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Authors: Susan Connell

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BOOK: A Woman To Blame
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Crossing her arms in front of her, she tapped her shiny red fingernails against her forearms before turning her wide-eyed gaze in his direction. She studied him as she licked the corner of her mouth thoughtfully. "You are right about one thing."

Yesss! Triumph at last. She'd come to her senses; there was justice in the world. Well, whatever it was that she was about to tell him, he would accept it stoically. He lowered his chin, hoping she'd interpret the gesture as an invitation to begin. While he waited, he fought back the urge to gather her into his arms and track down the source of her scent. In the morning, after her shower, where
did
she dab it? He pictured himself starting the search at the high hollow of her shoulder, then nuzzling her all the way to that place between her breasts... and maybe lower. As if she'd read his thoughts, Bryn's lips parted with a tiny gasp.
Share with me, Bryn. What are you thinking while I'm making love to you in my mind?
She was tilting her face up to meet his. The closer he came, the sweeter her lips looked. At the moment Rick sensed their tickling touch, a jolting voice called out to them from down the hall.

"If you two can control yourselves, you can go back into him. One at a time."

He pulled up first. "Go on in. I'll come back later," he said, as reality crashed between them. She started away from him, but he reached out to stop her. "Before you go, I'm still curious."

"About what?" she asked, looking slightly shaken by what had almost happened.

"What is that one thing you think I'm right about?"

She hesitated, then pressed her fingertips against the front of his shirt and looked up at him through her thick lashes. For one pulse of a moment he thought she was going to kiss him. Really kiss him. His hands itched to hold her close and help her make it a long, wet one.

But he wanted more than a kiss. He wanted to bury himself in the tantalizing puzzle she was to him.

"Oh, yes," she whispered as if she'd just remembered. "You were right when you said that whatever he does with his restaurant is none of your business." Stepping away from him, she adjusted her striped top, then started back down the hall toward Pappy's room.

Watching her go with her little victory riding high on her shoulders, he couldn't help but smile. She'd pulled out of the charged moment neatly, earning the right to strut. This time. Nodding, he allowed himself to enjoy her deliciously sexy gait while he thought about the coming weeks.

In winning this skirmish, she had also gifted him with a challenge, and he never backed down from a challenge. Especially when it involved Pappy's Crab Shack, and in a larger sense the preservation of Malabar Key. But with her unique blend of feminine subtleties and fiery passion, he wondered how he was going to go about fighting for his own preservation.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

"What are you waiting for, dear?"

Before Bryn could answer, Liza continued speaking, her voice as urgent over the telephone as it was in person.

With the receiver tucked snugly between her shoulder and ear, Bryn packed the last box lunch into the carton, then sank into Rick's old pine captain's chair next to the wall phone. There was something oddly comforting about the worn armrests and the firm curve supporting her back. She'd assured herself that Rick's use of it the other day had nothing to do with why she'd chosen to drag this particular chair into Chez Madison's kitchen. Entwining the coiled phone cord through her fingers, she smoothed a tight fist along the hem of her running shorts when thoughts of Rick and that almost kiss slipped unbidden into her thoughts.

"Bryn dear, are you there?"

"Yes. Sorry. What were you—" she began, then broke off when she heard Liza's strangled sigh.

"We don't have a lot of time to waste, you know. Jacaranda Key is planning a water festival for next month. Islamorada and Conch Key have already started advertising for their fishing tournaments. We must lock in a date for our fund-raising activity. I'll contact your volunteers and tell them to be at the restaurant tonight."

Bryn had given a wide berth to Liza's zealous style, but tonight simply wasn't a good night to have the meeting. Furniture samples were being delivered to Chez Madison today. Before they arrived, she had her grandfather to visit and at least four calls to make concerning her design business. Once Jiggy picked up the box lunches and her morning jog was out of the way, she was going to be busy well into the night. "Liza, it's a mess over here."

"No one's going to care. All your committee people require are a few snacks and a place to eat them. By the way, Captain Parrish loves key lime pie, so keep that in mind when you're preparing the food. And since you're right next to his marina, I'll let you tell Captain Parrish to be there at eight-thirty. I'll take care of notifying the rest of the committee, and I'll drop off the folders to you later today too."

While Liza chattered on, Bryn looked across the kitchen where Rick's blazer was hanging. The navy blue linen blend was beginning to look as if it belonged in the kitchen. Even though she knew the act was a silly tactile indulgence, she caught herself touching the buttons and patting the pockets several times a day.
If you'd, kissed me, Rick Parrish, I wouldn't still be wondering, waiting, wanting..
.. If he'd kissed her, maybe she wouldn't have this overwhelming desire to keep touching his jacket. All the errant, erotic thoughts she'd been having would most likely disappear with a real flesh-on-flesh experience. She felt her mouth squinching into a self-deprecating frown. How could she have spent the last few days letting her imagination build an almost kiss into the erotic event of her life? He was probably a lousy kisser anyway. She rubbed her thumbnail back and forth across her lips. Probably a brusque kisser, hard and tight-lipped and unsatisfying. Staring at his jacket, she started to think how she could remedy the problem when Liza's voice startled her.

"Bryn, are you still there?"

"Yes," she said, getting to her feet and turning away from the jacket.
Fool,
she thought to herself,
let Rick Parrish remedy his own kissing problems. If he has any.
"I'm still here."

"Bryn?" Liza's voice was strangely soft.

"What is it?"

"Contacting Captain Parrish about the meeting isn't bothering you, is it?"

"Why do you ask?"

"I have an instinct for these things." Before Bryn could ask what "these things" were, Liza continued. "Maybe I'm out of bounds on this, but I think you ought to know how Captain Parrish's marriage ended."

"Liza, wait." A sudden and overwhelming impulse told her not to listen. Staring at her white-knuckled hands squeezing the phone, she willed herself to relax her grip. "I-I think Rick should be the one to tell me about his past." She rolled her eyes. Why, oh, why had she responded that way? When was Rick Parrish ever going to be close enough to her to tell her anything about himself, especially about a divorce? "I mean, I like to stay clear of anything resembling gossip." Great! Now she sounded like a snob.

"It's not gossip, Bryn. But you're probably right. Maybe Rick ought to tell you about it himself."

Grateful that Liza's tone was reflective, and not hurt, she said, "Yes, well, I'll go over now and talk to him." She quickly added, "About the committee meeting, I mean."

"Of course, dear."

* * *

Rick was talking quietly into his cell phone and didn't notice her when she walked into the marina office. Dressed in her running clothes, she stood inside the door with his jacket folded over one arm and the carton of lunches resting on her hip. Setting the carton on a display cabinet inside the door, she caught the jacket as it began slipping from her arm. Stroking it one last time, she was alarmed to realize that she was going to miss it hanging on the kitchen door. Running her fingers over the raised anchors on the brass buttons, she checked to make sure Rick wasn't looking at her before she sniffed the collar. How had a simple navy blue blazer become an object of fetish? Her search for the answer was interrupted by Rick's voice.

"I know we should have talked about it before this," he was saying, his upward gaze dropping in defeat, then wandering across the room to Bryn. Holding her gaze boldly with his own, he kept on talking into the phone, "I have to go. Sure, I'll remember. We'll talk later."

As he closed and pocketed the phone, Bryn felt her moxie waning. Feminine instinct struggled against common sense. Was his conversation about an upcoming fishing charter or a date? And why should it matter? While she'd been mooning over him for days, he had been avoiding her.

"Good morning," he said, before pointing to her red running clothes. "Challenging me to a race this morning?"

"Hello. What?" Looking down at her clothes, she said, "No," before brushing back her hair. A bouncy lock dipped across her brow again, but this time she pretended to ignore it. What had possessed her to give up hair spray and extra-body styling gel since she'd been down here? "I didn't mean to disturb your phone call."

"You didn't. I was through," he said, picking up a pencil and writing on a clipboard. He looked up at her long enough to register the point with a smile. Turning back to the clipboard, he erased what he'd written, then wrote again.

So it wasn't a lover he'd been talking with. Her shoulders relaxed along with her tightly clamped jaw. The call must have been about a charter, because he continued to write down numbers in little squares and make check marks in several columns. Standing by the display of potato chips and cheese curls, she had a nearly overwhelming urge to tear open the cellophane and toss them into the air like confetti.

"So, what's up?" he asked, hanging the clipboard on a wall hook and sliding the pencil onto the counter beside the cash register.

"Jiggy doesn't have to pick up the lunches. I brought them myself," she said, indicating the carton on the display cabinet. "Two roast beefs, three chicken salads, and one peanut butter and jelly. I put in extra pickles and pasta salad. And French apple pie. I didn't have any key lime." Why was she reciting the menu? He hadn't asked.

"Jiggy's coming by to see you later. He's bringing Miss Scarlett back to Pappy's." Rick shook his head, fighting back a laugh as he rolled his tongue inside his cheek.

"What's wrong?"

"Jiggy's love life. Seems the parrot starts spouting scripture at the worst possible moment, and by the time he quiets the bird..."

"I see," she said, exaggerating her nod. If anyone but Rick had told her, she would have been laughing out loud, but instead all she felt was a stinging rush of blood to her face. Why did she let him get to her like this? she wondered angrily. Swallowing, she took a step forward and began again. "You forgot your jacket."

He was pouring himself a cup of coffee. "I thought I might have left it at Pappy's," he said, twisting to look at her while he squeezed honey onto a spoon. "Would you like a cup?"

"No, thank you." Why hadn't he come by for the jacket if he thought he left it there? Why hadn't he at least called about it? Why hadn't he...? The silent questions building in her head suddenly exploded. "Why haven't you answered the messages I left on your phone?" she demanded. He
hadn't
been answering her phone calls for a full five days, but that was no reason to blurt it out like a recalcitrant teenager.

The air conditioner started in with a warning rattle and then a blast of frigid air.

"Sorry about that," he said evenly. "I've had a lot of unfinished business to deal with since I got back from my trip."

Giving his coffee one last stir, he clinked the spoon against the edge of the mug before lifting it to his mouth. He did a thorough job of licking the residue of honey from the inside curve of the spoon and then the outside curve. The action was an everyday one, ordinary and commonplace, but when Rick performed it, it vibrated with erotic overtones. Suddenly she was picturing him sliding his tongue over parts of her. Her eyes began closing.

"You're right," he said as he dropped the spoon onto the tray with a loud clatter. "I should have called you back before now. I apologize."

She searched his guileless expression, trying to find a sign that he knew what he'd been doing to her, but her gaze kept coming back to the shine on his lips. She could almost smell the warm honey and, if she moved closer, taste it. She wondered what he'd do if she ran her tongue over his lips. Encourage further exploration? Images of their naked bodies tangled together filled her mind until she had to pull in a long and calming lungful of air. Why was she allowing these images to continue? Eroticism had been a much-heralded but ultimately disappointing undertaking for her. Still, she couldn't seem to stop thinking about what being with him would be like. Attempting to banish the confusing thoughts and the accompanying tension they produced, she tilted her head to a comical angle. "Yes, you should have called me... but I have you here now."

BOOK: A Woman To Blame
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