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Send No Flowers (Bed & Breakfast #2) by Sandra Brown Read Online (FREE)

Send No Flowers (Bed & Breakfast #2) by Sandra Brown

Read Send No Flowers (Bed & Breakfast, #2) by Sandra Brown online free here.

Chapter 1

It was probably the cutest tush he had ever seen.
Through the screen door he had an unrestricted view of it, a derričre roundly feminine,
but trim. Denim fringe, bleached and curled from years of laundering, clung to taut,
slender thighs.
She was on hands and knees, peering into and hesitatingly poking at the fuse box near
the baseboard. As she leaned down farther to investigate the intricacies of the switches,
the man smiled a slow, cat-with-mouse-trapped smile of masculine pleasure. It was the
smile of a gratified voyeur. He was a little ashamed of himself. But not ashamed enough to
stop looking.
The cabin was dark. Her flashlight gave off a meager glow. The only real illumination
came from fierce flashes of blue-white lightening.
The two boys watching her efforts were growing increasingly restless.
“I’m hungry. You said we’d eat as soon as we got here.”
“Do you know how to turn the lights on, Mom? I bet you don’t.”
The man at the door saw her head fall forward between her shoulders in an attitude of
defeat. It lasted for only a moment. She raised her head determinedly as she drew in a
deep breath. “It’s just a fuse box, David. When I find the breaker switch, the electricity
will come back on. It must have been tripped by the storm. And, Adam, we’ll eat as soon
as I can get the lights on and unload the car.”
“You said the cabin was gonna be great. I think it stinks,” David complained. “We
should’ve used tents.”
“Yeah, tents,” the younger brother seconded.
“If you don’t think I can turn on the breaker switch, what makes you think I could put
up a tent?”
The rising impatience in the young woman’s voice was unmistakable and the man at the
door didn’t blame her for it. But the two little boys looked so bedraggled that he couldn’t
blame them for their complaining either. They were only kids and had apparently spent
hours traveling. Their arrival at the lake cabin had been inauspicious, to say the least.
He had seen the headlights of their car when they arrived. A few minutes later, he
decided to brave one of the most tumultuous thunderstorms in recent history and walk to
the cabin only a hundred yards from his. That hundred yards was through dense woods,
which guaranteed the owners of the cabins privacy. Walking through it in a thunderstorm
had been foolhardy, but he had become concerned for his neighbors. His electricity had
gone out about ten minutes before their arrival and God knew when it would come back
Now as he listened to the whining of the boys and the near desperation in the young
woman’s voice he was glad he had chanced the woods. She needed help and she was alone.
At least there was no husband and father in evidence.
“We should’ve stopped at the Burger Town. David and I wanted to eat there, didn’t we,
“I knew this was gonna be a jerky camping trip. I wanted to use a tent and camp for
real, not stay in a dumb cabin.”
The young woman rose up to sit on her heals, hands on hips. “Well, if you’re such a
pioneer, you can go out in the rain and start hunting or fishing for our supper.” The boys
felt silent. “I’ve had it with you two. Do you hear me? The cabin was graciously loaned to
us. Since we don’t have a tent and know nothing about them, I thought it was best we
take up the offer to use it. I can’t do anything about the storm. But I’m trying my best to
get the electricity back on. Not stop the complaining!” She matched her stern tone with an
intimidating glare and returned to her fanny-in-the-air position to futilely inspect the fuse
Glumly the brothers looked at each other and shook their heads. They were convinced
their trip was doomed to disaster. “Do you think she can fix the ‘lectricity?” the younger
asked the older in a loud whisper.
“No, do you?”
Now was the time to make his presence known. He had never been a window peeper
and was ashamed for having stood outside this long without letting them know he was
there. But he was enjoying them. They were in no immediate danger. Their tribulation
somehow endeared them to him. He found himself smiling at the comments of the two
boys and the parental frustration of the woman. Maybe watching their dilemma was
acting as a panacea for his own. Observing them had certainly taken his mind off his
problem. Albeit unfair, that was human nature.
It was also human nature for him to feel a shaft of desire spear through him each time
he gazed at the display of bare thighs and that incredibly delectable tush. That wasn’t fair
either. It was downright lechery to lust after a wife as well as the mother of two young
boys. But could a man be held responsible for his thoughts?
“Mom, I have to go to the bathroom.” It was Adam who spoke.
“Number one or number two?”
“Number one. Bad.”
“Well, since we haven’t located the bathroom yet, go outside.”
“It’s raining.”
“I know that, Adam,” she said with diminishing patience. “Stand on the porch under the
roof and aim out.”
“Okay,” he mumbled and turned toward the door. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hmm?” She was dickering with one of the switches.
“There’s a man out there.”
The young woman spun around, toppled backward and gasped in alarm. “A man?”
Quickly, hoping not to frighten her, he switched on his high-beam flashlight and caught
in its paralyzing spotlight an impressive chest straining against a chambray workshirt tied
in a knot at her waist, a tumble of blond hair that had escaped a haphazard ponytail, and
wide blue eyes.
Alicia Russel gulped in air and held it, her heart pounding. A brilliant flash of lightening
silhouetted him where he stood just outside the screen door. Had she locked it behind
them? Would it matter? He looked huge and fearsome against the stormy sky. And he
was coming in!
He pulled the screen door open. It was ripped from his hand by the force of the wind
and crashed against the outside wall. She and the boys cowered. He rushed across the
room and dropped to his knees in front of where she lay sprawled. Her eyes were blinded
by his flashlight. She could no longer see him except as a looming hulk bending over her.
She opened her mouth to scream for her boys to run.
“Are you alright?” He switched off the light and for a moment everything was black. “I
didn’t mean to scare you. Here, let me help you up.”
Alicia recoiled and the hand extended to her was withdrawn.
“I’m f-fine,” she stuttered. “Startled, and that’s all.” She pulled herself to her feet
without his assistance. Her first concern was for her sons, who were eyeing the stranger
curiously. “David, go help Adam … uh … do what he has to do on the porch.” If she was
going to be raped and murdered, she didn’t want her sons to witness it. God, where was
the telephone? Why didn’t the lights come back on? Who was this man and where had he
come from? Her heart was banging against her ribs and pounding on the inside of her
“Hi,” David chirped. Alicia cursed herself for teaching her children to be courteous and
friendly. “I’m David. This is Adam. I’m the oldest.”
“Hello,” the man said. Alicia thought he smiled, but it was so dark, she couldn’t tell. Her
flashlight had flickered out and he had kept his turned on. “My name is Pierce.”
“David—” Alicia began, only to be interrupted by her eldest.
“We’re gonna camp here for a week, but Mom can’t turn the lights on. She’s not too
good at things like that.”
The stranger looked in her direction, then back down at the boys. “Few moms are. But
she couldn’t have turned the lights on anyway. The power’s off because of the storm.”
“Da-vid,” Alicia ground through gritted teeth.
“Why don’t you take your brother outside,” the stranger suggested, “while I see if I can
help your mom.”
“Okay. Come on, Adam.”
The screen door slammed behind them and the man turned to Alicia. “You’re off to a
bad beginning. The campers aren’t too happy.”
If he were a rapist and murderer, he was a polite one. But then it was said the Boston
Strangler had been, too. And Jack the Ripper. “I’m sure once the electricity comes back
on and they get something to eat, they’ll be in a better frame of mind.” There, that
sounded good. Unafraid, in control, cool, calm, capable.
“Where are your lanterns? I’ll light them for you.”
So much for cool, calm, and capable. “Lanterns?” Employing that gesture that is
universally used by women to give them an air of indifference and make them appear less
stupid than they feel at the given moment, she reached up and made patting,
straightening motions on her hair. She also gave the frayed hem of her cutoffs a swift,
hard tug. “I don’t know. The cabin is borrowed and I didn’t have a chance to look around.”
She shook her head.
“You didn’t bring any emergency equipment with you?”
“No, I didn’t,” she snapped testily, hating the incredulity in his voice. It made her feel
imbecile. This was the first camping attempt she had braved with her sons. How good was
she supposed to be the first time out? “We’ll be fine when the power comes back on.”
“Why don’t you wait out the storm in my cabin? We’ll have to walk through the woods,
but it’s not far.”
“No,” she rushed to say. He had made her feel even more incompetent than she already
did. That irritation had taken her mind off the possible danger he posed. But her panic
quickly resurfaces when he mentioned their going to his cabin.
“That only makes sense. I can cook something for the boys on a butane stove.”
“No, really, Mr. … uh…”
“Thank you, Mr. Pierce, but—”
“No, Pierce is my first name. Pierce Reynolds.”
“Mr. Reynolds, we’ll manage. I don’t want to leave the cabin.”
She could hear the boys playing on the front porch, letting the rainwater splash on the
palms they extended past the overhang. “My … my husband plans to join us later tonight.
We should be here when he arrives or he’ll be worried.”
“Oh.” He rubbed the back of his neck in indecision. “I hate to leave you alone under the
circumstances. Why don’t we leave him a note and tell him where you are?”
“Hey, Mom, we’re starving,” David said. He and Adam had tired of the game and
trooped back inside. “When can we eat?”
“We’re starving,” Adam echoed.
“I really think it would be best if you came to my cabin.”
Before Alicia had a chance to object, the man turned to the two boys. “How does chili
sound? If you come back to my cabin with me, I can have it heated up in no time.”
“Gee, neat. That’d be great,” David said enthusiastically.
“Neat,” Adam said.
“But you’ll have to walk through the woods to get there,” the man warned. “There’s no
road to drive your car through.”
“We don’t mind, do we, Adam?” They were already racing toward the screen door.
“Boys!” Alicia called after them frantically, but they heedlessly dashed outside.
“Come on, Mrs.—?”
“Mrs. Russel. I can’t leave you and the boys here alone. I promise I’m not someone you
need to be afraid of.”
Just then another flash of lightening rent the sky in two. Alicia thought the prospect of
the power being restored was nil. She had been an idiot not to have come prepared for
something like this but it was too late to do anything about it now. At least the boys could
be fed. When the raid abated, they could come back and wait for morning.
With a resigned sigh and a prayer that she could trust this man with her virtue and
their lives, she said, “All right.” The only thing she took with her was her purse. It would
be insane to unload their bags from the car in the downpour.
On the front porch, Pierce Reynolds lifted Adam into his arms and directed David to
take his mother’s hand. “Okay, everybody, hold on tight. Mrs. Russell.” For a long
moment, Alicia stared down at the strong, lean hand extended to her. Than she placed
her hand against it and he clasped it tightly.
The rain drove against them like stinging needles. Wind tore at their hair and clothes
and buffeted them about. Each time lightning flashed, Adam buried his face deeper into
Mr. Reynolds neck. David tried his best to be valiant, but he was fearfully clinging to
Alicia by the time they saw the other cabin through the trees.
“Almost there, troops,” Mr. Reynolds called over the roar of the storm.
They reached the sanctuary of the covered porch just as a clap of thunder rattled the
windowpanes. “Let’s leave our shoes out here,” Pierce said, setting Adam down. When
they were all barefoot, he led them through the front door of the cabin, which was softly
lit by two kerosene lanterns and smoldering coals in the fireplace.
“I’m cold. How about everyone else?” Pierce crossed the room and knelt in front of the
fireplace to stir the logs with a poker. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw his three guests
huddling uncertainly just inside the threshold. They were shivering. “David, bring me one
of those logs, please.” The boy picked a log from the box near the door and rushed it to
the man who was definitely hero-material. “Thanks.” Pierce ruffled the boy’s wet hair.
“You’ll find towels for you and Adam and your mother in the bathroom.”
“Yes, sir,” David said and ran toward the door that could only lead to the bathroom.
The cabin was one large room serving as living room, bedroom, dining room and kitchen.
Comfortable chairs and a sofa were arranged in front of the fireplace. A double bed was
tucked under a drastically sloping ceiling, which was actually the bottom of a narrow
staircase that led up to a sleeping loft. It was too homey to be rustic and was spotlessly
David emerged from the bathroom carrying a stack of folded towels. After first handing
one to Pierce, he took them to his mother and brother. Alicia felt a sense of unreality.
What was she doing here in this stranger’s mountain retreat, alone with him in a veritable
wilderness? It would have been bad enough if he were old and feeble, or kindly but
pitifully ugly and ignorant. But their rescuer was handsome and suave and virile,
something she hadn’t known until they’d entered the cabin and she had seen him in the
His hair was ash brown and threaded with silver. It was carefully cut to look carelessly
styled and was worn a trifle longer than fashion currently dictated. When he turned his
head Alicia had seen green eyes as brilliant as emeralds beneath a shelf of masculine
brows. As he added the log to the coals and fanned it to life, well-developed muscles
rippled beneath his wet cotton shirt, though his physique wasn’t brawny.
He made her inordinately nervous. Not because she thought he would harm them. No
man would carry a little boy through a thunderstorm, murmuring reassurances that
there was nothing to be afraid of, could be a murderer. As for being a rapist… Well, it was
clear he would never have to force any woman.
“I’m glad I decided to build a fire earlier tonight. It was barely cool enough then, but
Pierce stopped mid-sentence. Because if Alicia was surprised to find him so appealingly
attractive, her reaction to him couldn’t compare to the explosion in his chest and loins
when he stood and turned to face her. Her hair was wet and silkily draping her cheeks,
neck, and shoulders. The chambray was soaked and plastered against full breasts and
nipples peaked hard from the cold. He had a helluva time keeping his eyes off them. Her
bare feet only made her legs look longer and shapelier. They were covered with goose
flesh he craved to warm with caressing hands.
He dragged his eyes away from her, cursing himself and this sudden attack of rampant
desire. He hadn’t felt so compulsively desirous of a woman since… He had never felt so
compulsively desirous of a woman. It baffled him. She was a wife and mother and doing
absolutely nothing to entice him. In fact, she looked jittery and nervous, and if his
expression revealed anything of what was going on between his thighs, he didn’t blame
“I think we ought to get you out of those wet clothes. Why don’t you take the boys into
the bathroom and I’ll see if I can find them something to wear.”
“All right.” Alicia herded her sons toward the sanctuary of the bathroom, where she
hoped she could will her breasts back into a state of repose. He had noticed her distended
nipples. She knew he had.
Several minutes later he knocked on the door, though it stood open to give them light.
Adam and David had been stripped down to their underpants and Alicia was rubbing
them with towels. “Chili is on the stove and I found these in a drawer.” He held up two
UCLA T-shirts.
“Super,” David said, grabbing one and pulling it on over his head. It hung to his knees.
“Say thank you, David, to Mr. Reynolds for loaning you his shirt.” She stood slowly, still
painfully aware of her wet shirt and short cutoffs. When she had left Los Angeles that
afternoon they were enjoying an unseasonable warm spell. For an automobile trip to the
woods with David and Adam, the old cutoffs and shirt had seemed the perfect outfit.
“Thanks, Mr. Reynolds,” David said as he helped Adam with his shirt. The hem came to
Adam’s ankles.
“You’re welcome, but the shirts aren’t mine. This cabin belongs to my company.
Everyone uses it and leaves things behind. I’m sure they’d never be missed if you want to
keep them.”
“Gee, can we?” The boys raced out looking like two friends of Casper the Ghost. They
were happy now that they were warm and dry and dinnertime was imminent.
“I’ll have to look a bit further to find something for you.” Somehow Pierce kept his eyes
on her face, which wasn’t hard to do at all. Her hair was beginning to dry around the edges
and it coiled beguilingly along her cheek. And, God, did she have a kissable mouth. His
insides were groaning.
Alicia shifted from one bare foot to the other. “I’ll dry out in a minute. Don’t bother.”
Despite his resolution, his eyes drifted downward. “Maybe we’d better get them fed,” she
said hurriedly, and pushed past him. The boys were already sitting at the table where
four places had been set. There was a basket of saltines and a tray of sliced cheese and
apples in its center. A pan of chili was steaming on the portable butane stove.
She carried the bowls to the table as Pierce ladled them up. Then he held her chair for
her before she sat down. Her stomach rumbled rebelliously and he laughed. “I guess the
boys aren’t the only ones who are hungry.”
Good-naturedly she smiled. “I didn’t have a chance to eat today.”
“She always says that,” David piped up. “She doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch because
she’s afraid she’ll get fat.”
“Yeah,” Adam said after cramming his mouth full of crackers, “she exercises every
morning with the girl on the television. She gets on the floor and stretches and grunts and
her face looks like this.” He made a grimace that made Pierce laugh and made Alicia want
to kill her second-born.
“Eat your supper so we can get back to our own cabin,” she said in typical motherly
“Can’t we stay here?” David whined.
She looked at him with the unmistakable, but silent, parental threat of annihilation.
“No, David. We can’t intrude on Mr. Reynolds.”
“You don’t mind, do you?” Adam asked him candidly.
Pierce looked at Alicia across the table. “No, I don’t mind. As a matter of fact, I was
thinking that I could run back down there and leave a note for your husband. He could
join you here when he arrives.”
“Husband?” David’s young face screwed up in puzzlement.
Alicia’s heart stopped and she momentarily closed her eyes. When she had told the lie,
it was in the hope of protecting herself and her sons. The boys hadn’t heard her. She had
never thought the fib would come back to haunt her.
“Your mom told me that your dad is going to meet you at your cabin tonight.”
“We don’t have a dad,” David informed him. “He died.”
Adam swallowed his food. “Just like our goldfish. Except Daddy’s grave is in the
c’metery instead of the backyard.”
Alicia felt the green eyes slicing toward her before she even looked up to meet their
inquiring gaze. With what defiance she could muster, she met their stare levelly.
“He died a long time ago,” David said conversationally. “I remember him but Adam
“I do too!” Adam protested. “He had black hair and brown eyes like us.”
“You’ve just seen pictures of him so you think you remember.”
“I remember. Mommy, make David stop saying I don’t remember.”
While this argument was carried out, the green eyes hadn’t released their captive. “I’m
sure you remember your daddy, Adam,” Pierce said quietly.
“He was big like you, except maybe you’re bigger,” David continued. “We thought
Carter was going to be our new dad, but then he married Sloan instead of Mom.”
Alicia’s warning glances did nothing to stop the flow of words from the mouths of her
babes. “David, I’m sure Mr. Reynolds—”
“I cried when Carter told us he wasn’t going to be our dad,” Adam expounded. “But
Mom said it was okay because Sloan was our friend and we’d get to see Carter a lot and
just because he didn’t marry her that didn’t mean he didn’t still love us. Can I have some
more chili, please?”
“We can still go to Carter’s beach house to play. It’s neat. Adam’s a pig. He always
wants seconds.”
“Am not.”
“Are too.”
Alicia was able to avoid Pierce’s questioning eyes as he got up to refill Adam’s bowl. He
would think she was a complete idiot for fabricating a husband.
“Do you have a dad?” David asked of Pierce as he sat back down.
“No. He died a long time ago. But my mother is still alive.”
“You’re just like us.”
Pierce smiled. “I guess I am.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“Adam!” Alicia admonished, ready to throttle both her talkative offspring in one fell
swoop. “That’s enough. Both of you stop talking and eat your supper.
“No, I don’t have a wife.” Pierce’s eyes were laughing as he blotted his mouth with a
They finished the meal in what was to Alicia blissful silence. Finally Pierce spoke. “If
you’re finished, I think it’s time to get you two boys to bed.” He stood and began to clear
the table.
Alicia panicked. “David, Adam, go in the bathroom and wash your hands.”
“Do you want us to wash our hands or are you just sending us in there because you
want to talk about something you don’t want us to hear?”
“Go!” she said, pointing a commanding finger toward the door.
“All right,” her precocious son mumbled, taking his younger brother by the hand.
When they had the water running in the bathroom, Alicia whirled on the man. She had
to tilt her head back at a drastic angle to look up into his face. Until then she hadn’t
noticed how tall he was. Or was he just standing closer? “I’m taking my boys back to our
cabin. We will not spend the night here and I would appreciate it if you’d stop trying to
lure them into staying, thereby making me the villain.”
“That’s lunacy, Mrs.— Oh, hell. What’s your name?”
“Mrs. Russell,” she said peevishly. He glared and she relented. “Alicia.”
His lips drew up in a quick smile, then thinned to a resolute line. “The rain hasn’t
slacked off. What possible advantage could it be to drag those two little boys back through
the woods to that damp, dark cabin when they could sleep here?”
“Because I’d be sleeping here too.”
He shrugged. “So?”
“So? So my mother taught me to have better sense than to spend the night with
strange men.”
“I’m not strange.” Again that quick smile, then tight-lipped sternness. “Why did you
make up that lie about a husband? To protect yourself from me?”
She tossed back her hair and raised her chin. “Yes. I was hoping you wouldn’t bother us
if you thought I had a man joining us soon.”
Was it only her imagination or did he lean forward slightly and did his voice lower in
volume and pitch? “Am I bothering you?”
Damn right. That’s what she would have had to say if placed under oath. Thankfully
she wasn’t. “I just think that for all concerned, it would be best if we returned to our
“I disagree. You’d be alone without power. It’s cold out now and the boys aren’t dressed
properly, to say nothing of you.”
To make his point, his eyes scaled down her bare legs. But something happened on
their return trip up to her face. They softened. Dangerously so. So that when they collided
with Alicia’s, he and she were both rendered speechless by that nonphysical collision.
Seconds ticked by, moments stretched out, and still they stared, powerless either to move
or look away.
What is wrong with me? Alicia asked herself. She had taken this week off to weigh an
important decision, a decision she was being pressed for. Her time was running out; they
wanted an answer. She didn’t need this kind of romantic distraction in her life. Not ever,
but particularly not now, when she had just found her footing in the scheme of things.
Similar thoughts were parading through Pierce’s mind. A week ago, he would have been
highly amused by this situation. He would have given his arousal free rein and not battled
to suppress it. Wryly he admitted that he would have used any tactic necessary to get this
woman into bed with him. But the day before yesterday, his world had been turned
upside down and he didn’t know how he was going to cope. His problem was solely his: He
certainly couldn’t invite anyone to share it. And what he had in mind every time he looked
at this woman was sharing of the most intimate kind.
“Where’s my bed?” Adam’s question was rolled out around a broad yawn.
Alicia and Pierce both jumped reflexively and moved apart.
She floundered helplessly. If she refused to stay now, that would be tantamount to an
admission that Pierce Reynolds did bother her. Purely from a logical standpoint, staying
in his cabin was the safest, most reasonable thing to do. She would look like a sap traipsing
back through the woods during this thunderstorm with her two weary, cranky children in
This would be a temporary relapse, she assured herself. It had taken her thirty-one
years to learn to take care of herself. She never wanted to depend on anyone else ever
again. But this was only for one night.
Pierce Reynolds’s gray-flecked eyebrow arched in query and she answered with a silent
lowering of her eyes. He accepted her decision graciously and without a trace of
smugness. “I thought one of you boys could sleep down here with me and the other
upstairs with your mom. There is a double bed up there.”
“They can both sleep upstairs. I wouldn’t want you to be crowded.” He would crowd
any bed.
“No problem.” I’d love to be crowded in a bed with you.
“Then Adam can sleep with you since he’s the smaller.” David’s brow wrinkled as he
eyed his brother jealously. Then he bounded up the stairs. “Goody, I get to sleep
They were soon bedded down and the cabin became awkwardly quiet save for the
steady cadence of rainfall and the distant rumble of thunder. The worst of the storm had
been spent. Alicia began clearing the table, washing the dishes in the sink. Pierce dried
and replaced them in the limited cabinet space. They worked in silence until the job was
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s the least I could do.”
“I guess I’d better find you something else to put on. Whether you want to admit it or
not, I know those damp clothes are uncomfortable. Mine are.”
She wished he hadn’t mentioned that. His damp shirt was molded over the muscles of
his arms and chest. Tight denim jeans hugged his hips and thighs like a second skin. His
bare feet hinted at an intimacy she would rather not think about.
She was thinking about it just the same.
He knelt in front of a cedar bureau and began rifling through the drawers. He had
searched two, found them lacking, and closed them before he pulled open the third. His
hands plowed through the garments left behind and long forgotten. The drawer produced
a stocking cap, one glove, a pair of plaid bermuda shorts about a size forty-two, and three
socks all of different colors.
“Ah, here’s something.” He pulled the garment out of the drawer, eyeing it knowingly.
“Someone had a good time while he was here.”
Alicia’s breath stopped in her throat when he held up a slinky nightgown. Firelight
shone through its black transparency. Filaments of fabric formed the shoulder straps. The
lace bodice was as fine and fragile as a spider’s web. On a human body, it would be no
more substantial than smoke, a shadow worn for clothing.
Coming slowly to his feet, he advanced toward her, his eyes immobilizing. He laid the
straps of the nightgown against her shoulders, pulled the scanty bodice into place over her
breasts, and let the length of it float down over her bare legs to her feet.
He peered at her through the shimmering folds. “Perfect fit,” he said in a rough,
unnatural voice.
Alicia stood stock-still, not daring to move. Feeling vulnerable and much like a
succulent dessert about to be devoured, she quavered, “I can’t wear this.”
To her relief, he stepped back quickly. He looked as though he had suddenly
remembered something and whatever it was had yanked him out of a golden fantasy and
plunged him into cold reality. His face went blank. His mood changed abruptly. It was so
extreme a mood shift that even Alicia, a stranger to him, saw it, felt it. It was tangible.
Maybe he was married.
He turned his back, angrily shoved the nightgown out of sight into the drawer, and
began to pillage it again. He seemed unaccountably aggravated as he stood up and thrust
a man’s shirt at her. “You can wear this,” he said brusquely. “Good night, Alicia.”
Chapter 2
She awoke stretching contentedly. Staring up at the unfamiliar ceiling, it took her a few
moments to determine where she was. Then she remembered.
Sitting bolt upright, she tossed the covers back. The other bed was empty. When she
had climbed the narrow stairs the night before, she hadn’t thought she would sleep so
deeply or so long. One glance out the small window in the attic-like loft told her that the
sun was well up on a gorgeous fall day. The woods seemed to have been washed clean by
the storm.
A high-pitched giggle followed by a chorus of “Shhhh” came from downstairs. Alicia
tiptoed to the top of the stairs and listened. She heard the clatter of silverware against
dishes and smelled the wonderful aromas of bacon and maple syrup and coffee.
“Keep your voices down and let your mother sleep. She was very tired last night.”
“Can I have some more pancakes?”
“Sure, Adam. How many does that make?” There was laughter in the deep, husky
“Don’t know.”
“About sixty,” David said, and Alicia could tell that despite her lectures he was talking
with his mouth full. “I told you he’s a pig.”
“So are you!”
“Hey, cool it, both of you. Here, David, here’s two more for you too.”
“You make good pancakes.”
“Thanks, Adam.”
“Not quite as good as Mom’s, though,” he said loyally.
From her hidden perch Alicia smiled. She heard Pierce’s laugh and it caused a fluttering
in the pit of her stomach. Her clothes had been carefully draped over the end rail of the
iron bed, but they were still damp. The thought of pulling them on was repugnant.
Tugging self-consciously on the hem of the man’s shirt, she took the first few stairs down.
“Good morning,” she said tentatively.
Three heads turned in her direction. Two spoke, one remained silent. “Hi, Mom.”
“Pierce fixed us pancakes and bacon.”
“Watch it, Pierce, you’re dripping the batter on the floor.”
Pierce looked properly abashed and dropped the spoon back into the large mixing bowl.
He had been so taken by the sight of Alicia’s legs, the soft way the shirt clung to her
breasts before falling mid-thigh, the tousled blond hair wreathing her head, and the
sleepy-warm flush of her complexion that he had been momentarily dumbfounded.
Alicia knew she must look like the very devil. Her makeup was now almost twenty-four
hours old. Every time she moved her face it seemed to crack and she could feel loose
flakes of mascara precariously clinging to her lashes. Her hair had been rained on and she
didn’t even have a brush with her. Knowing that a wrong move could reveal more of her
thighs than needed to be revealed, she descended the staircase with stiff carefulness.
She patted each son on the head. “How early did you get Mr. Reynolds up?”
“He was already up. He jogs every morning,” David provided.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Having run out of things to do to avoid it, she glanced up at her host. His cheeks were
ruddy, as though he’d been outdoors and kissed by an early morning mountain chill. The
silver-brown hair was agreeably mussed, falling softly on the tops of his ears and shirt
collar. The green eyes were as startling now as they had been the night before. He
smelled of clean air, a recent shower, and a woodsy fragrance.
“Yes, please,” Alicia said. Her voice had very little power behind it and came out a
breathy gust that she hoped he wouldn’t take the wrong way.
He poured her a cup of coffee, pointing out the cream and sugar on the table. “Have a
seat and I’ll grill you a stack of pancakes.”
“No, thank you.”
“See, I told you. All she thinks about is getting fat.”
“David Russell…” Alicia shook a warning finger at him and both boys collapsed into a fit
of giggles.
Pierce was laughing too. “Everybody has to eat breakfast in the mountains. Besides, I
haven’t eaten yet. I was waiting for you. It would be unfair to make me eat alone.”
Alicia sighed her consent and Pierce poured disks of batter onto the hot grill. “Since you
boys are finished, why don’t you go make the beds while your mom and I are eating? I
don’t want to see one wrinkle in the covers when you’re done.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison and nearly ran over each other scrambling up the stairs.
Alicia watched their enthusiastic retreat in wonder.
“How did you do that?”
“Get them to make the beds without a fuss.”
He grinned as he flipped three perfect golden circular pancakes onto her plate. “It’s
different when someone besides Mom asks you to do something.”
“I guess you’re right,” she said, liberally and sinfully buttering the pancakes. Her mouth
was watering. She was just as generous with the syrup.
“Two, please.”
“More coffee?”
By the time he swung a long jean-clad leg over the back of his chair and joined her, she
was well into the stack of pancakes. “These are delicious.”
“Thanks.” He smiled his pleasure as he watched her eat. “The power came back on
sometime during the night, so I was able to use the grill. Otherwise the menu might have
been boiled eggs.”
She laid her fork down, realizing for the first time that the electricity had indeed been
restored. Why hadn’t she noticed something that important before? Was it because this
cabin was so comfortable that she subconsciously dreaded returning to her own and
leaving the company of this man?
“Good,” she said, taking a sip of coffee with an assumed air of nonchalance. Something
in the way he looked at her across the breakfast table made her uncomfortably aware of
her bare thighs on the seat of the chair and that only a pair of panties kept her from being
naked beneath the shirt.
She felt very naked.
“We’ll have to get to our cabin and out of your way as soon as I help with the dishes.”
“How did your husband die?”
The question was so out of context that Alicia felt it like a well-placed sock to her jaw.
Slightly stunned, she looked at Pierce. He had finished eating and was holding his coffee
cup high, just under his chin, with both hands. He stared at her through the steam that
rose from it.
She saw no reason not to answer him, even though it was an impertinent question for
one stranger to ask another. “He was a businessman, but his avocation was racing sports
cars. One Sunday afternoon, he was racing and…” She lowered her eyes to her ravaged
plate. “He had an accident. He died instantly.”
Pierce set his cup down and folded his arms on the tabletop, leaning forward slightly.
She got the distinct impression that he wanted to touch her, to offer condolence. “You
couldn’t have been married long.”
Alicia’s smile was wistful. “Long enough to have David and Adam barely two years
apart. We married while still in college. I fell in love with Jim Russell the first time I saw
Pierce was alarmed by the jealousy that took a stranglehold on him. He was also
swamped by a feeling of supreme frustration. Why now? Why now was he meeting a
lovely woman who exuded a latent sexuality longing to be released? A woman who
happened to be an unfairly young widow.
When that internal anger seized him again, Alicia was aware of it. His face changed,
becoming hard and closed. Anxiety pinched the corners of his eyes and mouth. Pierce
Reynolds was a man with an ax to grind. The sooner she was away from him, the better.
“We should get started,” she said uneasily. She didn’t need a man in her life. Not now.
Not anymore. And she especially didn’t need one with problems.
Briskly she set about cleaning the kitchen. Once upstairs, she pulled on her
sour-smelling clothes and hustled the boys out of their UCLA T-shirts and back into their
own shirts and shorts. She disregarded their litany of protests and querulous questions.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kindness and hospitality, Mr. Reynolds.”
God, she sounded like a paragraph out of an etiquette handbook and felt just a little
ridiculous standing in the cutoffs when it was too cold for them. Her tennis shoes were like
clammy weights tied onto her feet. The small group was gathered on the porch of the
“I’m glad I was here to help.” Pierce’s tone was just as detached and formal. “You’re
sure you’ll be all right?”
“Yes. Thank you again.”
The two boys looked about as jolly as pallbearers. Pierce knelt down in front of them.
He gave each of them a quarter. “Play a video game for me the next chance you get.”
When they continued to hang their heads in glum silence, Alicia prodded. “What do you
“Thank you,” they mumbled. David lifted his head. “Did you ever play soccer, Pierce?”
“No kidding? Which position?”
“Gee. A running back. I’m too young to play football, but I’m a forward on my soccer
team. We’re the Hurricanes.”
“I’ll bet you’re a good forward.”
The dark eyes lit up. “Maybe you could come see me play sometime.”
Alicia’s heart wrenched at the pitiful plea in the young voice. David desperately needed
a masculine role model. But she had learned long ago that she couldn’t simply provide her
children with a father. She would be taking on a husband too. Since she and Carter had
broken their engagement, there had been no serious candidates for that.
“Maybe sometime.” But he knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
“Where is your house?” Adam asked.
“In Los Angeles.”
“That’s where our house is too.”
“Come on, boys. Say good-bye and thank Mr. Reynolds again,” Alicia intervened before
their departure stretched out any longer.
“Thanks,” they muttered sadly as Alicia all but dragged them across the clearing, past
the parked Jeep that she hadn’t seen the night before, and into the woods that separated
the cabins.
“Oh, we’re going to have such fun,” she said, warding off her own sense of loss and
depression. “Just wait and see. Maybe after we get settled, we’ll go fishing.”
“You won’t want to bait the hooks,” David grumbled.
He was right. The whole idea made her queasy. But she had had to do worse. “Wanna
bet? You can show me how.”
Her forced enthusiasm lasted as long as their walk through the woods and past the
front door of the cabin. Then the three of them came to an abrupt standstill and gazed
about them in mute disbelief. The cabin was a wreck.
A tree limb, driven by the wind, had torn through a screen and crashed through a
window, leaving the floor and one bed showered with glass. Heavy rain had blown in. The
floor was puddled in several places. The beds and even the one sofa were saturated. The
curtains hung on the window in soggy tatters. Alicia reached for the light switch. Nothing
happened. The electricity may have been restored in Pierce’s cabin, but not here. She
shivered to think what would have happened had they not joined Pierce last night. What if
one of them had been lying on that bed when the limb crashed through the window? They
had escaped possible injury and for that she would be eternally grateful. But what was she
going to do now? Were it not for her boys, she would have sat down and cried.
To her dismay, her sons were jubilant. “Can we go back to Pierce’s cabin?”
“Can we, Mom? We liked it there.”
“We’ll be good. We promise. Won’t we, Adam?”
“We’ll be good.”
“No,” she cried, facing them and immediately dousing their expectations. At their
collapsing expressions, she ventured a wide false smile. “Don’t be silly. We can’t force
ourselves on Mr. Reynolds.”
“Then what are we gonna do?” David demanded.
“I don’t know.” If she had let her dejection show, she would have sunk to the floor and
curled into a tight ball. She hated being solely responsible all the time, having to provide
all the answers, make all the decisions. But wasn’t that what she had set out to prove after
Carter had married Sloan, that she could and would be responsible for her own life and
that of her sons?
She had survived the sudden death of her husband and a broken engagement; she had
landed herself a peach of a job that she loved and was good at. By God, she wasn’t going to
let these setbacks ruin their vacation!
She clapped her hands together. “The first thing we’re going to do is change clothes. It’s
much cooler here than it was in the valley, so David, Adam, help me carry in our luggage.”
Despondently they obeyed, but they seemed to revive when they were dressed in jeans
and long-sleeved T-shirts. After a cold hasty shower and shampoo in the small bathroom,
Alicia pulled on an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt left over from college days. It was still
splattered with the paint she and Sloan had used to redecorate their room in the sorority
“Well, it’s for certain we can’t stay here,” Alicia said, assessing the damage in the main
room of the cabin. “We’ll drive down to the lodge. They have cabins that they rent out by
the week. We’ll see if one is available.”
“What if there isn’t?”
What if there isn’t? “Then we’ll go somewhere else,” she said with more bright
cheerfulness than she felt. “Let’s get the bags back in the car.” She checked the ice chest
she had brought along. Most of the ice had melted. If she didn’t refrigerate the groceries
soon, she’d have to throw them away. But that was the least of her problems.
First priority was to find them lodging, someplace where the boys could fish and hike
and generally soak up Mother Nature, which she had been promising to let them do for
months. Not too isolated, not too crowded, not too far from home. Woods, mountain air.
This place had been perfect. Now she might have to take what she could find.
Rescheduling the trip would cause innumerable problems. She had arranged with the
boys’ teachers to excuse them this week. Undoing all that would be a pain.
The clerk at the main desk of the lodge listened sympathetically when she told him
about the storm damage the cabin had sustained.
He scratched behind his ear. “‘Course, those places up there on that ridge are privately
“I know that but I’ve already called my friend who owns it. She gave me permission to
see that things are cleaned up and the window repaired. She’ll pay the bill. Could you find
someone to take care of that for me?”
“Sure, sure. See no problem with that. I can have someone out this afternoon to get
“Thank you. Now we need a place to stay. We’d like to rent one of your cabins for the
“This week?”
Alicia mentally counted to ten. “Yes, this week. Right now.”
He must have had a terrible itch behind his ear, for he was scratching it again. “Don’t
have any available, little lady.”
Alicia clenched her teeth against the chauvinistic slur and instructed Adam to keep his
fingers out of the ears of the buffalo head mounted over the mantel of the lodge’s
fireplace. She tried cajoling. “Surely you have something. I don’t care how large or how
“Nothing,” he said emphatically, and flipped open a reservation book. “Let’s see here…
We’ll have a cabin that sleeps six on December fifteenth. Not many folks come up here
around Christmastime, you see.”
When he said nothing, he meant nothing. She spent a half hour plugging the pay
telephone with quarters trying to find them an alternate recreation spot within driving
distance. She wasted her quarters and her time.
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.” She placed a consoling hand on each boy’s
shoulder. “We’ll have to go home and plan another trip.”
“That’s not fair. You promised!”
“David, I know it doesn’t seem fair. I was looking forward to this week off too.”
“No, you weren’t. You don’t care if we have to go home. You didn’t want to camp.
You’re a silly girl. You’re glad everything’s been ruined!”
“Now listen to me, young man—”
The Jeep braked just a few feet beyond the porch of the lodge and Pierce stepped out of
it. He looked breathtakingly handsome in a plaid flannel shirt with a down vest over it.
“What’s going on?”
Before Alicia could open her mouth, Adam and David ran toward him spouting a
barrage of broken sentences that more or less told him what had happened. Over their
heads, he looked at Alicia.
“David,” Pierce said, fishing in the tight pocket of his jeans for a dollar bill, “will you and
Adam go into the lodge and buy me a newspaper, please?”
“Come on, Adam,” David said wearily. “They’re gonna talk grown-up again and don’t
want us to hear.”
As Adam followed his brother through the door, he was heard to say, “Remember when
Carter had to talk grown-up to Mom? They made us go away all the time.”
Embarrassed, Alicia looked up at Pierce, but he was smiling. “I think they’re making
kids smarter these days.”
She didn’t feel much like smiling, but she managed a wobbly one. “I think so too.”
“Now, what happened?”
Slowly, and in more coherent detail, she explained what had happened. “They’re not
reconciled to the fact that this outing wasn’t meant to be.”
“Wasn’t it?”
The soft urgency in his voice brought her head up and she met his eyes. They were hot,
burning into hers. She couldn’t look at them long and averted her head. “No, I don’t think
it was. Everything’s gone wrong. I’m not the outdoorsy type and they know it. Of course
they blame me for this fiasco.”
He propped his shoulder against a redwood post that supported the porch’s overhang
and gazed out over the gravel road and into the dense woods on the other side. He was
weighing a decision. She somehow knew this and stood by silently, unable to move away,
compelled by some unknown force to wait him out.
He spoke with methodic precision. “Why don’t you and the boys stay with me?” He
turned to look at her. “In my cabin.”
Unconsciously, she twisted her hands together. “We can’t.”
“Why? Because you know I want to make love to you?”
Four things happened at once. Her eyes rounded. Her face paled considerably. She
gasped sharply. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips.
“I’m not a man to mince words, Alicia. Let’s be frank. From the first time I saw you in
the light, standing dripping wet by the front door, I’ve wanted you in bed with me. Before
that actually, when you were bending over the fuse box. Even when I thought you were
another man’s wife, I desired you. And you knew it.”
“But I would never do anything about it.” Her protests died in her throat from surprise.
When he was certain she would hear him out, he continued. “First, you would probably be
insulted if I even tried to coax you into my bed. I’d never want to risk offending you.” He
drew a deep breath and turned away from her again to stare vacantly into the distance.
“Secondly, I have reasons not to get involved with anyone right now. Viable, prohibitive
reasons. Especially since…”
She swallowed. “Since?”
He swiveled around to face her. “Never mind.” He smiled. “Knowing that I would never
take advantage of you or compromise you in any way, will you consent to sharing the
She rubbed her forehead with her thumb and middle finger while she groped for a
sound reason not to accept. His invitation was seeming less and less absurd. “I’m not
afraid of you. I don’t think you’re a man of uncontrollable impulses.”
He laughed then. “Don’t press your luck. I still find you damnably attractive. If you
were to come out in that black nightgown I found last night, all these vows of celibacy
would be shot to hell.”
She blushed and hurriedly changed the subject. “I can’t let us interrupt your vacation.
Do you have any idea what the boys can be like when they get wound up?”
“No,” he replied solemnly. “I missed parenting altogether. But I’d love to know what it’s
like. Your boys are a delight and I’m already looking forward to having them underfoot.”
She shook her head in bewilderment, unaware that the gesture made the sunlight
shimmer in her hair. It was all Pierce could do to keep his hands out of it. “I don’t think
you know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
“Let me worry about that.” He took a step forward, not too close, but close enough to
smell her morning cologne, close enough to feel her body heat. “Please say you’ll stay. I
want you to.”
Throat arched, head thrown back, she peered up into his face, trying to decide if she
had heard a trace of quiet desperation in his entreaty or if she were imagining it. How old
was he? Early forties? His face had the firm stamp of mature masculinity on it, but wasn’t
coarse. His brows were thick and often spoke eloquently for themselves. A finely sculpted
nose, long and narrow and slightly flared at the nostrils, went well with a full and sensuous
lower lip. Looking at his mouth made her think shamefully erotic thoughts.
For that reason alone she should refuse his invitation. There were many reasons not to
accept. Capsulizing them, it was just plain stupid and highly irresponsible to spend a week
with a total stranger. Despite his manners and cultured voice and obvious intelligence, she
knew nothing about him beyond his name and that he had a living mother and no wife.
But instinctively she trusted him. She chose to trust her instincts. “Are you sure?”
His answer was a broad grin. Just then the boys came bounding out the door of the
lodge with Pierce’s newspaper. He scooped Adam up in his arms, straining biceps Alicia
couldn’t help but be impressed by. “Guess what, fellows? You’re going to stay with me
this week. So the only place you’re going now is to help me unload your car at my cabin.”
They whooped with noisy glee. “Can we ride in the Jeep? We’ve never ridden in a Jeep
Pierce laid a hand on David’s shoulder. “Yes, you may ride in the jeep, but first you
have an apology to make to your mother, don’t you?”
Both Alicia and David looked up at him in bewilderment. “What for?” David asked.
“I heard your tone of voice and what you said to her when I drove up. You were
blaming her for something that was beyond her control. Do you think that’s fair?”
David’s chin fell almost to his knees. “No, sir,” he mumbled into his chest.
“You’re the man of the family. As such, you should know to accept things graciously
when there’s nothing you can do to change them. Don’t you think so?”
“Yes, sir.” The boy turned to his mother. “I’m sorry.”
Alicia knelt down and hugged him hard. “Apology accepted. Now let’s concentrate on
having a good time, all right?”
David smiled tremulously. Pierce curved his hand around the back of the boy’s neck
and steered him toward the Jeep. “Why don’t you sit in the front seat this time and help
me navigate?”
“Can I too, Pierce?” Adam wanted to know as he trotted after them on his chubby legs.
“Next time.” He glanced over his shoulder to see Alicia standing where they had left
her. “Coming?” he asked softly.
She nodded. “I need to make arrangements with the clerk for the repairs on the cabin.
I’ll follow in our car.” As she watched them go, she wondered why there were tears in her
* * *
The day didn’t lack for activity. It was a chore to unload her car and find a place for
everything in the cabin. Then Pierce took the boys on a wood-gathering mission while
Alicia prepared a lunch of soup and sandwiches. In the afternoon they hiked around the
lake, and returned to cook steaks on the outdoor barbecue someone had had the foresight
to build when the cabin was constructed. The dinner was sumptuous, but the boys
yawned through theirs. Immediately afterward they were bathed and put to bed.
Alicia went to sit on the front steps of the cabin to soak up the silence, the crisp night
air, the star-studded sky undimmed by city lights. Pierce joined her, carrying two mugs of
coffee, one of which she accepted with a soft thank you. Rather than being an intrusion,
she found that his presence enhanced her sense of peacefulness.
“They’re already asleep.”
“I hope Adam’s snoring doesn’t keep you awake.”
“I’ve been told I snore too.”
Alicia wondered how many women had told him that. To keep her mind from
wandering in that direction, she guided it to neutral territory. “You said your company
owns the cabin. What company?”
“Ecto Engineers.”
“What kind of engineering?”
“You design airplanes? Military planes? What?”
He settled and she liked the sound and feel of his male body shifting comfortably. “We
do some military contracts. Mostly we work with private aircraft firms, design corporate
jets, that kind of thing.”
“Are your designs brilliant and innovative?” She was teasing.
“Yes,” he answered honestly and smiled a dashing smile. They both laughed softly.
She glanced over her shoulder toward the dark cabin. “What would the owners of your
company say if they knew you had invited a widow and her brood to share their cabin
with you?”
“Well, since I’m a full partner in the company, I’m entitled to invite whomever I want.”
She might have guessed that he wasn’t a wage earner. He reeked of success. Even his
casual clothes bespoke good taste that one paid a high price for.
“What about you?” he asked. “What work do you do?”
“I’m an assistant fashion coordinator for three boutiques. Glad Rags we’re called.” His
eyes took in her ponytail, paint-smeared sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. She laughed.
“You’re too polite to make a sarcastic comment.” Her elbow found his ribs and because he
was as warm as a stove, she didn’t move away as quickly as she should have.
“I’m the epitome of diplomacy,” he said, wishing she hadn’t moved away after touching
him, even if it was with her elbow. She was so damned soft, so indubitably feminine.
“What does an assistant fashion coordinator do?”
“Helps plan the overall fashion statement the stores are going to project for a particular
“In plain English, what the hell does that mean?”
She laughed and marveled at how relaxed she was. “For instance, are we going to be
trendy or understated? Are we going to be avantgarde or classical? Does that make
“More or less. Do you like it?”
“I love it. I’ve been preparing for it all my life and didn’t know it. Despite what you see
here,” – she bowed her head mockingly – “I love clothes, have a knack for putting things
together, and shopping has always been one of my favorite pastimes. Now I can do it with
someone else’s money.” Her face clouded as she remembered her dilemma.
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”
“I asked.”
Setting her coffee mug aside, she studied him for a moment before she began. It felt
good to talk to an adult, someone objective, uninvolved. She had eliminated her parents
and good friends, even Sloan and Carter, as able to give her an unbiased opinion.
“My supervisor is expecting a baby next month and has decided to leave for good. It’s
her cabin I was borrowing,” she said as an aside. “Anyway, the owners of the stores have
offered me her job. They know a lot about merchandising and money management and
absolutely nothing about taste and fashion. I have until the end of the month to give them
my answer before they start looking for someone else.”
“What will you decide?”
She leaned back, propping herself up with straight arms. If she had realized how that
pose emphasized the shape and size of her breasts and the effect it had on Pierce, she
wouldn’t have sat that way. “I don’t know, Pierce.” It was the first time she had said his
name, and she swung her head around to see if he had noticed.
“I like that much better than Mr. Reynolds,” he said softly. He tugged on a wayward
curl before tucking it behind her ear and lamented the multitude of reasons why he
couldn’t smooth his palm over her breast and seek the nipple with his thumb. “Do you
want the job?”
“Yes. It’s challenging and exciting. I’d make much more money.”
“Well then?”
“It’s a demanding job that requires long hours and some travel. I worry about
short-changing the boys as it is. They have only one parent. Don’t I owe them my
undivided attention? I feel guilty if I’m five minutes late getting home.”
“You owe something to yourself too. Adam and David will be on their own one day. If
you’ve devoted your life exclusively to them, where will that leave you?”
“I’ve thought of all that,” she said slowly. She had argued with herself until she was blue
in the face and the solution to her dilemma still eluded her. Her time was running out. She
must make a decision.
But not tonight.
“Thanks for being a sounding board.”
“My pleasure.” He took her hand. “You’ll make the right choice, Alicia.”
It was a long time before she could find the will to pull her hand from the warm
strength of his. She knew being held in his arms would feel even better. They would be
even warmer, stronger. “I think I’d better go upstairs now.
“Who is Carter?”
Chapter 3
His question caught her hunched and ready to stand up, but brought her bottom back
down onto the wooden porch with a jolt. “Why do you ask?”
“Because the boys refer to him constantly. Carter said, Carter did. Just about
everything in their world is measured by how Carter would respond to it. I’m curious.”
“Carter Madison.” She knew full well it wasn’t strictly curiosity that had caused him to
ask. His face was too tense for mild curiosity. “He’s an old friend.”
“Carter Madison, Carter Madison.” Pierce repeated the name like rapidly snapping
fingers. He was trying to place it and when he did, he turned to her. “Carter Madison the
“You’ve heard of him. He’d like that.”
“I’ve read most of his novels.”
“He’d like that even better.”
“I’ve seen him interviewed on television talk shows. Charming, glib, good-looking guy.
What happened? Why didn’t you marry him?”
So, he remembered the tale the boys had told him the night before. No wonder he was
inquisitive. “He married my best friend, Sloan, instead.” Pierce’s face went blank, as
though he thought he had committed an unpardonable blunder. Alicia relieved his mind
by explaining. “Carter was my husband Jim’s best friend. After Jim was killed, Carter was
marvelous. He felt responsible for me and sheltered me from some of the most
unpleasant aspects of recent widowhood. He helped me with the boys. Eventually he
became an essential factor in our lives. I hated to admit it, but we took him for granted.
He asked me to marry him and I accepted. I felt lost, lonely. Carter was a familiar, safe
bulwark to lean against for protection.”
She smiled with fond memories. Husbands and wives should be good friends, but good
friends should never become husband and wife. “I sent Carter to Sloan’s
bed-and-breakfast house in San Francisco so he could finish a book before the wedding.
They were instantly attracted to one another. It didn’t take him long to realize that he
was marrying me for the wrong reasons. Almost simultaneously I realized the same thing.
We broke off the engagement the day of the wedding and he married Sloan a few weeks
later. They’re very happy. She’s expecting their first child.”
Pierce sipped his coffee, which had to be cold by now. Alicia thought he did it more for
something to do to cover his unwarranted interest than because he wanted the coffee.
“No regrets?”
“Absolutely none. I love Carter. I always did, as Jim’s and my friend. I love Sloan, who
remains my best friend. I’m very glad to have been instrumental in bringing them
together. They needed each other.”
“There’s been no one else in your life since Jim’s death?”
She had tried the singles scene for a while, but found that kind of life wasn’t for her.
Before she and Carter had acknowledged what a mistake they were making, there had
been a skiing weekend in Tahoe. A friend, who was much more accustomed to the singles
life than Alicia, had enticed her to go. She had had a good time, met a very nice man
named Mac, and ended up staying the night in his room. It had felt good to be held, to be
loved. Her relationship with Carter had never gone far beyond the platonic. Mac’s
affection had been just what she needed at the time.
But later, when he had come down from his home in Oregon to see her, he was still nice,
he was still attentive and affectionate, but the magic of having a weekend fling in Tahoe
was missing. They had endured a strained dinner together and he had said good night at
her door, both of them chagrined and a little sad that it hadn’t been the same. He hadn’t
pressed the issue or tried to force anything. She had appreciated that and was glad he
didn’t call again.
Well-meaning friends, erroneously under the impression that she was grieving over her
loss of Carter, paired her with any number of eligible men. Most of those evenings had
been disasters and it was a relief to both her and her escort when they were over.
She had frequented the singles bars and discos with girlfriends who were currently
unattached. They hovered like circling vultures waiting for an available man to drop
before swooping down on him. The whole scene seemed tawdry and sleazy and Alicia felt
cheapened by it. She started making excuses not to go, until they stopped calling to invite
her. The well of her social life dried up about the time she found her job and after that she
didn’t miss it.
Only now, in retrospect, did she realize how she had missed talking to an adult. A man.
That’s a euphemism, Alicia. What you’ve missed is the scent and strength of
masculinity. And admit it, is feels good having this man near you.
* * *
She missed something else too. But she couldn’t allow herself to think about that. The love
she and Jim had shared in their marriage bed had been so special, she never wanted to
settle for anything less. Still, Pierce was extremely attractive and she felt that just
beneath his veneer of polished manners, sexuality seethed like a cauldron ready to boil
over. What kind of lover would he be? Tender and relaxed or fierce and intense? Or an
exciting combination?
She yanked herself out of her musings and stood up quickly. “Well, good night.”
“Good night. Don’t forget the fishing trip first thing in the morning.”
She groaned. “David and Adam were ecstatic about the fishing boat, but I’m concerned.
They’ve never been on a lake in such a small boat. Do you think it’s safe?”
“We’ll lay down the maritime rules and regulations before we even embark.” He saluted
and she laughed.
“I know I sound like a mother.”
“You sound like a sensible, caring, loving woman.”
The way he said it made her throat go dry. There was no moisture with which to wet
her lower lip when she dragged her tongue along it.
“Alicia, are you glad you stayed?” Shadows kept her from seeing his face, which was
just as well. Longing and desire were nakedly apparent.
“Yes.” She tried to sound cheerful and bright and peppy. She sounded breathless and
aroused and languorous.
“Good,” he said, nodding slowly. “Good.”
In vain, she tried to wet her lips again. “Are you coming in? Shall I turn off the lights?”
He shook his head. “No. I’ll be in shortly.”
The screen door closed behind her and he heard her soft tread on the stairs to the
sleeping loft. He could still smell her hair, still see her eyes reflecting the moonlight,
creating twin clusters of sapphires and diamonds beneath perfectly arched brows, still
detail the shapely swell of her breasts.
He didn’t follow her in because he knew if he did, he couldn’t have stopped himself from
taking her in his arms, pressing her softness against him, kissing her deeply and without
restraint, touching her, tasting her, and making her his.
* * *
Alicia awoke from her second night under Pierce’s roof the same way she had the
previous morning, well rested and with a feeling of contentment. Stretching luxuriously,
she glanced at the other twin bed, and, as on the first morning, David had already left it.
Lazily, she indulged herself and lay still for a moment, enjoying the concert of the birds in
the trees outside.
It came to her suddenly that that was the only sound she heard. This morning there
was no commotion in the kitchen. The boys were being awfully quiet in light of the fact
that they were going fishing.
Alicia threw back the covers and padded to the stairs on bare feet. She had slept in her
own nightgown last night, but it covered little more than the borrowed shirt had, despite
the fact that it came to her ankles. Its scooped neckline showed an expanse of creamy
California-tanned décolletage. The sleeveless bodice left her arms bare.
She tripped down the stairs, becoming more panicked with each step. There was no
movement in the house. It was sleepy and quiet. Maybe they had gotten up and gone
without her, but she doubted Pierce would leave her to worry like this. She ran toward
the front door, which was standing slightly ajar, pulled it open, and scanned the grounds
surrounding the cabin. Nothing. Yes, they had probably gone without her.
Just then she heard rustling movements behind her and whirled around. My God!
Pierce was sound asleep, alone in the double bed. Alicia’s heart began to pound out danger
signals. She gave the forebodingly empty cabin one more hasty inspection before she
crammed her fingers against her mouth to stifle a whimper of panic, at the same time
bolting for the bed.
“Pierce!” The heel of her hand landed hard on his shoulder with the impetus of her
lunge behind it.
“What?” His eyes popped open wildly as he struggled to sit up. He shook his head to
clear it. “What?”
“The boys are gone.” The words were clipped, emphatic, rapid, like bullets being fired
from the barrel of a gun.
He stared at her blankly for a moment. Didn’t he remember her, recognize her? “The
boys are gone?” he repeated.
Her head bobbed in frantic confirmation. “I don’t see them anywhere outside. They’re
gone.” Her voice cracked on the last word, and that seemed to finally alert Pierce to her
distress. The covers were flung back and he sprang off the bed.
His hands closed around her shoulders. “They’re okay. I’m sure of it. They probably
just wandered off.” His palms were moving up and down her arms, warming her, the way
a paramedic would try to revive a victim of shock. “Maybe they’re on their way down to
the boat.”
“At the lake? Oh God. They won’t know the danger. What if they try to get in the
He pulled her to him quickly, hard, crushing her against his body and pressing her face
into his chest. “It’s all right. I promise it is.” He whispered urgently into her hair, willing
her to believe him. “Hurry now. Let’s dress and go look.” He pushed her away and peered
into her eyes.
She nodded mechanically and turned to run up the stairs, catching her nightgown in a
damp fist and hiking it high. In minutes they met at the front door. “They were so excited
about the fishing, I think the pier is our best bet to start,” Pierce told her as they
scrambled down the steps of the porch.
“So do I.” Even the pinkish golden rays of the new morning sun didn’t relieve the pallor
of her face.
Pierce took her hand and they ran down the overgrown path that led from the cabin
toward the lake. He did his best to push aside tree limbs and warn her of roots that
snaked across the trail, but she stumbled along behind him, fear and dread making her
blind to the hazards. By the time the lake came into sight like a silver platter lying amidst
the woods, she had been scratched and bruised.
“Do you see them?” Anxiously she stepped around Pierce where he had halted on the
edge of the clearing.
“Yes,” he said, letting out the word on a long exhalation. Alicia knew then that he had
been just as concerned as she, but had remained calm for her benefit. He pointed in the
direction of the pier. Both boys were sitting on it, legs dangling over the water. They were
happily chatting, blissfully unaware of the chaos they had caused in their mother’s heart.
Pierce took her hand and they jogged down the gradual slope to the pier. The boys
heard them coming and ran to meet them. “We’re gonna catch millions of fish. We’ve been
watching them, haven’t we, Adam?”
“They swim right up to the pier.”
The two young faces turned up to the adults were flushed with excitement and high
color. “Are you ready? The poles are in the boat. Adam and me checked.”
Alicia paled again to think of them climbing in and out of the boat that was moored at
the water’s edge. They had taken swimming lessons for the last three summers and both
could swim fairly well. But a neighborhood pool where the depth of the water was clearly
demarcated and the cold, murky waters of a lake were two different things entirely.
“David, Adam, I was scared out of my wits!”
For the first time the boys realized that their mother and Pierce weren’t smiling and
their exuberance was immediately snuffed out. Their smiles deflated and they took steps
backward, away from the wrath they felt coming.
“It was extremely dangerous for the two of you to come down here alone.” Pierce’s
brows were as scolding as his tone of voice.
“We didn’t do anything wrong, honest, Pierce,” David said in a small voice.
“You left the cabin without permission. That was very wrong. Your mother woke up
and you weren’t there. She was worried half to death and so was I.”
David and Adam looked mournfully at each other. Adam’s lip began to quiver. “David
wanted to get to the lake early.”
“So did you!” David said, wheeling on his brother. “He came upstairs and woke me up.
“It doesn’t matter whose idea it was,” Alicia said with forced calm. Now that she knew
they were all right, she was trembling on the inside from the aftershocks that still assailed
her. “Don’t ever, ever wander off like that without letting me know where you are.”
“Are we in trouble?”
“Can we still go fishing?”
“Did you understand what your mother said?” Pierce’s voice was so intimidating that
even Alicia flinched. “You are never to disappear like that again.” Both boys hung their
heads in contrition and answered with meek “Yes, sirs.” They were miserable, but Pierce
didn’t relent. “Let’s go back to the cabin. We want a cup of coffee and I think you should
eat some breakfast before we get started.”
“Then we still get to go?” David asked, bravely, hopefully.
Now that they seemed to have learned their lesson, it was all Pierce could do to keep
from smiling. “Alicia and I will talk about it on the way back. It might make a difference if,
when we get back, we find the beds being made and the cabin straightened.”
David streaked off toward the trail, Adam doing his best to keep up with him.
Alicia slumped as the tension ebbed out of her. She gazed at her sons, realizing, as
parents are wont to do after a crisis, just how tenuous their lives were and how important
they were to her. “Thank you.” Her voice was husky with emotion. “I was ready to light
into them out of fear and anger. You handled it perfectly by properly chastising them but
also making sure they understood their mistake.”
He laughed shortly. “They’re not my kids. That makes it a helluva lot simpler.”
“But you were worried too.”
“I was worried too,” he admitted ruefully. He touched her arm. “You okay?”
She shuddered briefly to shake off the last traces of trauma and looked up at him. “Yes,
I’m fine now.”
Their eyes melted together. Realization of what had happened only minutes ago
dawned on them at the same time. It had had a stunning impact on them, but they hadn’t
been able to pause and dwell on it then. The indulgence had been postponed until now,
now when they could afford the time, could devote to it the concentration such an
occurrence deserved.
Her mind tracked backward and Alicia could see him coming off the bed, a study of
virile grace and power, naked save for a pair of briefs that hid nothing and emphasized
much. There was much to emphasize.
Her palms began to perspire.
The chest hair that matted the hard curves had tickled her nose as he held her tightly
against him. He was an even toasty tan color all over. She had longed to explore him
slowly, to drink in with the sensors on her palms the varied textures. He had offered her
comfort when she needed it, but at the same time he had acquainted her with his rawly
masculine body.
Pierce was remembering too. But his recollections were of softness, the kind a man is
compelled to cover, to protect, to mate with, the kind of softness hard virility yearns to be
nestled in. Blond hair was riotous around her head, much as it was now. It fell on skin the
color of ripe peaches and he had longed to taste it. He had wanted to taste her mouth, too,
a mouth that seemed in perpetual need of kissing.
Her breasts had swayed lush and heavy and heavenly beneath her nightgown. When
she was bending over him, shaking him awake, he had seen their full glory displayed
under the gaping neckline of the gown. Almost as enticing were the dusky shadows of her
nipples that shyly pushed against the cloudlike cotton when she was standing straight. He
remembered what it felt like to hold her against him, to feel the blatant femininity that
roused every sleeping cell in his body.
And now it had become just too much to resist. He simply had to kiss her.
One hand cupped her jaw and tilted her face up. The other went inside her jacket. His
arm curved dictatorially around her back and hauled her close.
His mouth came down on hers, slanting over surprised, slightly parted lips that didn’t
stand a chance against the onslaught. It was a potent kiss and had an immediacy about it
that coerced her lips to relax against the thrusts of his tongue. It was buried in the soft,
sweet recess of her mouth, where it refused to be stilled and continued its stroking.
Later, Alicia assured herself that she had struggled and that his greater strength had
overpowered her. She lied to herself. For actually her body inclined toward his and her
feet followed with tiny baby steps that brought them between his hard straddling legs.
There was no denying that he wanted her in the most primeval way. He was a steely hard
pressure against the fly of her jeans.
But his mouth was softly persuasive. Against such gentle persuasion, she had no
argument. His kiss made her feel as if she were the most desirable woman in the world,
the only woman in the world, and that if he didn’t have her, he might perish.
When at last he lifted his head, he seemed impatient with himself. The hand securing
her jaw dropped to his side and the other was withdrawn from her jacket. “We’d better
get back and see to the boys,” he said gruffly before turning in the direction of the cabin.
Left with a sense of loss, Alicia forlornly followed him. She hadn’t invited his kiss. It
shouldn’t have happened. But since it had, she wished he had cuddled her for a while
Such romantic sentiments were utter foolishness. She didn’t want this man. Did she?
* * *
Fishing in the boat turned out to be a complete success. Pierce instructed the boys on
what they could and could not do in a boat that small and they returned to the pier with a
creel of fish and four slightly sunburned noses.
In the afternoon, Alicia opted for a nap while the “men” went into town for groceries.
She handed Pierce a shopping list and a twenty-dollar bill.
He frowned at the money. “I insist,” she said firmly, forcibly curving his fingers around
the bill.
“Let it be noted that I concede under protest.”
“Fine. Just so long as you concede.”
She was glad that the kiss that morning hadn’t put a wedge of tension between them.
By the time they reached the cabin to find the downstairs bed already made and the ones
upstairs being worked on, he was conversing as though nothing had happened. She tried
to ignore that he went out of his way not to touch her or be alone with her. His avoidance
both relieved and piqued her, so it was wiser not to think about it at all.
“Which bed are you going to sleep in, Mommy?” Adam asked, feeling important since it
hadn’t even been suggested that he stay behind to take a nap rather than accompany
David and Pierce. “You can sleep in mine and Pierce’s. We wouldn’t mind, would we,
The corners of Pierce’s lips were twitching with suppressed laughter as he cocked a
rakish eyebrow at a blushing Alicia. “No. While we’re gone she can sleep in any bed she
chooses. She has the run of the place.”
“In that case,” she said, buttoning up David’s jacket and futilely finger-combing his dark
hair, “I may make a pallet under the trees.”
“You won’t either. You’d be afraid of snakes and bugs and stuff.”
She tweaked her eldest son on the nose. “You’re right.”
The boys raced for the Jeep, fighting over who would get to sit in the front seat first.
“You’re sure you don’t mind staying alone?”
Her laugh was spontaneous and genuine. “Are you kidding? Do you know how rare
these precious occasions are?”
“Okay,” Pierce said. “Just don’t open the door to strangers,” he warned with a mocking
Alicia waved them off with a glowing feeling warming her from the inside out. But on
the fringes of that energy source, away from that tingling heat, there lurked an
indefinable sadness.
When she woke from her nap – she had slept in the upstairs twin bed – Pierce and the
boys were building a fire in a ring of stones well away from the cabin but not too close to
the trees.
“Hey, Mom,” David called out when he saw her looking at them from the upstairs
window, “we’re gonna cook the fish in the coals of the fire. Pierce knows how. Are you
coming down now?”
“Have the fish been scaled and gutted?”
“Then I’m coming down.”
While they tended the fire and wrapped potatoes, ears of corn, and seasoned fillets of
fish in foil, Alicia baked a double batch of Toll-House cookies. “Those smell scrumptious,”
Pierce said from over her shoulder as she dropped the balls of dough onto the cookie
“Better than raw fish,” she said, wrinkling her nose and sniffing the air.
He laughed. “Just wait till you taste it.” Reaching around her, he scooped up a fingerful
of the dough from the mixing bowl and plopped it into his mouth. She spun around to
confront him.
“Pierce! You’re worse than the boys.”
“Am I?” His eyes were dancing emeralds of mischief as he laughed down at her. He
bent forward quickly and Alicia thought he was going to kiss her, possibly on her nose. But
just as suddenly as it had sparked, the light in his eyes went out and he pulled back.
Turning away, he went through the screen door and she was left staring after him as she
had been that morning, wondering what she had done to turn him off so abruptly.
The boys enjoyed that meal more than any other they had ever eaten. They all ate
outside, sitting around the fire. The boys hung on to Pierce’s every word as he told them
how he had learned to cook over a campfire on a hunting trip with his father. Once again
Alicia was grateful to him. She could never have made the week such fun. He was just
what her boys needed, a masculine presence, a role model. It was plain to see that they
had awarded him a place next to their other heroes, their late father and Carter Madison.
For a man who had never had children, who wasn’t even married, Pierce showed
infinite patience with them. Unless he was a very good actor, he was enjoying the boys’
company as much as they were his. When they talked to him, they held his attention. He
gave everything they said importance and credence, when she often tuned out their
chatter, listening with half an ear and recording only what she deemed important.
“Off to bed, you two,” he said after they had carried the dishes into the cabin.
“Oh, please, can we stay up longer?”
“Nope,” Pierce said, shaking his head. “If you go to bed without an argument I may
have a surprise for you tomorrow.”
“Can’t tell.”
“He can’t tell, David, or it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Pierce laughed. “That’s right, Adam. Good night or no surprise.”
After hasty kisses aimed in the general direction of Alicia’s mouth, the boys went into
the cabin.
“More wine?” Pierce asked Alicia once they were alone. Only the occasional stirring of
autumn leaves and the crackling friendliness of the fire broke the pervading quiet.
An aluminum bucket had served as their wine cooler. He had surprised her with it after
dishing up their campfire supper. “White, of course, madam, to go with your fish,” he had
said in a sonorous tone and executed a stiff formal butler’s bow. Alicia’s dumbfoundedness
had given way to delight as he poured her a liberal portion into a tin cup.
“No, thank you,” she said now. “It was delicious, but no more for me.”
“Half a glass? It’s good for the soul.”
“If my soul gets to feeling any better, I’m going to fall over in a stupor.”
He laughed. “A woman who can’t hold her liquor, huh? That could prove dangerous.”
They lapsed into silence, smiling, looking at each other. Then, because looking at each
other proved to be unsettling, they stopped looking at each other. Then stopped smiling.
The longer the silence stretched out, the more awkward it became. Finally Alicia got up,
dusted off the seat of her pants, and said, “In spite of my nap, I’m sleepy. Thank you for a
wonderful dinner, Pierce. I’ll do the dishes before I go upstairs.”
How he moved that quickly, she never knew. By the time she leaned down to pick up
her cup of wine and turned toward the cabin, he was standing inches away blocking her
“I shouldn’t have kissed you this morning.” His body was rigid with self-enforced
“No,” she said, her head down, eyes staring at his boots, “you shouldn’t have.”
“I shouldn’t kiss you now either.”
“But I’m going to anyway.”
Before her reflexes, dulled by the wine, could respond, she was being folded into his
arms and molded against his hard frame. His lips plundered again, but more sweetly this
time. They savored her as they whisked back and forth over her mouth before they
settled and pressed. His tongue parted her obliging lips to tease the sensitive inner lining.
When he heard her murmur of arousal, it plunged deeply and with authority to
investigate her mouth at will.
What little resistance she had initially fell away like melting wax. She craved the
tutelage of his mouth, for surely she had never been kissed with such expertise. His
passion frightened and thrilled her. It reminded her body of its long abstinence from all
things sexual. Her sense of shame was diminished by the sweet flow of wine through her
veins. She arched against him invitingly.
The sounds he made in his throat were wonderful to her ears. They were guttural,
animal, the sounds of a male mating – or desperately wanting to. It was gratifying to her
ego that she, a mother, a widow, could excite an exciting man like Pierce.
He left her mouth and swept hot airy kisses on her cheeks and nose, her jaw and
earlobes, on her temples and in her hair. One hand slipped past her waist and secured her
hips hard against his. The other pushed aside the collar of her shirt. He planted his mouth
at the base of her throat. When his lips parted, she felt the scalding caress of his tongue,
rasping and velvety at once.
“I swear to you, this is not why I encouraged you to stay,” he said thickly. His lips
sipped at her neck.
“I know.” She didn’t remember when she had set down her cup and raised her arms,
but now her fingers were tangled in his hair and she was holding his head fast.
“I tried to keep my hands off you. I swear I did. I couldn’t any longer.”
His mouth met hers in another fiery kiss. An erotically gifted instrument, his tongue
made love to her mouth. With rhythmic, wild, savage thrusts he deflowered it and left no
question as to his claim of absolute possession. His hand was once more inside her jacket,
bolder now than it had been that morning. It tensed around the slimness of her waist and
slid up her ribs to mold to the undercurve of her breast. She held her breath.
A long sustained sigh soughed through her lips when his hand covered her with strong
warmth. He massaged her through her sweater, rubbing the soft angora wool back and
forth over her fevered skin until he felt her nipple bud in his palm. He pressed it with his
thumb, circled it, stroked.
“Oh, God.” He strained the curse through clenched teeth and Alicia bit back a protest of
outrage and frustration when he released her and stepped away. He turned his back. She
ran for the cabin and let the door slam behind her. Fury and humiliation battled within
her. Never in her life had she felt both emotions so keenly.
It took long minutes before she was restored. She forced herself across the room to the
kitchen area, where she methodically began to wash dishes. She wasn’t about to run
upstairs and hide her shame like a thwarted teenager. Rejection tasted brassy and bitter
in her mouth, but she’d be damned before she’d let him know it.
He stepped through the door. “Are you all right?”
Her whole body was flashing hotly and freezing cold, her nerves were in pandemonium,
she was quaking with unrequited desire, all five senses were shooting off like skyrockets
and he wanted to know if she was all right. At that moment she hated him and could
barely garner enough civility to gnash out, “Of course. As you said, you shouldn’t have
kissed me. It was better to end it there. No hard feelings.”
Frustrated in his own right, his arm shot out and he wound a handful of her hair around
his fist and pulled her around to face him. Amazingly it was almost a caress of tenderness,
for he didn’t hurt her.
He didn’t speak until she raised hostile eyes to meet his. “I wanted to kiss you, Alicia,
and to go on kissing you.” He pulled her closer, still not making his hold painful. “And I
didn’t want it to end there. I didn’t want it to end until we had made love so many times
we were exhausted. Can’t you tell how much I want you?”
She could now, now that he had moved closer still and the lower part of his body was
stamped against her thigh. He laid his hard cheek along hers; his lips moved against her
temple. Every pore of his body secreted anguish, a pain she couldn’t identify. “It’s
important to me that you know how much I want you and that my reasons for not making
love to you are insurmountable. Otherwise…” He heaved a regretful sigh and stepped
back. Gradually he let go of her hair. He studied her face, all but flaying off the skin and
reading her every thought with those piercing green eyes. Then he said abjectly, “Go
upstairs. I’ll finish up here.”
She didn’t dare argue. If she stayed with him for as long as another heartbeat, she
might very well make a fool of herself and beg him to take her despite whatever problems
prevented it.
* * *
What could it be?
Alicia studied Pierce from the upstairs window. It was early. Miraculously she had
awakened before the boys and hadn’t been able to go back to sleep as she reviewed the
disturbing events of the night before.
Pierce had been jogging this morning. His warm-up suit was drenched with sweat.
Obviously he had driven himself to the limit of his endurance. He was propped against a
tree, staring up through its branches. His face was twisted with his private turmoil. He
wiped perspiration out of his eyes and Alicia heard him curse.
Whatever it was that tormented him, whatever that insurmountable obstacle was, it
was terrible and something he couldn’t eliminate with his own resources.
Alicia couldn’t let it worry her. At the end of the week they would go their separate
ways. In the meantime, she had her own problem to struggle with. Her mind must remain
occupied solely with that.
Yet, looking down at Pierce’s bowed head, she confessed that objectivity where he was
concerned had vanished the moment he had kissed her. Whether or not he had invited
her to be, whether or not he wanted her to be, she was already involved.
The surprise he had promised the boys turned out to be mopeds, which Alicia was
coerced into riding. They rode doubles, David behind Pierce and Adam clinging to her
waist and demanding that she go faster.
The next day it rained in the morning and Pierce entertained the boys with games of
checkers and lessons on whittling until the sun came out. Alicia baked brownies and made
a savory stew for their supper. They checked on the other cabin and saw that the repairs
had been done satisfactorily. No one suggested that Alicia and the boys should move to it,
but during those two days Pierce didn’t make a romantic overture. Their relationship
returned to that of friendly companionship. What had taken place after their cookout
might well never have happened.
“I’d like to stay close to the cabin today, if you think we can keep the boys busy.” They
were having a last cup of morning coffee. David and Adam had finished the chores Pierce
had assigned them and were playing with a soccer ball in front of the cabin.
“Sure. Whatever. Please don’t feel you have to entertain us every minute. If there’s
something you want to do by yourself—”
“It’s not that.” He set his cup aside and she could tell he was uneasy. “I’m expecting a
guest tonight for dinner.”
“Oh, Pierce, you should have said something sooner!” She leaped out of her chair like a
wound-up spring let loose. “We’ll leave immediately and make the cabin available—”
“Sit down,” he said, laughing and grabbing her wrist and forcing her back into the chair
she had vacated. “I want you to stay and be here for dinner.”
She looked at him dubiously. “When you have company coming?”
His eyes locked into hers. “It’s not actually company. It’s my daughter.”
Chapter 4
Chrissy Reynolds arrived as the sun was sinking behind the woods. Braking a red Porsche
to a stop in front of the cabin, the tall, attractive, slender young woman alighted. She was
welcomed by David and Adam who, disregarding Alicia’s instructions that they not race
out the door, bounded through it and down the steps to admire the car that was to them
the ultimate status symbol.
“Well, hello.” Chrissy laughed as she was flanked by the boys, both of whom were
staring up at her curiously. “Do I have the right cabin?”
“Yes, you do.” Pierce took the front steps down to greet his daughter. Though he
walked with a somewhat calmer stride, he was just as anxious to see her as the boys had
been. “Hello, Chrissy.”
Watching from behind the security of the screen, Alicia saw Chrissy’s smile brighten
bashfully. “Hello, Daddy,” Alicia heard her say hesitantly. His daughter was actually shy
of him. Alicia didn’t wonder at this after what Pierce had told her that morning.
“Your daughter!” she had exclaimed almost soundlessly. “Your daughter?” She had
sprung out of the chair again and for the second time he pulled her back down. She
yanked her hand away but remained seated. “You told me you didn’t have any children.”
The first thing she suspected was that he had a wife and God knew how many children
waiting for him at home. She might have had one fling in Tahoe since her husband’s death,
but that was the extent of her romantic adventures. Being kissed and kissing back a
married man was something else again.
She was hurt beyond reason and out of proportion to the extent that she was involved
with Pierce. He hadn’t seemed the type to lie so deviously.
“Alicia, don’t jump to conclusions before you hear me out. I told you I’d had no part of
parenting. I never said I didn’t have a child. My wife and I divorced soon after Chrissy’s
birth. I abdicated my responsibility for rearing her to her mother, something that I
bitterly regret. I wanted to see my daughter this week. It’s become very important that I
spend time with her. That’s why I invited her to come up here one evening and have
dinner with me.”
She had been mollified, but still felt that he had misled her. “We’ll leave before she
arrives. I’m sure she won’t expect you to have other guests when you made a special
point of inviting her to join you.”
“She doesn’t expect anything one way or another. I wasn’t exaggerating how I
neglected her while she was growing up. The occasions she’s visited me are
embarrassingly few in number. Her mother and I can barely tolerate the sight of each
other, so at the time the custody papers were being drawn up, it seemed best for all
concerned if I stayed out of their lives.”
Instinctive female curiosity began to crawl over Alicia like an annoying tiny insect that
one can’t see but can feel. She tried to brush it away. But she’d been bit. She was dying to
know the details of his marriage and its breakup. However, if a man didn’t even call his
ex-wife by her first name, he wasn’t going to talk about her. Alicia had remained silent.
“I thought I’d cook beef stroganoff for dinner,” he said. “Do you think that will be
He was nervous! She could tell by the anxiety lacing that otherwise innocuous question
that Pierce had misgivings about this reunion with his daughter. That vulnerability, so
unusual in a man with Pierce’s confidence, touched a chord deep inside her.
“Beef stroganoff sounds delicious,” she assured him softly. “Pierce, are you sure you
want us around tonight?”
“Yes,” he answered swiftly. Too swiftly.
“To act as buffers? Are you expecting a fight? A scene?”
His grin was lopsided and self-deprecating. “No. Nothing like that. I just want it to be a
pleasant evening for her, that’s all.”
“I’ll fix something special for dessert.”
“No, no. Don’t feel that you have to do that.”
“I don’t. I’ve got a sweet tooth.”
He knew better, but he accepted her generous offer with appreciation.
Now as Alicia watched father and daughter embrace, she could tell such displays of
affection were infrequent and awkward for them both. Pierce hugged Chrissy to him, but
briefly. He pushed her away to look at her. “You look terrific as always. Did you get your
hair cut? I like it.”
“Do you? Thanks. Mother had a fit. She didn’t want it cut before the wedding.”
Wedding? Whose wedding? Hers or her mother’s?
“The big day is fast approaching. Any premarital jitters?”
Ah-h, Chrissy was the bride-to-be.
“A few,” she admitted with a soft laugh. “But that’s natural, I guess.”
Pierce’s brows knitted as he studied his daughter. He sensed that she could elaborate
but had chosen to be reticent. He swung an arm around her shoulders. “I don’t know if
I’m willing to give you away yet or not.”
The girl’s face glowed with happy surprise, and Alicia saw tears standing in her eyes,
eyes like her father’s. “Thank you for inviting me up here this week, Daddy. I needed an
evening away from … everything.”
He squeezed her shoulder. “We should have done more of this long ago. I’m just now
realizing how much of you I’ve missed. Old age has the advantage of wisdom, I guess.”
She poked him in the ribs. “You’re hardly sliding over the far side of the hill.” She
glanced down at David and Adam. “And you’ve sure got young friends.”
“Pardon my rudeness,” Pierce said, laughing. “Chrissy, my friends David and Adam
Russell. Boys, my daughter.”
“She sure is old,” Adam said. They were disappointed. When they had been told
Pierce’s daughter was coming for dinner, they had obviously conjured up an image of
someone closer to their age, not an ancient twenty-one-year-old.
Chrissy put her hands on her hips. “She’s not too old to play soccer. Whose ball is that?”
She pointed to the ball that had rolled beneath an evergreen bush.
“Mine,” David said, his frown lifting slightly. “I’ll let you play with it if you’ll let me ride
in your Porsche. It’s super. I have a poster of one in my room. I wanted Mom to buy one
but she said it wasn’t prac … part … pract—”
“Practical,” Pierce supplied, and Chrissy laughed.
“Well, she’s smarter than Daddy then. He gave it to me last Christmas. You’ve got a
deal about the soccer ball and the car.” Chrissy turned to her father and gave him an arch
look. “Have you known David and Adam long?”
“Since Sunday night. I rescued them during a thunderstorm.”
“You’re kidding!”
“No, he’s not. He did!” David said.
“Yeah, he carried us and Mom back to his house and it was raining real hard and
lightning, but I wasn’t scared,” Adam added.
Chrissy had also inherited her father’s expressive eyebrows. One curved high as she
eyed him shrewdly. “Well, the boys are certainly cute. How about Mom?”
Alicia blushed to the roots of her hair and tried to chick into the shadows of the cabin
before she could be caught eavesdropping. But Pierce turned around and called out to her.
She had no choice but to push through the screen door and take the steps down to be
formally introduced.
“Alicia Russell, my daughter Chrissy.”
“Hello, Chrissy,” Alicia said, suddenly feeling like a scarlet woman. And why? She,
better than anyone, knew that nothing had happened between her and this girl’s father.
But how would Chrissy react to her and the boys sharing Pierce’s cabin?
“Hi. It’s nice to meet you.” Her smile was wide, pleasant, friendly, and guileless. “Did he
really rescue you during a thunderstorm?”
“I hate to admit it, but yes. And when we couldn’t find other lodging after our borrowed
cabin was damaged by the storm he insisted we share his.” Alicia felt compelled to explain
quickly, lest Chrissy draw the wrong conclusion.
Mischievously Chrissy slid her eyes in her father’s direction. “He’s a regular knight in
shining armor,” she commented dryly, but without rancor.
No matter about Alicia’s rapid explanation, Chrissy had summed up the situation in her
own mind the moment she saw Alicia. She might not know much about her father, but she
knew that he was a connoisseur of women. Alicia Russell’s wholesomeness was a
departure from the kind of woman he usually squired around. Nonetheless the sexual
currents radiating between them were real and alive and popping. Stand too close when
they looked at each other, and you could get singed.
“What’s a night in shiny armor?” Adam asked.
“Why don’t we discuss that over a cold drink?” Pierce suggested, and began
shepherding everyone inside.
Alicia liked Chrissy immediately. She was chatty and animated, shy only when she
looked directly at her father. It was as though she wanted to fling her arms around him
and hold him tight but was afraid to. It was apparent every time she looked at him that
she admired him and loved him, but that she didn’t feel completely comfortable around
him yet. Alicia got the impression that the young woman desperately wanted his approval
and affection.
Chrissy enlightened them on her progress in art school, and because she aspired to
design women’s clothing, she and Alicia launched into a long discussion on fashion.
Bored, David whined, “Can we play soccer now?”
Pierce stood. “You ladies excuse us. I’ll take them out and run off some of their energy.”
“No,” Chrissy said, rising. “I promised. Come on, boys.” They raced out ahead of her.
“Your daughter is lovely, Pierce. A vibrant, intelligent young woman.”
“Isn’t she?” he said proudly as he watched her through the screen door. “I only wish I
could claim some credit for the way she’s turned out.”
“You can.”
He shook his head. “I was never around. She deserved a father, a good one, one she
knew cared about her. What happened between her mother and me wasn’t her fault, but
she’s the one who paid for it.”
“I think she knew you were there if she needed you,” Alicia said quietly.
He turned to her and his green eyes speared straight through her. “I’d like to believe
that, Alicia. I need to believe that.”
“She doesn’t seem to be holding a grudge. She looks at you with love, not resentment.
Maybe she needs to hear how you feel about her. Have you ever told her you love her?”
He pondered that for a moment, his brows drawn together. “Go on out with them and I’ll
set the table for dinner.”
“I can’t leave you to do all the work.”
She pointed toward the door. “Go.” She used the same no-nonsense and no-backtalk
voice she used on her boys.
“Yes, ma’am.” Before she could react he smacked a sound kiss on her mouth and went
out the screen door.
Twenty minutes later Alicia called the boys inside for a bath before dinner. They
complained and grumbled, but she finally got them indoors and into the bathroom. She
carried a tray with two glasses and a bottle of chilled white wine out to Pierce and Chrissy,
who had collapsed in fatigue on the front steps.
“I’m sorry this is all we have in the way of a predinner drink,” Alicia said, setting the
tray down.
“Where’s your glass?” Pierce asked, patting the spot beside him on the porch to indicate
that she should sit down.
“I’m supervising the bathing or they might flood the bathroom. Take your time. The
rolls still have to bake. I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”
Pierce reached up and touched her hand. “Thank you.” His look carried with it
gratitude and something else. He was grateful to her for providing him and his daughter
this moment alone. And the something else? Alicia couldn’t quite define it, but it made her
insides seem anchorless.
As she was putting the food on the table, they came in hand in hand. Chrissy was
saying, “That was the Christmas you sent me the pony, remember? I’ve never seen
Mother so furious. I only got to keep it for one day before she sent it back to the stables.”
“She’s always been a b-i-t-c-h.”
“I know what that spells,” David piped. “Bitch.”
“David Russell!” Alicia was horrified.
Pierce looked embarrassed and Chrissy said, “See what calling Mother bad names can
get you?”
“It wasn’t a bad name. It was a factual name. And I’m not sorry I said it, only sorry
that David heard it. It’s an impolite word, David, so don’t let me hear you using it.”
“Yes, sir.”
Dinner was a happy time. The group lacked for nothing to talk about. Pierce had done
an excellent job on the stroganoff, though he complimented Alicia on boiling the noodles to
just the right tenderness. She missed the frequent entertaining she and Jim had done and
had put all her culinary talents into a lemon meringue pie that won everyone’s approval.
The boys hadn’t forgotten the promised ride in the Porsche. Chrissy handed Pierce the
keys. “Will you do the honors while I help Alicia with the dishes?”
“That isn’t necessary,” Alicia said quickly.
“I want to. We didn’t get to finish our debate about next year’s hem lengths.”
“Then I’m all too glad to take the boys out.” Pierce hooked a young Russell under each
arm and carried them screeching gleefully out the front door.
Chrissy caught Alicia fondly and wistfully smiling after them. Embarrassed, Alicia began
clearing the table. “I understand you’re getting married soon. What kind of gown have
you picked out?”
Chrissy described her gown and the color scheme she had chosen for the wedding.
Conversation was no effort between them. Alicia found herself telling the younger woman
about Jim and his death. Her life as a widow, her job, even about Sloan and Carter.
“Have you slept with Daddy?”
That was something else Chrissy had inherited from her father, the ability to shock one
speechless with an incisive, out-of-context question.
Alicia’s hands were submerged in the soapy water. At the audacious, presumptuous
question, they balled into fists. “No,” she said softly. Lifting her eyes to Chrissy’s, she
repeated slowly, “No, I haven’t.”
“I think you should,” Chrissy remarked. She wasn’t looking at Alicia, but was
concentrating on lining up the glassware in the cabinet.
Alicia couldn’t believe the girl’s candor. “Why?”
Chrissy looked at her, smiled, and shrugged. “Why not? You obviously find each other
attractive. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in sleeping around. I just think…” She
paused to stare into space for a moment. Then she turned to Alicia again. And just as
Alicia quelled under Pierce’s steady stare, so did she under Chrissy’s, for they were
identical. One couldn’t hide one s thoughts from those eyes. “There’s something wrong
with Daddy.”
“Wrong? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. He’s different. Even his inviting me up here is uncharacteristic. Always
before on my visits, he’s been in a hurry. I got tired just trying to keep up with him. He
was always moving. Now he’s meditative, sentimental. He’s doing things that aren’t like
him at all.”
“Like inviting a poor widow and her sons to stay the week with him?”
Chrissy laughed and boldly assessed Alicia’s shape. “Surely you’ve figured out why he
did that. If you had looked like a troll I’m sure he would have been polite and seen that
you were safe, but I doubt if he would have been quite so hospitable.” Discomfited, Alicia
looked away. Chrissy took her hand and forced Alicia’s eyes back to hers. “If he asks you,
will you sleep with him?”
Alicia swallowed, too overcome by surprise to be offended. “I don’t know.
“I hope you will. I think he needs you.”
“I’m sure a man like your father doesn’t lack for female company.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t either. I’m not talking about sex. Not exclusively anyway. I think
he needs all that you are, your warmth, compassion. And I think being with him would do
you a world of good too.”
Alicia thankfully heard the return of the Porsche and was glad the conversation couldn’t
go any further. The boys were put to bed upstairs so the adults could continue their visit.
They bid a solemn farewell to Chrissy, and Alicia knew they hoped to see her again.
Chrissy knelt down and kissed their cheeks and neither moved away from the caress they
usually avoided whenever possible. It was late when Chrissy said she had to start back.
“Do you have to?” Pierce questioned. “We could make room for you.”
“I have a class in the morning and a wedding gown fitting at noon. Mother would freak
if I didn’t show up for that.” She took both Alicia’s hands. “It was so nice to meet you. I’m
officially inviting you and the boys to the wedding.”
“Thank you. We’ll see.”
Chrissy shocked Alicia then by pulling her into a swift hug. “Remember what I said. I
give you my permission.” Chrissy winked before she turned away and Alicia avoided
Pierce’s inquiring eyes.
“I’ll walk her to her car,” he said.
For half an hour, Alicia sat in front of the fireplace, flipping through a magazine. Their
voices occasionally drifted in to her. Once she thought she heard Chrissy crying, but
couldn’t be sure. At last she heard the growl of the Porsche’s engine and the crunch of
tires as it rolled onto the narrow gravel road.
Pierce was a long time coming in and, sensing that he might wish to be alone, Alicia
headed for the stairs. She certainly didn’t want him to think she had waited up for him.
Her foot had just touched the bottom step when he came in.
“Are you going to bed?”
“Yes, I thought—”
He stretched out his hand. “Will you sit with me for a while, Alicia?”
Her heart began to beat heavily and she couldn’t say exactly why. Perhaps because it
was quiet and they were alone. Perhaps it was because she had turned out all the lights
save one soft lamp and the cabin was dim and whispered intimacy from every corner.
Perhaps it was because of his slightly raspy, highly emotional voice and the way he had
spoken her name. For whatever reason, she was trembling with feeling as she retraced
her steps to the sofa and took the hand held out for her. He pulled her down beside him
on the deep, age-softened cushions.
“Thank you for taking over the dinner.”
“It was nothing. No, really,” she said when she noted his skeptical look. “I enjoyed
playing hostess.”
“Well, anyway, I appreciate it. I think Chrissy had a good time. It temporarily took her
mind off the circus her mother is making out of her wedding.”
Alicia squelched common sense and ventured onto ground she knew was as potentially
explosive as a minefield. She trod softly, “Chrissy doesn’t seem very excited about her
wedding. Does she love her fiancé?”
“I think she must feel some affection for him. He’s not a disagreeable young man. But I
don’t think she loves him.”
“Then why—”
“She’s being pushed into a ‘good marriage.’ Good by her mother’s standards, that is.”
“I see.”
“No, you don’t, but I’d like to explain. It’s a long, boring story.”
“I’m not doing anything else,” she said, smiling, sensing his need to talk.
“You could be sleeping.”
“I’d rather listen.”
“I can’t unload on you.”
“I talked out my problem with you the other night. Sometimes strangers are the best
“Are we still strangers?” She was the first to look away from a long, puissant stare. He
sighed heavily. “Okay, here goes. I married young and foolishly. Dottie considered me a
good catch, a promising engineer. She had a pretty face, a terrific body, and an obliging
attitude toward sex. I walked into a velvet trap and she sank her claws into me before I
knew I’d been had. We were mismatched. We had different goals, different priorities. It
was doomed to failure.”
He went on to explain that his wife, who had come from an affluent family, got
extremely upset when he put most of his savings and a small legacy into a new, struggling
engineering firm rather than going with an already established one. Money was tight and
they could no longer be members of the country club and move with that set. Then she
had gotten pregnant.
“I was made to feel like a sexual deviate whose lust wouldn’t let him take time for
contraceptives, when in fact our bed was the only place we were the least bit compatible.”
Alicia swallowed a knot and was alarmed to discover that it was cold, rank jealousy. “I
threatened to kill her if she even thought about an abortion. By today’s standards I’m
sure my attitude would seem intolerant and incredibly puritanical. Nonetheless, that’s
how I felt. How I still feel.
“Soon after Chrissy was born, we agreed that our lives would be much happier if we
never saw each other again. Dottie hates me for causing the one failure in her life. I’m the
only thing she ever wanted, went after, but couldn’t have.”
He ran his hands through his hair. “But I blame myself for the failed marriage because I
never should have married her in the first place. And as a parent, well, that speaks for
itself. I don’t even know my daughter. I missed her childhood, her youth, her adolescence.
Now she’s gotten herself committed to a marriage that is going to make her miserably
unhappy and I can’t do a damned thing to stop it. Any interference on my part would be
like declaring World War III with Dottie. Yet I feel that I have to do this one important
thing for my daughter before—” He broke off suddenly.
“Before what?”
“Never mind. It’s just that I think she wants help in getting out of this mess and doesn’t
know how to ask for it. I told her to stand up to her mother. I know she won’t.”
“Chrissy’s an intelligent woman. She won’t be forced into a marriage she doesn’t want.”
“You don’t know Dottie. She’s as shrewd a strategist as George Patton. And about as
humanitarian as Nero. When she sets her mind to something, people have a way of
cowering and going along to prevent a fight.”
“You didn’t.”
His head swiveled around and his eyes held her motionless. “No, thank God, I didn’t. I
only hope Chrissy will see her mistake in time. Hell, her mother wants that young man for
a son-in-law because of his last name. She probably harbors a terrible dislike for him and
can’t wait to rearrange his life too. Everyone but Dottie will be unhappy.”
“When the time comes, Chrissy will know what to do.”
“Will she? She won’t have me to thank if she does. I’ve salved my conscience for being a
lousy parent by giving her presents – ponies and Porsches. I’ve never given her guidance,
a sense of values, anything that’s really important. God, it’s a wonder she doesn’t despise
Of its own volition, Alicia’s hand stroked back strands of disheveled hair that lay
silvery-brown on his forehead. They slid through her fingers in a silky caress. “You’re not
the reprobate you paint yourself to be, Pierce. And don’t worry about Chrissy. She’s got a
good head on her shoulders.”
“I told her tonight that I loved her,” he said in a low voice.
So, her subtly given advice had been taken. “What did she do?”
He smiled. “She cried and hugged me and told me that she loved me too.”
“I’m glad, Pierce. Very glad for both of you.”
He raised one knee so he could face her. Leaning forward, he searched her eyes. “I have
you to thank for tonight’s success. I can’t tell you how important it was to me.”
“It would have happened sooner or later. You wanted it to. So did Chrissy. I only gave
you a nudge to do something you already planned to do.”
He touched her cheek with his fingertips. “What makes you so easy to talk to? So
understanding? So tuned in to other people and what makes them tick?”
“I’m not. I’ve never been anything but purely selfish.”
“I find that hard to believe.” His voice was deep and soft and low. It touched her in
places that shouldn’t be touched, like her breasts, her stomach, and between her thighs.
She felt his voice in each erogenous spot like a kittenish, lapping caress.
“Believe it. I’ve been known to think only of myself, otherwise I wouldn’t have always
turned my life over to other people to take care of. First my parents, then Jim. I didn’t
worry about anything but my own happiness and what they would do to bring it about.
When I lost Jim I transferred the responsibility for my life to Carter. It’s safer to do that,
you see. Then you can’t be blamed when things go wrong.”
She shook her head sadly and for emphasis she covered his hand with her own. “Pierce,
deep inside I knew Carter didn’t love me, even before he met Sloan. I almost let him ruin
his life, destroy his chance at happiness, in order to secure my own future.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You had your boys to think of.”
“I used them as my excuse.” Lost in her own thoughts, she fiddled with the buttons on
his shirt. The familiarity didn’t seem at all unnatural. “I finally woke up to the fact that I
was an adult, that I had to take full responsibility for my life and that of my sons. For the
first time in my life I’m standing on my own two feet. I like myself better for it, but it’s a
shaky perch at times.”
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel afraid at one time or another.” His eyes turned
introspective, and for a moment she thought that he might draw away again. Instead he
raised her hand to his mouth and pressed his lips against her palm. “What did you and
Chrissy talk about?”
He must have felt her pulse leap beneath his stroking thumb on her wrist because his
eyes lifted to hers. His lashes were dark and long and ridiculously lavish. She wanted to
run her finger over them. “Girl talk. Nothing much.”
“Did she ask about us?”
“What did she want to know?”
She knew where the truthful answer might lead. In this instance, it would be best to
avoid the truth. But she didn’t want to. She wanted to be led straight into the jaws of
temptation. Damn the consequences. “Chrissy asked me if we were sleeping together.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I told her no.”
“What did she say to that?”
Alicia wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. Jealously he watched it disappear back
between her lips. “She said she thought we should, that it would be good for both of us.”
“I’m inclined to agree. I know it would be damned good for me.” He cupped her face
between his hands and drilled into her eyes with the hot, emerald brilliance of his. He saw
in her eyes a need, a longing, a desire as clamorous as his own. “What about you?”
“I think it would be mutually satisfying.” The die was cast.
“I can’t get involved. It would be bed, that’s all. I don’t want you to be hurt later.”
“I understand.”
“Do you? Do you, Alicia? Because I have to know now.”
“I can’t get involved with anyone either.”
“We’re two people who know what we’re doing, right? Consenting adults.”
“No regrets later.”
“No regrets.”
“It’s only for tonight. Nothing binding. We attach no special significance to it, just take it
for what it is, a physical release, a pleasurable exchange of flesh. Right?”
“Yes.” The last word came out a plea as passionate as the way her body curved
longingly against his.
His thumbs outlined her lips, detailed their shape before his mouth took them under his
kiss. Without preamble or apology, his tongue pressed into her mouth and moved freely,
rampantly, stroking, delving, tasting all of her.
Wrapping his arms around her, he stood and brought her to her feet. Never letting his
mouth leave hers, he held her full length against him and carried her to the bed. He let
her slide to her feet and the dragging motion of her body along his brought moans of
desire from their throats. Deftly he tugged her shirttail free of her waistband.
He ducked his head and kissed her breasts through the cloth even as he unbuttoned
her blouse. When he parted the garment and peeled it down her shoulders her breasts
were damp from his mouth and their crests were rosy and taut beneath her sheer
Forcibly he calmed himself, commanded himself to slow down, not to ravage but to
savor. His hands closed with tender possessiveness around her breasts and he fondled her
with gently squeezing motions.
“You are wonderful to touch,” he whispered along her neck.
Her hands folded around his neck and she laid her cheek against his thudding heart. He
smelled of that elusive, expensive, woodsy cologne and she breathed it in greedily.
Nimbly his hands went around her back and unfastened her brassiere. When he pulled
it away from her and dropped it to the floor, she faced him demurely. But his eyes
showered praise on her. “Your breasts are beautiful, Alicia. Beautiful.”
His eyes, his words, then his hands and lips testified to that. He brushed light kisses on
the soft flesh, lifting her breasts to his mouth with his palms. Her nipples beaded beneath
the sweet coaxing of his fingertips and his tongue circled them in lazy contrast to the fury
building inside them both.
“Do you want to undress yourself?” he asked, his throat throbbing with self-imposed
“Do you want to undress me?”
“Very much.”
She stepped out of her shoes and stood before him, compliant. His eyes rained liquid
heat on her as they slid over her tremulous breasts, down her stomach to her waist. He
released the slender belt and slowly unbuttoned and unzipped the flannel slacks she had
worn for Chrissy’s visit. Putting his hands inside them on either side of her hips, he
lowered them down her legs until she could step out of them.
“I already knew your legs were beautiful,” he whispered playfully as he straightened.
Hooking his thumbs in the elastic of her panties, he started to pull them down. He felt her
tense suddenly and immediately withdrew his hands. “Did I do something wrong?”
“No, it’s just…” Embarrassed by her sudden attack of virginal modesty, she sought to
make amends by laying her hands on his chest and unbuttoning his shirt. His chest hair
looked fuzzy in the soft light and she longed to rub her face in it but didn’t quite have the
courage. He stood still and let her examine him. His nipples were dark and flat.
Inquisitively she touched one with the tip of her finger and it distended. His breath hissed
through his teeth. Was that good or bad? She never remembered touching Jim there.
I’m no good at this, she thought dismally. He won’t like me. I don’t know the right
things to do. She and Jim had been married so long ago. Now she felt ignorant and callow
and distressed.
Sensing it, Pierce lay comforting hands on her shoulders. “Why don’t you lie down.”
She turned toward the bed and folded back the covers while he took off the rest of his
clothes. She lay down, refusing to look at him, though she could see from the corner of her
eye that he was naked. He approached the bed and knelt on it with one knee.
“Alicia?” he asked softly. He bent down and took one of her hands and laid it high on his
thigh. She squeezed her eyes shut and her chest heaved with fear. He rubbed the back of
her hand with his palm. “Do you want to stop? Tell me.”
The concern in his tone compelled her to look at him. She saw his sleek nakedness, the
intriguing dusting of body hair, the corded muscles, the toasty skin, the masculine
But stronger than his desire, than his body, was his character. Even now, he was willing
to let her call it off. An emotion feeling very much like love welled in her throat. She
remembered his talking with her boys, making them sit still with rapt attention, making
them squeal with laughter. She remembered the times she had caught him looking at her
with tenderness, a yearning that surpassed sexual desire. Despite what he had said about
himself he was kind and caring and she wanted to experience this man. Slowly her fingers
curved around the outside of his thigh and she moved her hand in a light caress. “No, I
don’t want to stop.”
Without haste, he lay down beside her and gathered her beneath him. He held her for a
long time before he kissed her. When he did, his lips honored hers softly and she relaxed
against him. Sliding his hands down her torso, he removed her panties, taking care to go
slow, not to frighten her.
His eyes took in her nakedness and she lay submissive beneath them. When he looked
again into her eyes, his were shining with pleasure and his smile was a silent endearment.
He caressed her earnestly, unhurriedly, delaying the supreme gratification by heightening
the anticipation. Her body hummed and purred beneath his hands and lips.
He watched his hands as they smoothed over her skin, visually enhancing his pleasure
in her. Alicia marveled that she wasn’t burning with embarrassment. Rather, her own
arousal was embellished by watching his every move, meeting his eyes with a lover’s
With a soft touch he parted her thighs and acquainted himself with her mystery. Alicia
felt like a rare treasure being discovered by someone who could appreciate her rarity. She
was malleable and moist to his seeking fingertips and he murmured his approval as he
moved above her. Alicia felt his passion, hard, so hard. It rubbed against the nest of
tawny hair between her thighs. His lips were softly urgent against her breasts, on her
He made no lunging, thrusting motions, but suddenly she felt his intrusion and arched
against that sublime, invading pressure. He filled her competently, completely, and the
pleasure of his possession went on and on, rippling over her like trickles of sensation from
a magic waterfall.
“Oh God, it’s good,” he whispered in her ear. “So good, Alicia.”
“Pierce.” Softly she cried his name as he began to stroke her with shallow thrusts that
gradually deepened. Frantically, her hands groped along his shoulders. Her body bowed
and bucked. Had she just forgotten or had it ever felt like this before?
“Shhh,” he said quietly without breaking that tantalizing rhythm. “We’re in no hurry.
This isn’t a contest. Relax. Just let it happen, darling. Feel me love you. Just feel.”
That’s all she could do. Her insides coiled tighter and tighter as he reached higher and
higher inside her to touch the very gate of her womanhood. She didn’t want to make a fool
of herself or do anything she’d be ashamed of later, but when she felt herself quicken and
knew that she was about to be swept away on a tidal wave of emotion, her limbs curled
around him and she burrowed her face in his chest. “Pierce!” she called as her world
exploded into dazzling fragments.
From far away she heard his own soft cries and they were all her name. And they were
exultant and … sad.
Chapter 5
He twined golden strands of hair around his fingers and tried to count the jeweled facets
in her eyes. He kissed the plump curve of her breast, nuzzled it. “You’re so sweet.” The
words vaporized damply on her skin.
“Am I?”
“Very, very, very.” He punctuated the confirmation with tiny kisses on her throat.
Shifting his weight, he resettled them against the pillows. “How long since Jim died?”
“Three years.”
“You’ve been three years without a lover?”
“What makes you say that?” Had she been that unpracticed and awkward? Her body
strained away from his.
He smiled affectionately and drew her back close beside him. “I could tell, but it’s
certainly nothing to be defensive about.” His lips wandered along her hairline and his
hand seesawed in the deep valley of her waist between ribs and hip. “It’s a nice thing to
His saying that pleased her and she snuggled closer. “There was one,” she confessed
She laid her hand on his chest and let her fingers idly strum through the crinkly forest
of hair. Smiling privately, she hoped that the trace of jealousy in his voice wasn’t a product
of her imagination. “No, not Carter.”
“Not Carter?”
She shook her head. “I told you my relationship with Carter wasn’t like that. If we had
ever made love, even if we had been married, I think we would have felt like we were
betraying Jim. Carter and I were too good friends to be lovers.”
“Then there was someone else?”
“He wasn’t a ‘someone.’ He was one night, that’s all. He was very nice, but it meant
nothing beyond waking me up to the fact that I wasn’t dead even though Jim was. And
that I was being unfair to myself by taking the first man available to me. Not to mention
how unfair it was to Carter.”
For long moments Pierce lay quietly. His hands were no longer adoringly caressing her.
He barely breathed. Had she been wrong to tell him about that night in Tahoe?
“You lied to me, Alicia.”
Startled, she propped herself up and peered down into his shadowed face. “Lied?”
He wrapped his hand around the back of her neck and massaged it lovingly. Her hair
was a magnet that attracted every ray of light as it tumbled around his hand and arm,
down onto his chest. “You lied when you said tonight wouldn’t have any special
significance.” Knotting handfuls of hair in his fingers, he pulled her face down for his kiss.
It was an infinitely tender one. “For you this is more than just sex, isn’t it? It means
He watched her eyelids lower, watched the diamond-like tears form on the thick row of
lashes, watched as she once again lifted those swimming eyes to his. “Yes. It does,” she
said hoarsely. “It would have to or I wouldn’t be here.
“Alicia.” He encircled her waist with his arm and pulled her atop him. The soft weight of
her breasts was cushioned against his chest. The slender columns of her thighs aligned to
his. This time the kiss wasn’t so tender. Every measure of passion he gave, she returned.
Her lips were throbbing and moist when at last they were released. Pierce’s, too, were
damp. She ran her finger along his lower lip, taking up the moisture, loving the feel of his
mouth, loving the taste of herself that lingered on it. “Were you lying, too, Pierce?”
He pressed her head into the hollow of his shoulder. His eyes closed against the
exquisite pleasure of holding her nakedness against his. His hands smoothed down the
satiny length of her back and over the firm roundness of her derričre. He stroked the
backs of her thighs and when he heard that rattling sigh in her throat, he knew that he
would make love to her again. Again. And again.
“Yes. To you and to myself, I was lying.”
* * *
Just before dawn Alicia left Pierce sleeping, gathered her scattered clothes, made a brief
stop in the bathroom, and crept upstairs. She slipped on her nightgown and managed to
get into bed with Adam without waking him. She felt ridiculous, sneaking into bed like a
teenager who had come home too late, but morality was hard enough to teach children
these days. If she were ambiguous about last night, how would her boys have taken her
sleeping with Pierce?
It seemed that she had only just fallen asleep when she heard them begin to stir.
Whispering, they went downstairs. Moments later she heard the commode flush. Then
she heard Pierce’s low, “Hey, are you two already up? Is your mother still sleeping?”
She would have to get up and face them all sooner or later, but she stayed beneath the
light covers dreading that time. What was Pierce thinking of her now? What did she think
of herself? Why one minute was she breathless and giddy over what had happened
between them last night, and the next minute scaldingly ashamed of it?
Nothing in her adult life had prepared her for sharing a bed with Pierce. There wasn’t
an inch of her body that he hadn’t explored thoroughly and didn’t now know intimately.
Jim had been a sweet, earnest lover, but their bed had been modest and immature
compared to the sheer ecstasy of Pierce’s.
His lovemaking utilized his whole body, not just his hands and lips and sex, but his skin
and hair and all five senses, his heart, and his mind. Perhaps it had been his total
concentration on her that made her feel that no woman in history had ever been so loved.
Recollections of all that she’d done, all that had been done to her, made her blush like a
maiden aunt. People who knew her well would be shocked by her wanton behavior and
boundless responses. Her parents, her friends, Sloan and Carter. Well, maybe not Sloan
and Carter, she thought with a smile, remembering the sexual passages in Carter’s recent
But that was them and this was her. A new her. One she had only met. The old Alicia
Russell was delighted, and horrified, and intrigued by the woman in her who had emerged
last night.
She had put it off long enough. Breakfast was already in full swing downstairs. It was
time she joined them. She pulled on a velour sweat suit, ran a brush through her hair, and
timorously approached the steep stairwell.
Adam spotted her first. “Hi, Mom. Did I kick you last night?” He turned to Pierce.
“Every time I sleep with her she says I kick.”
“I didn’t notice it last night.” She didn’t quite look at Pierce, who was leaning against the
drainboard sipping coffee. Her nervous eyes merely glanced over him. He had pulled on a
pair of jeans, but his chest and feet were bare. Her heart picked up its tempo and her
stomach did a cartwheel. She knew the texture of his skin, knew how his body hair felt
against her palms and cheeks and lips.
“Good morning, David.”
“Hi. Your face is red.”
“It is?” Alicia clapped her hands up to her burning cheeks. Her hands were icy.
“Why is your face red, Mom?” Adam asked around a slurpy spoonful of cereal.
“I – I don’t know.”
“You’re sure acting funny,” David commented. “Pass the jam, please.”
Alicia lunged for the jar of grape jam, wishing she could clout her son on the head with
it. It took a long, awkward moment before she had enough gumption to look at Pierce.
“Coffee?” he said softly.
And that was enough. His eyes, his mellow expression, the confidential inflection, let her
know that everything was all right. Tension ebbed out of her like the remnants of a wave
receding from shore. “Please.”
He poured coffee for her and she took a seat at the table before her jellied knees gave
way. The snap of his jeans rode an inch below his navel. The spot mesmerized her. Had
her tongue actually been there, investigating in the dark? She ached with the need to
touch him, to give him a good morning kiss that said thank you for a wonderful night— It
was thrilling; I’ve never felt so feminine and desired.
“Would you like some breakfast?”
“Maybe just toast. I’m not very hungry.”
“Neither am I.”
For a moment that stretched out noticeably long, they stared at each other,
transmitting a thousand and one silent, private messages. Eventually David asked Alicia a
question and she roused herself enough to answer him. Pierce brought a plate of toast to
the table and sat down across from her.
“You look pretty in that color of lavender.”
The sweat suit was too nice to actually sweat in. “Thank you.”
“Sleep well?”
His mouth was so beautiful. “Yes. You?”
“Dreams kept me from sleeping too soundly.”
And that mouth had made her feel very beautiful. “I’m sorry.”
He remembered all the times and all the places he had kissed her and his eyes dilated.
“I didn’t mind. They were good dreams.”
“We’re just like the people on the box, Mom.”
Alicia dragged her eyes away from Pierce’s and looked down at Adam. “I beg your
pardon,” she said vaguely.
“See.” He pointed to the bright picture on the cereal box. “They’re all sitting around the
table eating breakfast. The two boys, that’s me and David, and the mom and dad.”
“That’s not like us, stupid,” David said. “Pierce can’t be our dad. He would have to
marry Mom first.”
Adam’s bottom lip stuck out belligerently. “Yeah, but then it’d be the same, wouldn’t it,
She didn’t answer. She was too alarmed by the sudden paling of Pierce’s face and the
sexy cloudiness in his eyes being frozen out by hard, cold, brittle light. “Sort of the same.
And, David, please don’t call your brother stupid,” she said distractedly. Her heart, which
had been dancing joyously, now felt heavy. It was trying to sink into a vat of despair and
she was holding on to it for dear life. “Why don’t you two go outside and play if you’re
They were glad to be excused and headed for the door. “It’d be neat if Pierce was our
dad, wouldn’t it, David?”
“Yeah, we’d be just like the other kids and Chrissy could come see us and we could ride
in the Porsche again.”
“Gee. Would she be our sister or our aunt?”
“Our sister. Don’t you know anything?”
“She sure is old to be a sister.”
The screen door slammed behind them. Its loud banging only emphasized the ominous
silence in the cabin.
Pierce set down his coffee mug. He did so with great care as though if he didn’t, he
would likely hurl it and its contents against the nearest wall. Sightlessly he stared into the
cup. His jaw was as rigid as iron. In his temple, a vein ticked with pulsing blood. He swept
his hair back with a raking gesture of tense fingers and then clenched them into a tight
The transformation terrified Alicia. Not because she was afraid of him, but because she
suspected what such a metamorphosis meant. “They’re just little boys, Pierce.” She
couldn’t help the pleading sound in her voice. “They don’t realize the implications of what
they said. They just know that our family isn’t complete and the fact that they don’t have
a father bothers them. Please don’t attach any special significance to what they said.”
His smile was mirthless, frosty. “That sounds vaguely reminiscent of what we said to
each other last night. But it did have ‘special significance,’ didn’t it, Alicia?”
“I thought we’d already established that it did.” She plucked at a loose thread. “Is that
any reason to get angry?”
“Dammit, yes!” he shouted, vaulting out of the chair. Luckily the boys were yelling
loudly at a squirrel and didn’t hear him. Alicia did, however, and winced at his level of
rage. “Yes, I’m angry.”
“Why?” She recovered quickly. After last night, wasn’t she entitled to know what his
hang-ups were? “How can you get angry over a five-year-old boy mentioning marriage?”
“I’m not angry at Adam. My God, Alicia, give me some credit,” he snapped. “I’m angry
because last night was so damn good, because you are a woman I could fall very deeply in
love with, because I want to be a father to your boys and make up for the mess I made of
it the first time.”
She gazed around her, waving her hands helplessly.
“I don’t understand you. Why is any of that bad?”
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her slightly.
“Because none of it can happen.” Each word was driven out of his mouth, holding on
tenaciously, reluctant to be uttered.
He released her suddenly and she reeled. He turned his back and went to stare out the
window, watching Adam and David as they picked up kindling wood and stacked it on top
of the logs he had piled against the cabin the day before. He closed his eyes to the
poignant sight and only wished he could close his ears to their conversation.
“This is the way Pierce taught us to do it.”
“How come he knows so much stuff, David?”
“Because he’s old, like a dad. Dads know lots of stuff.”
“Do you think he’ll be proud if we stack all this up?”
“Sure. He’s always proud of us. Remember? He said so.”
Alicia willed him to turn around and explain himself. When he didn’t, she took the
initiative. She was pushing and she knew it, but she wasn’t about to leave him never
knowing or understanding. “Why can’t it happen?”
“Believe me, it can’t.”
“Drop it, please.”
“Is there another woman?”
He turned toward her. His eyes swept her body and there was no disguising the desire
that was still smoldering in them. “I wish it were that simple. To live with you, sleep with
you every night, I’d give up any other woman I’ve ever met.”
A small moan escaped her. “Then what is it, Pierce? Tell me.”
“Because you’re better off not knowing.”
“Who made you the judge of that? After the intimacy we shared last night, can’t we talk
to each other openly and freely about anything?”
“Not about this.”
“How could we possibly harbor secrets from each other after the way we’ve loved?”
“I didn’t let myself think about it last night. This morning I have to think about it.”
She laid her hands on her stomach, splayed wide. “I’m still carrying a living part of you
inside me. But you can’t confide in me? There’s no logic in that.”
The character lines were ironed out of his face as the skin stretched tightly across it. He
stared at her hands where they pressed against her lower body. “My God,” he strangled
out. “You’re on the pill, aren’t you?”
His expletive was vicious and to the point. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t recall your asking,” she shot back. Her whole body was bristling with anger
now. He had staggered away from her, but she reached for his arm and spun him around.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Reynolds. I’d never come begging after you with a baby on my arm.”
“It’s not that,” he snarled. “I don’t want to leave you pregnant, that’s all.”
“Leave me? This is it, then?”
He drew in a deep sigh and his eyes softened considerably. “Yes. You knew that before
you ever consented to stay the week here.”
Yes. He had been honest about that. “I can’t get involved,” he had said. He had
repeated it last night. She knew it, but she had ignored it. Their loving had been special,
not just an exchange of flesh, but apparently Pierce Reynolds was stubbornly clinging to
his reasons for not getting involved.
All right. To hell with him.
To save what scraps of pride she had left, she turned away from him and began to clear
the table. Pierce went into the living room and finished dressing. When the dishes had
been washed and neatly stacked – never let it be said that she and the boys had taken
advantage of his hospitality – she went to him.
“I’m going back to L.A. this afternoon. It’s a day earlier than I’d planned, but under the
circumstances I think that’s best.” He was sitting on the couch, his hands folded between
his widespread knees, staring at the floor. “Pierce?” she said impatiently when he didn’t
respond. His head came up. He looked at her and nodded tersely.
On the verge of tears, she fled upstairs and began throwing things into their suitcases.
* * *
Pierce stared after the car until it disappeared into the trees. The engulfing silence was
cacophonous and hurt his ears.
Go after them, you idiot. You damned fool. How could he let them leave? He wanted
the woman. He wanted the boys.
He didn’t move because he knew he couldn’t. In the long run it wouldn’t be fair to any of
them. He’d lived in a vacuum for almost a week. He’d remain there until he knew the
answer one way or another. And either way it came out, he couldn’t chance involving
He cursed his luck, cursed his life, and slammed the cabin door behind him as he
entered its gloomy interior. He couldn’t abide its shrouding depression. Shadows and
sounds stalked him as he ranted through the small house. It would drive him mad to stay.
He’d return to Los Angeles, too, just as soon as he could pack.
“It’s your fault,” David accused from the back seat. “He liked Adam and me but you made
him mad. That’s why we had to leave.”
“We were going to leave tomorrow anyway.” David and Adam were acting as though
the Wicked Witch of the West was an angel compared to their mother. They had cried and
whined and argued ever since she had virtually shoved them into the car and headed for
“Yeah, but tomorrow, not today.”
“I didn’t want to leave today either, David.”
“Then why did we?”
Oh God, she was tired of his harping on her. She craved peace, silence, solitude. She
didn’t want to make explanations because she had no explanations herself. Why couldn’t
she just go away someplace to lick her wounds, remember, savor, analyze, agonize?
“Pierce wanted us to leave.”
“Maybe he wanted you to, but he didn’t want us to. He liked us.”
“All right! That does it!” She drove the car off the highway and braked it to a
teeth-jarring stop on the shoulder. Her face fierce with anger, she whirled around to face
the boys. “I’m the bad guy. Okay, I’ve admitted it. Now shut up about Pierce and the
cabin and the whole week. Got it? I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
Four eyes had gone wide and round with apprehension. Rarely did she lose her temper
with them to that extent. “Say, ‘Yes, ma’am,'” she instructed.
They responded tearfully, fearfully, their eyes watery and their lips wobbly. Her
shoulders sagged. Everything inside her sagged. “Thank you.”
She pulled back onto the highway and when she looked around several minutes later,
both boys were asleep. David had a protective and comforting arm around Adam. Adam’s
thumb was in his mouth, something he hadn’t done in a long time.
Alicia felt wretched for yelling at them, but her nerves were shot, her heart was
broken, and she, more than anyone, felt like crying. Hours of hard sobbing sounded like a
supreme luxury. She wanted to wallow in self-pity.
Why was she so unlucky in love? When would she learn to use some common sense, to
practice caution, to beware? When would she grow up and stop being so gullible? Would
she ever look beyond the surface of things? Why did she waltz blindly and foolishly into
hopeless situations? Why had she had to fall in love with a man who wanted to race sports
cars and get himself killed? Why had she thought herself in love with a man who liked, but
obviously didn’t love, her? Why now had she fallen in love—
The car nearly swerved off the road.
Had she fallen in love with Pierce?
Tears trekked from the corners of her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Her bottom lip
was pinched by bruising teeth. Her breasts heaved painfully.
Yes, she had. She was in love with Pierce. And a helluva lot of good it was going to do
* * *
“Good morning,” Alicia greeted the saleswoman the following Monday morning as she
pushed open the glass door and entered Glad Rags.
“Alicia! Hi. Have you heard the news since you got back?”
“I guess not. What news?”
“Gwen had her baby last night.”
“Oh?” Alicia walked to the back of the shop, her footsteps soundless on the lush baby
blue carpet. She hung her purse and jacket in the crowded employees’ closet. The
saleswoman followed her.
“It was almost a month early, but weighed over six pounds. A little girl.”
“How wonderful. How’s Gwen?”
“Fine. Came through it like a charm.”
“Good. I need to call her about the work that was done on her cabin.”
“Can I get you some coffee?”
Alicia looked at her quizzically. “Awfully solicitous, aren’t you? Is there something
you’re not telling me? Have I been fired in my absence?”
“Hardly.” The woman lowered her voice. “The powers-that-be are in a meeting and
asked me to send you in when you arrived. I think they want your decision today, Alicia.”
“Hmm.” Alicia accepted the coffee and took a sip. She hadn’t expected it to come so
soon, but she knew now what her answer would be. “Well, to the trenches.”
She winked at her cohort, checked out her appearance in the hall mirror, and took the
stairs to the chain’s executive offices on the second floor.
“Hello, Alicia, they’re expecting you. Go right in,” the owners’ secretary said with all the
cordiality of an undertaker.
“Thank you.”
Summoning all her poise, Alicia opened the heavy oak door and entered the inner