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Authors: Susan Connell

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BOOK: A Woman To Blame
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"What's going on here is a much-needed remodeling. And none too soon," she said, with a don't-you-agree tilt of her head. "Pappy's still in the hospital, so we won't be able to reopen until—"

"Hold on right there," he said, turning an ear in her direction. That cold and queasy feeling started in his gut when he heard the word
"Run that one by me again. What's Pappy doing in the hospital?"

"He broke his leg when his foot went through a rotted step. Of course, I immediately had both staircases replaced." She lifted her chin. "Then I started in on the rest of this."

A sharp, sibilant curse left Rick's lips, causing her eyebrows to lift and hold. He shook his head in a halfhearted apology, but more to clear it of those images of Angie. Those images that he'd fooled himself into thinking were gone for another year. "Is she...?" He closed his eyes to make the moment disappear, but he knew in the same instant that certain things never would. "I mean, is he going to be okay?"

"The orthopedic surgeon's assured me Grandfather will be fine, but he'll have to stay in the hospital over on Marathon for a few more weeks. Are you a regular customer of his?"

"I'm his friend. I own Parrish's Marina. I do fishing-boat charters." Lifting his chin in the direction of the north rail and its view of the marina, he waited until she had a look. "I've been away," he said.

"Rick Parrish. Of course. I've been preparing the box lunches for your charters since Grandfather's accident. I'd love to take a boat ride one of these days when I'm not so busy. Maybe—-"

"What happened to Misty and Shaniqua? Why aren't they doing the lunches?"

"The waitresses? I'm afraid I had to let them go. They've gotten work at a resort over on Islamorada. I think it's called Conch Castle. If they're still interested, I'll consider rehiring them when we reopen. In the meantime," she said, "life must go on."

"So I've been told," he murmured, looking around the room again, then throwing up his hands. "This is unbelievable."

"I know. I hadn't taken a good look at the place in quite a while, so when I walked in this time, I couldn't believe how things had deteriorated," she said with a disapproving roll of her eyes. Placing the basket on the bar, she pulled out a lime green napkin, and picked off its price sticker.

She wasn't getting it. But she would. He shifted his weight from one leg to the other and considered her blissful ignorance. He could be patient. As soon as she stopped fooling around with that napkin and started paying attention to him, he would tell her how things worked around here. By the way she was concentrating on the napkin, it wouldn't be any time soon. He could be very patient.

He watched the precise way she was rolling, folding and tucking the cloth until, turning it over, she smoothed it for what he hoped was the last time. Her nails made a line of cherry red ovals when she pressed her slender fingers against the lime green cloth. His thoughts strayed to the kind of attention she could pay to him with those fingers. Those exquisitely feminine, deftly moving fingers that were turning a plain piece of material into a three-dimensional work of art. Concentrating on her hands, he indulged himself in a few seconds of erotic fantasies. The provocative ideas stirred his blood with shocking speed.

"See what a little inspiration and perspiration can do," she said, holding up the napkin she had folded to resemble a bird. She jiggled it, making its wings flap. "A miracle."

"Yes, but can it clean up after itself?" he asked, hoping she'd pick up on the tinge of sarcasm in his voice. She didn't. Her soft laughter volleyed his sentiment back to him, making him feel contrite. Or more to the point, plain nasty for trying to bring her down when all she wanted was to share a lighthearted moment with him. He'd turned away too many opportunities for lighthearted moments, but this one felt different.

"While we're on the subject of birds, where's Miss Scarlett?"

"A Mr. Latham volunteered to take her until things are a bit more settled here. And that won't be too much longer once I pitch the rest of that stuff and the new furniture is delivered," she said, pointing to the battered furniture and dusty beer signs piled in the corner. Leaning her elbows on the edge of the bar, she dropped her chin on her laced fingers and turned her face to his. "Amazing what a bit of elbow grease and determination can accomplish in so little time, isn't it?"

"Amazing?" He tested the sandpapery texture of his chin, running the back of his hand across it, then down over his Adam's apple. "You could put it that way," he said, his gaze straying over her. He told himself he wasn't interested in the way her hair moved when she looked into the basket, or the way her eyes got all dreamy when she was talking about the place. Or even the way the toe of her one sandal balanced behind the other. And he was especially not interested in the way she was again rolling another napkin beneath her flattened fingers, then manipulating the ridged hem to produce some desired effect that was making her smile again. He was mad. And more than slightly aroused, which made him madder still.

Straightening up, she reached into the basket and exchanged her half-folded blue napkin for an apricot one. Looking pleased with her selection, she flicked the folds from the napkin, spread it out on the bar, and began again.

"Color is so important in setting the right mood, don't you agree?" Her cautious look returned when he didn't speak. "Well, you do agree that Pappy's Crab Shack needed a face-lift, don't you?"

"What you've got going here is much more than a face-lift," Rick said, unable to keep the emotion out of his voice. "Pappy's going to have a fit when he sees the place."

Her laughter rippled through him like an unexpected shiver.

"Pappy is not going to have a fit, Rick. He's given me carte blanche to do over the Crab Shack." Pushing away from the bar, she motioned with her hands. "My specialty is hotel restaurant design. I usually have to work within established parameters on those jobs. Now, I'm not saying I don't appreciate that discipline, but no one is telling me what to do this time."

She stopped to look at him, giving him an exuberant smile. He fought the urge to smile back. She didn't appear to notice his tight-lipped expression as she continued telling him about her plans to ruin Pappy's.

"It's going to be stunning. Light and airy, but cozy." She wrinkled her nose in dismay. "That is, when I can find someone to do a drop ceiling and close in the walls. I'm willing to keep it a tad tropical, but I'm aiming for mostly French colonial. Oh, and there will definitely be a wine bar to replace that mess," she said, waving off the area where rows of rum, gin, and assorted liquors used to be.

Rick watched her move around the room, pointing out more changes to come. Once she got on a roll, her energy was astonishing. With each new idea, he felt his world rushing toward extinction.

"I'll limit the menu at first. No more than four entrees. And no peanut shells anywhere. I found peanut shells in the rest rooms. Can you imagine?" Clapping her hands together, she brought them under her chin, then turned back toward him. Suddenly she looked as if she'd tripped on something. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

He slipped his sunglasses on the moment she began stroking that place below her breasts. It should have been easy enough to look at something else, anything else, but he couldn't stop watching her touching herself that way. One moment she was posturing and talking like a madame president, and the next she reminded him of an excited kid at summer camp. The first image was as intriguing as the second was poignant. He adjusted his sunglasses, thankful that they prevented her from knowing that he continued to stare at that place below her breasts, wishing he could stroke it too.

"Did you say that Pappy hit his head?" he asked, taking off his suit jacket and tossing it on the bar.

"No." Lowering her hand to her hip, she gave him a quick and suspicious once-over. Her wistful moment dissolved, replaced with that instructive tone he was already beginning to hate. "I told you, his foot went through a rotted step."

"I think he hit his head," Rick said, nodding as if he had just been convinced of it. "Yes, ma'am," he continued, walking over to where his old chair was and dragging it out into the center of the room. Sitting down, he lifted his feet to rest them on the sawhorse, then folded his arms. "As a matter of fact, I think Pappy must have whacked it good and hard to let you do this to his place. Bryn, take my word for it. This distinctive, French colonial crap isn't going to work."

Bryn stared hard at the broad-shouldered man relaxing in the battered captain's chair. She pressed her lips together, fighting back the urge to pull in a sharp breath. Rick Parrish was arrogant, opinionated, and not a little antagonistic. Those things alone should have been reason enough to dismiss him, but there was something else about the man that stopped her from telling him to get out. Forget that he possessed the most effective packaging for testosterone she'd even seen. Forget that his permanent tan, his sun-streaked hair, and his handsome face, made all the more handsome with its weathered touches, had been inviting her stares since the moment she'd seen him. And forget that his own blue-eyed gaze had her warm and tingly and strangely alert. All of it, she told herself, was nothing but an overblown reaction to the man's overpowering presence. The most fascinating thing about Rick Parrish was his passion and the way he was trying to hide it. And the fact that he couldn't.

She watched as he stripped off his tie and began rolling it into a neat bundle. When he stuffed it into one of his trouser pockets, he strained the open V of his shirt, giving her a peek at his curly chest hair. Without warning, she found herself picturing him unbuttoning his shirt and tugging it off to reveal a light and springy mat of hair covering a supremely masculine chest. A chest to stroke. Tickle. Kiss. And when he opened his arms and whispered her name, a warm and waiting chest for her to press her face against. The mesmerizing images continued until she pressed her fingers to her forehead and willed them to stop. She blinked.

"Crap? Did you actually just say crap?!" she asked in a distinct hiss.

"Bryn, honey," he said, flicking an imaginary piece of lint from his knee, "I know what I'm talking about. You're wasting your time and Pappy's money. Open your eyes and stop this before we can't fix it. You're making a big mistake."

For one shattering moment all she could focus on was his casually delivered endearment. Honey. She hadn't heard that word since her last close relationship. Maybe it wasn't her fiancé's fault that the excitement he generated was usually one-sided. His side. But she hadn't had a problem tossing the ring in his face when he'd accused her of loving her career more than she loved him. That was three years ago, and although her biological clock wasn't clanging the alarm, she didn't like to be reminded of what she still lacked—a man to love and be loved by, a baby, and all those sweet endearments that came with the both of them. And now Rick Parrish, this man she hardly knew, tossed off "honey" in such a cavalier way that it made her cheeks sting with angry heat. He was attempting to knock the wind out of her sails by telling her she couldn't handle a simple, albeit enjoyable, renovation for her grandfather. To top things off, he was also making it clear that her ideas were categorically wrong.

Rick Parrish wasn't going to get away with mocking her expertise. She'd kill him with kindness first!

"Well, Rick, honey, I disagree," she said, infusing her words with as much politeness as she could manage. "I think Malabar Key needs an upscale restaurant. Someplace special—"

"People can go over to Key West if they want special," he said, lowering his feet to the floor. As if her work weren't worth a full wave of his hand, he lifted only his fingers to indicate her changes to the restaurant's interior. "But they don't want this kind of special here. They want Pappy's."

"And how do you know what people want?" she asked, monitoring her composure with each strained word.

"Because I've lived here most of my life, and I know. What they want is a place where they can put their feet up, throw their peanut shells on the floor, and play the jukebox good and loud." Twisting around for a look at the back corner of the room, Rick did a double take, then came out of his chair, knocking it over in the awkward move. Pulling off his glasses, he dropped his voice to an unforgiving whisper. "What did you do with the jukebox?"

"I had it moved downstairs to the storage room. Someone's coming over from Grassy Key to look at it tonight." She leveled a look at him that was meant to tell him she wasn't backing down. "Does that meet with your approval?"

"You're selling the jukebox?" Before she could reply, he gestured toward the empty corner with his sunglasses. "That jukebox is not leaving Malabar Key," he said, his voice climbing again.

"Is that an order, Mr. Parrish, or an offer to buy it?" she asked. Picking up the basket of napkins, she walked calmly toward the kitchen door, her bejeweled sandals making slow, soft tapping sounds. Once inside she waited for him, certain that he wasn't going to give up. Not like some men she'd had to stand up to in her career. Not with his fiery personality. Rick Parrish didn't disappoint her, and that made her feel all the more triumphant when she heard him approaching.

"It's the truth," he bellowed, slamming the door back against the kitchen wall.

Bryn set the basket on the butcher-block table, slid it back a few inches, and took a measured, calming breath before facing him again. She would have missed the tremor in his hand if she hadn't looked at the door first. He was holding his fingers flat against the wood panel, but lowered his arm when he stepped into the room. If this had been any other man, she would have been impressed with her ability to illicit such a show of emotion. But Rick Parrish had bypassed that kind of self-indulgent reaction and hit her where it mattered. In her reawakening libido. The burst of energy was invigorating. "You're walking around here like the man in charge, but you're not in charge. Not here anyway." She tapped that place below her breasts. "I am. And my eyes
open. This place was in shambles. The accident opened Grandfather's eyes too. He realizes it's time for a change. And I'm only too happy to be the instrument for that change."

BOOK: A Woman To Blame
3.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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