Authors: Marie Ferrarella
Fireworks went off in her veins as his kiss registered and then deepened. Her head spun.
She'd read that exact sort of description once, had even mulled over it wistfully, despite telling herself that feelings like that didn't happen in real life. Kisses were just that. Kisses. Lips touching lips. Skin on skin. Nothing more. Kisses had no secret powers, no ability to set rockets ricocheting through the heavens and through her as they simultaneously wiped out all ability to think. That was just literary license run amok.
But here she was, having it happen. To her. One moment, she was almost roadkill, the next, soaring through the afternoon sky, no longer bound by something so mundane as a mortal body.
He made her feel positively giddy, and she absolutely loved the sensation.
The attraction Brandon had initially felt for her flared. Momentarily vulnerable by the very real possibility of losing her had his reaction been a nanosecond slower, he'd kissed her.
And discovered himself in a whole different place than he thought he would be.
Control was extremely important to Brandon, because there'd been so little of it available to him when he was younger. When he attained it, he held on to control as if it was his very reason for existing. His very lifeline.
But just for a moment now, it slipped out of his grasp as this woman took him to heights he hadn't expected and to sensations he hadn't thought possible.
It was a major revelation to him.
Coming up for air, Brandon drew back and looked in wonder at the woman he'd brought along on this little
field trip. Concerned that she might have been offended, he didn't know whether or not an apology was in order. There was no way on earth he was sorry he'd kissed her. But he honestly didn't know how she might react to what had just happened.
Unable to put up with the stillness any longer, he broke it by making an apology. “Sorry,” he murmured.
Was he sorry that he'd thrown his doors open to anyone and everyone? Or was it more personal than that? Was he sorry he kissed her?
“I already told you that you have nothing to be sorry about.”
“That was beforeâ”
He was talking about before he'd kissed her, she realized. Straightening, her eyes never leaving his, she allowed her voice to interrupt his. “But it still applies.”
He relaxed a little, relieved that she wasn't annoyed, that she didn't think he had just taken advantage of her because the opportunity had presented itself. Nothing would have been further from the truth. If anything, he'd been the one to be taken advantage of. Not by her, but by his own momentary lapse into vulnerability.
He didn't like leaving himself open like that. People who were open got hurt. That was why, ordinarily, he was locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Nothing and no one got through.
Because the last time he'd allowed himself to be open, to be vulnerable, he'd lost his heart to Jean, Victoria's mother. At the time, he'd thought it was a good thing because it was for forever. Learning that “forever” was incredibly finite had been a cruel, hard lesson that had almost broken him. But he
learned it. It was a lesson that he meant never to forget.
But Isabelle had made him do just that, made him forget, if only for a moment.
He had to be careful that it didn't happen again. Because he knew that the consequences would be too hard for him to endure.
“About that lunch you promised me,” Isabelle prodded cheerfully, sensing he needed to have his thoughts diverted. She nodded toward the old-fashioned building they'd passed at the corner.
This time, he looked both ways before placing a hand to her back and guiding her across the street. There'd been enough risks taken for one day.
h, my God, the view from here is absolutely incredible!” Isabelle cried breathlessly. “It's like looking into forever.”
“Looking into forever,” Brandon repeated, rolling the words around in his mind. “Might not make a bad title,” he murmured, more to himself than to her.
They had had their late lunch at the restaurant, which, she'd discovered, turned out to be even more quaint on the inside than on the outside. Afterward, they'd gone across the street to take in the view. There was a charming gazebo built strictly for that purpose. It had been there, Brandon told her, for as long as anyone could remember.
The freshly repainted gray, circular structure was perched on the edge of an embankment that overlooked the beach. The ocean stretched out from there for as far as the eye could see.
It was the ocean that had captured Isabelle's attention. The waters were almost painfully blue and just slightly restless, its waves reaching out to the shore only to withdraw like a flirtatious southern belle, teasing her suitor and testing her feminine powers for the first time.
She could have stood here watching for hours. If she'd had the time.
“Do you come here often?” The moment she asked and heard her own question out loud, Isabelle had to laugh.
“What's so funny?” Brandon asked, more than a little amused. Isabelle's laugh was captivating. Captivating and innocent, like having someone take his hand and draw him into a party.
“What I just asked you, that sounded like a line a guy usually says to a girl in a bar or a club.” Mocking the scenario, she made her eyebrows rise and fall wickedly before repeating the question using a far deeper voice than she had initially. “Come here often, honey?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” he purposely took on the feminine role and made his voice go up two octaves, approximating a falsetto. And then he went on more seriously in his own voice, “Driving up and down Pacific Coast Highway and looking at the ocean from here are a couple of ways I use to clear my head and get my creative juices flowing.”
From out of nowhere, there was the smell of rain in the air. It rarely rained in southern California in July, so Isabelle attributed the sudden damp smell to the wind shifting, ushering in the scent of the sea.
“In your quest for creativity, do you ever walk along the beach itself?” she asked.
“That's my third way,” he confirmed.
Brandon glanced down at the shoes she was wearing.
Her footwear was the one very impractical thing about her. Rather than running shoes or low, barely-there heels, Isabelle apparently favored high-heeled sandals. Granted, the heels were rather solid as opposed to stilettos, but they were still high heels. He'd never seen her wearing anything else. He'd asked her about them once, saying that he would have thought that sneakers would have worked better for her. She'd replied that she felt more stable and in control of the situation in heels. Thanks to life with his mother and Victoria, he knew better than to argue with a woman when her mind was set.
“How about it? Are you game to go for a walk on the beach now?” he asked.
Rather than answer him, Isabelle put her hand on his arm to help her maintain her balance as she slipped off her shoes. The hem of her white slacks was a hair's breadth from touching the gazebo's wooden floor.
Holding her shoes by their straps as proof, she declared, “Game!”
The quick grin that accompanied her declaration fluttered directlyâand almost lethallyâinto Brandon's stomach.
He did his best to disregard the feeling and the very real, very strong sexual pull he experienced. This wasn't the time or the place.
“Okay, it's this way,” he needlessly told her, pointing to a path that ran past another, far more image-conscious restaurant. The path was narrow and winding, and had once been painstakingly paved with colored bits of concrete, but any intended patterns that had been pressed into its surface were long gone, worn away by years of foot traffic and the sun.
The path's incline was also steep enough to make her
feel as if she could easily pitch forward if she wasn't careful or moved too quickly. She deliberately kept her gait measured and slow. To insure her stability, Isabelle slipped her arm through Brandon's.
The sand, when they finally reached it, was a pristine shade of almost white, the result of many vigilant patrons and neighbors who took pride in keeping it clean. The sand felt beguilingly warm against the soles of her bare feet the moment she took her first step. By then, Brandon had stopped to take off his own shoesâand socksâas well.
As they began to walk along the uncrowded beach, she had no doubt that the sand had found its way into the cuffs she had carefully rolled up. The thought didn't really trouble her. Being here was well worth the minor inconvenience.
With so few people around, the beach seemed somehow larger to her. As if it truly did go on forever.
Isabelle slanted a glance toward the man beside her, wondering if it made the same impression on him that it did on her.
“Does this make you feel small?” she asked, curious. “Like a speck?”
There was a hint of a smile on his lips as he shook his head. “No, it makes me feel special. Like someone seeing paradise for the first time.”
She liked the way he thought. As she opened her mouth to say so, she stopped, convinced that she not only smelled rain, she felt it as well.
Was it her imagination?
Looking up at the sky, she saw no dark clouds hovering about ominously. The sky was still an exquisite shade of blue. It continued to retain its color as, out
of nowhere, rain began to fall. Somewhere within the heavens, a leak had suddenly sprung.
Grabbing her hand, Brandon made a mad dash back up to the winding path.
It required more energy to go up than come down, especially at a pace that was three times as fast. As if determined to keep pace, the rain seemed to increase with every step they took until they finally made it up to the shelter of the gazebo.
“I think I just burned off dessert,” Isabelle commented, doing her best to regulate her breathing once more.
As they stood beneath the gazebo's wooden roof, the sun shower turned noisy. Instead of raindrops, Isabelle thought she heard the roof being pelted.
pelted. She looked at Brandon quizzically.
“Is that hail?” she asked him.
“Sounds like it,” he answered. “Looks like it, too,” he added, pointing to the ground behind them just outside the gazebo. A blanket of icy drops was swiftly forming, covering the grass between the gazebo and the sidewalk.
Isabelle brushed her wet bangs away from her eyes. She had to look a mess, she suddenly realized. Dropping her shoes to the floor, she stepped into them, then ran her hands up and down her arms, brushing away some of the raindrops.
“God, I think I'm soaked to the bone,” she observed.
Rather than stare at her very wet body and the way her cotton blouse clung to her upper torso as if she was a contestant in a wet T-shirt contest, Brandon made himself look at her face.
He dug into his back pocket and took out his neatly
folded handkerchief and, to the obvious surprise registered in her eyes, carefully wiped the moisture from her face.
Brandon held out the handkerchief to her, and she graciously took it.
She dabbed at her throat and the damp swell just above her breasts. At that point, the handkerchief was too wet to do any more good.
She flashed a smile at Brandon as she offered the handkerchief back to him. “Thanks. I feel totally dry now.”
He laughed, slipping the wet handkerchief into his wetter jeans. Even as he did so, they could see that the hailstorm had all but abated.
In the next few minutes, the sun shower retreated, as well.
Less than fifteen minutes after the rain had started, it dispersed. Except for the few remaining patches of hail clumped together here and there on the ground, it was as if they'd both just shared a mutual hallucination. “What
that?” she asked Brandon, peering up uncertainly at the blue sky.
He could recall experiencing maybe three hail storms in his lifetime, none of them while the sky was a crystal clear blue.
“I'm not too sure,” he admitted. “But as long as a torrent of frogs doesn't start falling from the sky, I'd venture to say that things are still pretty good and that God's not mad at us.”
“Nice to know,” she murmured.
It was only now, in retrospect, that she realized that Brandon had grabbed her hand to make sure she kept up as he'd run back for shelter. Taking her hand rather
than silently declaring, solely by his actions, that it was every manâand womanâfor him-or-herself.
The man was chivalrous under fire, as well as heart-throb handsome.
Perfect in every way, Isabelle couldn't help thinking. So far, she hadn't found any flaws in the man. He was good to his mother, clearly loved his child, had a sense of humor and was witty and intelligent. The perfect package.
But, she knew, remembering her father and the aura that he had shattered, no man was perfect.
What was Brandon Slade's flaw? she couldn't help wondering.
So far, she hadn't seen evidence of any shortcoming, and that just wasn't possible. Men as seemingly perfect as Brandon Slade existed in fairy tales and all answered to the same name: Prince Charming. In other words, they were fictional characters who weren't even awarded a moniker because why waste a perfectly good name on a character who hadn't a prayer of existing in the real world?
Brandon's deep voice broke into her thoughts. “Maybe we'd better make our getaway while the getting's good,” he suggested. “In case the rain comes back. Unless you want to stay here for a while longer,” he tacked on. He watched her, waiting.
Much as she would have liked to remain here with him, she knew she had to be getting back. By the time they would reach his house, it would be time for his mother's next exercise session. As tempting as the thought of spending more time with him right here was, she had to keep in mind why she was remotely a temporary part of Brandon Slade's world in the first place.
to dash along the beach, trying to outrun the rain.
But she had to be honest. “I'd love to,” she told him. “But your mother should have another PT session at three. All things consideredâ” which was a very polite way of glossing over the actress's bombastic personality and her way of taking charge of any given situation no matter what “âyour mother's doing rather well. I'd hate to interrupt her progress because I like feeling sand between my toes.” She flashed a grin at him. “Or running from a sun shower.”
Brandon inclined his head. He couldn't help wondering, though, if Isabelle had a clue how infectious her grin was. “Home it is.”
For a tiny moment, the word embraced her, as if it was not just his home but hers, too. The idea warmed her and brought a smile to her inner core.
You've got a perfectly nice home of your own, remember?
The small voice in her headâher common sense she liked to thinkâsounded almost exasperated with her.
She had to be careful, Isabelle warned herself. She had a tendency to get carried away. A tendency to let her imagination get the better of her. Brandon had made her feel welcome and was continuing to do so, but that was just his way.
was the hired help. A trained, highly professional physical therapist, but still the hired help.
She had to remember that. Letting herself believe anything else was just asking for trouble. Although that had never happened before with work, she had an uneasy feeling things were different now.
Because the circumstances were different and Brandon had entered her world.
He hasn't entered your world, idiot. You've entered his. The second his mother's more flexible, you're history, just someone that he knows.
There were times when she just hated being right.
“You've gotten very quiet,” Brandon observed as they got into the car. He'd handed her the oversize beach towel he'd found in his trunk and she'd wrapped it around herself. “Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No, I'm just thinking about your mother's exercise program,” she lied. It was a handy excuse to fall back on, also pretty transparent, she thought, but she really wasn't versed in lying. She'd never had a reason to lie before.
Putting the key into the ignition, Brandon paused for a moment, scrutinizing her.
And looking right through her, Isabelle thought.
“Lucky for you, Pinocchio is just a fairy tale,” he told her, turning the key. The SUV's engine rumbled to life.
She squared her shoulders defensively, even as she knew there was no point. He was apparently on to her. “Are you saying you think I'm lying?”
“Just making an observation,” Brandon answered innocently. And then, more seriously, he said, “And being a little worried.”
“Worried?” she repeated. What was he worried about? His mother? He had no reason to be worried in that department. “Don't be,” she told him, then went on to add, “I already told you, your mother's doing fineâ”
He cut her short before she could begin to elaborate. “Yes, I know.”
Okay, she was confused, not to mention lost. “Then whyâ¦?”
Pulling out of the parking space, he waited until he had straightened the wheel and driven to the corner before continuing. “I was referring to you.”
“Me?” Now she was really confused. “You're worried about me? Why?”
This was unfamiliar ground for him. But then, he didn't usually venture into this kind of territory. “I was worried that maybe, because of what happened earlier, you'd want to quit.”
“What happened earlier?” she repeated, thinking he was referring to getting soaked in the shower. “No offense intended, Brandon. You're a very famous man and all, but I don't think you have what it takes to be responsible for a sudden drastic shift in the weather.”