nodded her head, as if in a trance. And maybe, just maybe, she was in one. Otherwise, she’d be running for her life. Because what she was feeling was scaring her. “Good reason.” Her throat had never felt so dry in her whole life. As dry as the world outside the window was wet.
And then his lips touched hers and the world outside might as well have existed on another planet.
Because she certainly did.
he heard them.
She actually heard them. Bells. Banjos. And maybe even a sousaphone thrown in for good measure. They were all there, an entire symphony full of them. Along with music she couldn’t place
and a rush of fire that threatened to consume everything in its path.
Her, first of all.
She’d seen the kiss coming. But what she hadn’t foreseen was what could come after. Nothing could have prepared her for that.
Caught completely off guard, Traci had no defenses against the feeling that swept over her with the speed of a flame eating its way up a narrow line of gunpowder. And because her head was spinning around like a carousel at warp speed, she had no desire to offer any, either.
Breathless, intoxicated, Traci allowed herself to be taken away by the feeling. To savor it, to revel in it. Most of all, to be awed by it.
It was almost like when Rory kissed her. Almost but not quite.
This was different.
Her fingers tightened on Morgan’s shoulders as she rose on her toes to surrender completely to the sensation. It was absolutely incredible.
Her name throbbed in Morgan’s mind as bewildering, demanding sensations throbbed in other parts of his body.
How a woman who had been as irritating as scratchy long winter underwear for more than a decade of his life, who was damn irritating
could possibly inspire this rush he was feeling—
this bone melting, mind numbing reaction that made him want to plunge himself into the kiss, into her, and never come up for air—was completely beyond him.
He couldn’t begin to fathom it.
Naw, couldn’t be.
And yet, here she was, in his arms, sealed to his mouth, sucking out life forces from him with a speed that had Morgan reeling. And wanting more. A hell of a lot more.
The very thought that he wanted to make love with her sobered him even as it threatened to send him over the edge.
Shaken, dazed and more confused than he’d possibly ever been in his life, Morgan drew away from her. But as if some part of him refused to let go, he found himself still holding on to her arms.
Morgan’s eyes narrowed as he studied her face. Yes, it was Traci. No doubt about it. What was in doubt, though, was his sanity. So much the more because part of him, against all odds, had suspected this all along.
Traci swallowed. It didn’t help. Her throat felt dry, scratchy. She was aware of everything around her. She could have even sworn that she could feel her hair growing.
“Were you trying to prove a point?” The question came out in a low whisper. Anything louder and she knew her voice would crack. Or even give
out completely. And when had it gotten so damn hot in here? She blew out a breath. Her bangs fluttered against her damp forehead.
Pulses throughout Morgan’s body scrambled to reclaim positions. He cleared his throat. “I don’t know, was I?”
If he had been, it was completely lost on him. As were his bearings and, just possibly, his name, rank and serial number.
Very slowly, the world came back into focus for Traci. This was ridiculous. She couldn’t be having this kind of a reaction to Morgan. Not
They were friendly enemies, competitors, maybe even fond of each other, but nothing more.
But if that was true, how the hell had he managed to evoke this wild, erotic tune that was even now still ricocheting in her brain?
“What’s the matter?” he asked. She had an odd expression on her face. Did she feel as disoriented as he did? It would help if she did. Not a hell of a whole lot, but some.
Traci slowly shook her head before answering, trying to buy herself a little more time.
“Nothing,” she mumbled. Then her eyes looked up at him, wide with wonder. She had to say it. “You never kissed me before.”
He would have, he thought, if he’d known that kissing her could pack such a wallop. But admitting it would put him at a disadvantage. “It never came up.”
She could only stare at him incredulously, willing
her knees back among the functioning. “And it did now?”
He had to make light of it. If he didn’t, she’d see right through him—down to the shaken mess that was passing as his soul at the moment
“We were standing close, your lips were there.” He shrugged, at a loss as to where to go from here. “I don’t know, maybe I was struck temporarily insane.”
It seemed as good an explanation as any, at least to him. Why else would he have kissed her? It wasn’t as if he was actually attracted to her. Sure, she was pretty, gorgeous, even, in the right Light, but he
her. Knew what she was like. How could he be attracted to a woman who had once put red ants into his sandwich?
And yet, hadn’t he, in some small, imperceptible way, been attracted to her all along? Hadn’t he wondered, in the back of his mind, what it would be like to kiss her?
Well, now he knew. And it blew out all the stops.
There was something more there, Traci thought. She could see it in his face. Or maybe she was just hoping there was more—to placate herself and her still erratically fluttering pulse.
“Is that your best defense, Counselor?”
“That’s my best explanation,” he clarified. And then, because he believed in telling the truth, or at least some measure of it, he relented. “It’s either that, or call you a witch.”
She didn’t knew whether to be annoyed or amused. “So this is my fault now, is it?”
“Not so much a fault as-” He stopped as a thought struck him. “Do you kiss Donald this way?”
“Daniel,” Traci corrected. Donald was the name of her cartoon suitor.
cartoon suitor, she amended, annoyed at herself for the slip. Annoyance shifted to a more likely target. “And that’s none of your business.”
Maybe, but he thought it was. And he did have a point to make. “Okay, but if you do kiss him like that, and he’s still as bland as he sounds, I’d check the man for a pulse—or, barring that, antennae.”
Now he had really lost her. “What?”
Morgan hated admitting any more than he already had, but he supposed he had to. “Nothing human could have withstood that and not felt his socks getting short-circuited.”
Indignation and confusion slowly slipped away, replaced with a glimmer of a satisfied smile. So he
felt something. Hopefully, more than she had, although she wasn’t certain how that was humanly possible. “Is that a compliment?”
She looked like a cat that had fallen headfirst into a vat of cream. He refused to give her an ounce more. “That’s an observation.”
She knew it was more than that, but for both their sakes she played along and nodded. A fresh crack of thunder and Jeremiah’s accompanying wail only served as a distant backdrop to the scenario
going on before her. Her mouth still felt as if it was throbbing. And the rest of her was vibrating like a tuning fork.
Traci knew she had to leave. Now, before something unforeseeable happened. Something she would undoubtedly live to regret.
She nodded again, dumbly, like a windup toy with one trick. That Morgan had managed to disorient her to this extent really annoyed her. “I guess you’re not so bad yourself.”
The cast-off comment had him smiling. If she admitted to smoke, there most certainly was fire. “Gosh, can you spare that?”
Traci blew out a breath. It was still far too shaky for her liking. “Just barely. Well, like I said, I’d better be going.”
She was backing up, away from Morgan. Away from what she’d just experienced, even though a very large part of her wanted to move forward, to explore this new, uncharted region a little more.
Wanted to feel a little more.
To feel more. Traci almost mocked herself. She’d been that route and knew the danger that laid therein. All sensation, no substance.
But that had been Rory and this.
This was Morgan, for heaven’s sake. She’s seen him naked, albeit years ago, but still, there was no mystery here—except, maybe, that she would have never dreamed in a million years…
She groped for her purse. Time for Cinderella to rush home while she still had a pumpkin to
work with. Traci clapped her hands and Jeremiah came at her call. She picked up his leash, wrapping it firmly around her hand. If nothing else, it served as insulation against Morgan.
Only then did she look at him again. “It’s been an experience, Morgan. One we’ll have to do again—in about another nine or ten years. But right now, I have a storm to beat.” She found she had to force cheeriness into her voice.
He didn’t want her leaving and he definitely didn’t like the idea of her leaving in this kind of weather. It was particularly nasty outside. “Ordinarily, I’d say my money was on you when it came to beating anything.” He glanced out the window. “But it looks pretty bad out there, Traci.”
For some reason, she found the serious note in his voice unsettling. She liked it better when they were sparring. She felt equipped to handle that, not this shaky vulnerability he’d managed to uncover.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
As soon as my double vision goes away,
she thought, giving her head one more shake.
She glanced at Morgan over her shoulder as she opened the door.
It had to have been a fluke.
Maybe she was coming down with something. That had to be it. Otherwise, she’d have to think that she and Morgan…
No, she didn’t have to think that. Not ever. Besides, it was too late for something like that. She
had her commitment before her and it was to Daniel.
“I’ll see you around,” she told him, raising her voice above the wind. Traci gave the leash a slight tug. “Let’s go, Jeremiah.”
The dog resisted crossing the threshold. He barked twice at the brooding, darkened sky.
Morgan wondered what sort of perverse psychology he could use on Traci to make her stay. Nothing came to mind and he knew that asking her to wait out the storm would never work.
He nodded toward her pet. “He has more sense than you do.”
Morgan was standing way too close again, she thought. Driving in the storm would be a comfort by comparison. At least that didn’t involve scrambling pulses and confused thoughts.
“Lovely parting shot, Morgan,” she quipped. “You should put them all in a book and give them out as gifts for Christmas. Well, see you.” Her voice was way too high, but nerves were causing that.
Thousands of little nerves, scattered throughout her body like ants whose hill had just been demolished by an overeager anteater.
Traci almost fled to her car.
She should have parked closer, she thought, annoyed with herself. She should have also left earlier—for a lot of reasons. But that was a moot point now.
The wind lashed at her hair, whipping it around her head and reducing it to a soggy, springy mass
of curls within seconds. Muttering under her breath, Traci opened the car door and herded Jeremiah in, then rounded the hood and got in on the driver’s side. She jammed the key into the ignition, pushing wet bangs out of her eyes.
She held her breath as she drove. The downpour was pretty intense, but it was too late to turn back. She refused to return with her tail between her legs because of the storm. Not when she would bet her soul that Morgan was standing in the doorway, waiting for her to come back. Waiting to smugly say, “I told you so.”
Or worse yet, to kiss her again and watch the reaction on her face.
What had happened back there, anyway? Why the sudden combustion? It was as if something had just been lying in wait all these years, lying in wait for the right moment.
This wasn’t getting her anywhere.
A bolt of lightning creased the sky like a crooked javelin hurled by an angry Norse god. It temporarily threw the world into daylight and then back into numbing darkness again.
Jeremiah was not happy about it.
“Hush,” she chided. “We’ll be home in time to watch reruns of ‘Lassie.’ They have to be playing on some channel.” The thought of curling up on her sofa, basking in the warm glow cast from the television set, comforted her.
It was a hell of a lot more comforting than attempting to drive through the English Channel, which was what this was beginning to feel like,
she thought. She pressed her lips together, concentrating.
Visibility went from poor to almost nonexistent in an alarming few minutes, even though the windshield wipers were doing double time. They no sooner pushed the rain aside than another deluge fell to take up the space, completely blotting out her view of the road. And no matter what she did with the heater and the defrost switches, her windows insisted on fogging up. The situation was almost impossible.
Desperate, Traci rolled down the window on the driver’s side, cracking the other for balance. Rain came into the car, lashing at her face. But at least she could see. What there was to see.
Craning her neck, Traci peered through the open window. She squinted, trying to make out the road that rain and encroaching darkness were bent on obscuring.
Holding her breath, Traci drove slower than she’d ever driven in her life. The wind continued to pick up, howling. Jeremiah joined in the competition.