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Authors: Susan Connell

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BOOK: A Woman To Blame
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"Yes, you do," he said, reaching back with his hands and lifting himself onto the counter. "Up against the wall, as a matter of fact." Picking up his mug, he examined its sailfish decal before rubbing his knuckles over it. Before she could yell "Stop!" he was licking drops of honey from his fingers. "Hot," he murmured before looking up at her. "So what are you going to do with me?"

She'd stared a moment too long at his fingers. His incredibly sexy, wet fingers. Down went her guard in a rush of delicious confusion. What was he saying?



Up against the wall?

What was
going to do with

Streaming heat pooled in forgotten places inside her. Her lips felt full and tingling. For one lost second she felt like doing something very foolish. Very sexy. Very unlike herself. Finding herself in a free fall through her wildest fantasies, she struggled against them. He kept on smiling. Kept on staring. Kept on melting her resolve to pull out of this vortex of sensuality. And he was winning. Her hand drifted across her midriff before languidly moving to her arm. "Our first committee meeting is tonight...." She traced a long line down her arm, paused at her wrist, then dragged her fingertips up to her elbow. Perhaps it was the way his stare locked onto her movements, but her voice was beginning to sound low and sultry even to herself.

"Tonight," he repeated, his voice dropping into a whisper suggestive of murmured endearments and soft kisses.

Somewhere in all of this pseudo-foreplay she had to pull out and land on her feet. And soon. But not too soon. She took an extra breath before sending him the beginning of an invitation with a tiny lick of her lips. Holding his jacket against her hip, she moved forward and placed one hand on the counter. "They're all coming to Chez Madison at eight-thirty, but if you wanted to—"

"Tonight?" The teasing maze of moves he'd been guiding her through went straight out the window with his bitten-off curse and shifting gaze. "I have something on my schedule for tonight."

Don't stop this, she wanted to tell him. Don't stop this fresh energy tickling at my heart. I like it. I like the way it feels. Please don't do this because I called it Chez Madison instead of Pappy's Crab Shack. Please don't make me say anything reckless. Blood was pounding in her ears from sheer embarrassment, but that didn't keep her from whispering, "I need you there, Rick. Couldn't you ask someone else to help you out?"

With an almost apologetic tone, he shook his head. "I can't get out of this, Bryn. Look, if I can make it later, I'll come by. Or maybe you could reschedule."

Reschedule? Instead of a lovers' rendezvous, he made it sound like a business meeting. Her heart skipped a beat and she almost groaned out loud; it
a business meeting. Her hand dropped to her side as the sensual fog burned away, leaving her in a room filled with fishing tackle, sunscreen, and brightly colored hats that read Fish or Cut Bait.

"Maybe you could reschedule," she said smartly, brushing her hair from her brow. She waited in silence until she felt her ears smarting with his answer.

"I can't."

Lifting her hand from the glass counter top, she straightened her spine. "The meeting's at eight-thirty," she said, clinging to the cool professionalism she willed to return to her voice. She headed for the door, but before her hand closed around the doorknob, more words welled up from a raw spot inside her. She could barely contain the hot anger she felt. "I'm busy too. I'm trying to run my business by phone from down here. I'm up to my neck in renovations at the restaurant. And my grandfather needs me." Twisting the knob, she fumbled twice before yanking open the door. "I don't have time to chase down the rest of the committee to reschedule this for your convenience, Captain Parrish."

She didn't mean to rattle the glass panes in the door when she pulled it shut, but when she returned a second later to place the jacket on his counter, she didn't apologize. If she did that, he might turn his face from the window and see the stinging tears in her eyes. Then he'd ask why they were there, and she wasn't sure she knew the answer.

* * *

He hadn't lied to Bryn; he couldn't get out of his plans. He'd put them off too long as it was. Facing Sharon Burke and telling her their arrangement had to end wasn't going to be easy. For the next hour he busied himself with paperwork while he waited for his customers. Several times he stopped, pencil poised in midair, while he tried to think of a way to let Sharon down easily. Thumbing through one of his astronomy magazines hadn't helped either. In the end he decided to rely on the one thing Sharon always insisted on. Honesty.

Picking up Bryn's carton of lunches, he walked out to the
Coral Kiss.
Below deck, he lifted out the first box to place in the cooler. She'd wrapped each one in banana-yellow ribbon with a hand-lettered card attached. He tipped the card to read it.
Chez Madison—distinctive cuisine in the heart of the Keys.
Shaking his head, he laughed softly. If he didn't admire her goal, he had to admire her perseverance. After storing the food, he went topside hoping to catch a glimpse of her upstairs at Pappy's in the open-air room. He never got the chance to look for her, because his group charter was climbing out of their van in the parking lot. As they gathered their gear he jumped down onto the dock and directed them inside the office to sign several forms. While he waited, he found himself thinking about the woman he would see tonight. Maybe with him out of her life, she could start thinking about a plan for the rest of it. About goals. And about finding the courage to move on.

Sharon Burke was a good person, and after her husband died, a lonely one like himself. There were plenty of men lined up to impress the lovely widow, but as she told him, no one understood that she wasn't looking for another husband. Just a decent man to talk to, a man who didn't demand her constant attention when she simply wasn't ready to give it.

At first, talking was all they'd both wanted. All they needed. Their no-strings relationship hadn't slipped mindlessly into a sexual one. They'd rationalized that move two years ago. When the need to find comfort and release grew strong enough, one of them would make a phone call to the other. Since she had been the last one to call over two months ago, he knew it was his turn. Maybe it was because of his visit to Angle's parents, but he kept putting off calling Sharon. Like a habit, his relationship with Sharon demanded little attention, required minimum imagination, and offered no challenge. His life had drifted on. Then Bryn with her peekaboo clothes, disturbing ways, and determined attitude blew into his life like an unpredicted hurricane. No matter how hard he tried to discount his attraction to Pappy's granddaughter, he'd known from the moment he'd met Bryn that it was time to end his relationship with Sharon.

As he directed his customers aboard the
Coral Kiss,
he felt a sense of relief along with impatience to get the day over with, and to get on with his plans for tonight. Glancing out at the open water beyond the marina, he repositioned his ball cap and asked loudly, "Anyone here fish these waters before?" Through a chorus of noes, Rick came back with, "Aw, hell, neither have I." Everyone laughed, and as they motored out of the slip, he had the feeling that his attempt at humor had more to do with relaxing himself than his customers.

* * *

The rest of the day Bryn worked on turning Pappy's Crab Shack into Chez Madison. As she watched the sample furniture being carried upstairs, she realized a moment of sweet triumph. Rick was going to hate the pastel upholstery and the delicate flowers carved into the light wood. Positioning the chairs around the tables, she told herself it would serve him right to cringe every time he passed by Chez Madison. He'd had no right or reason to treat her so shabbily. The dark justice was she could no longer fool herself into thinking he was interested in her. No more wasted time for her. Now she could give her attention to important matters.

To her chagrin she began wondering if Rick would change his mind and assign the night charter to someone else. That possibility niggled at her mind all morning and afternoon. Later she went to Pappy's house to shower and change, and on her way back detoured three miles off Malabar Key to buy a key lime pie. She ended up buying the last two at the bakery. Halfway back to Malabar Key she glanced at the pie boxes, screamed in the privacy of her car, and pounded her fists on the steering wheel in frustration. She couldn't deny the evidence on the seat next to her; she couldn't stop thinking about him showing up at the meeting.

At eight-ten she thought she saw the
Coral Kiss
inside the horizon.

At eight-fifteen she put away the binoculars and requested his presence with a bargaining prayer. The committee, including Jiggy and the parrot, arrived instead. They all insisted on waiting for Captain Parrish.

That was twenty minutes ago. Twenty endless minutes filled with Jiggy's noisy eating, May Leigh's high-pitched laughter, Hazel Miller's endless gossip, and Rita Small's card tricks. There was nothing remotely professional about the group, unless no one had bothered to tell her they were actors auditioning for a television sitcom. Her thoughts kept returning to Rick.

Are you having fun out there with some pretty woman who can't bait a hook, but laughs at your jokes? And why haven't you told me any jokes?

Pressing her fingertips against her brow, Bryn scolded herself for thoughts befitting a jealous lover.

She wasn't the jealous type. And she wasn't Rick's lover. He wasn't interested anyway. She looked to a point beyond the freshly painted north rail. Beneath a big yellow moon, the inky ocean shimmered with spangles of gold light, intermittently broken by the dark clumps of tiny islands. The rustling palms framing the scene blocked her view of the channel and the twangy country and western music on the radio made it difficult to hear a boat's motor—if one happened to be trolling by.

Just how much fun are you having out there on this beautiful balmy evening, Captain? And when do I get invited out on the Coral Kiss?

Pointedly ignoring the nuzzling couple seated on the floor, she adjusted the mandarin collar of her blouse then smoothed the legs of her capris. Thumbing through the ambulance brochures, she tried to interest herself in comparing the different models. This was one heck of a beginning to her first fund-raising committee meeting. From the cage on the bar, Miss Scarlett echoed Bryn's sentiments with a barrage of gravelly squawks. The unexpected noise had Bryn clutching for her heart. Enough was enough.

"I believe we've given Captain Parrish more than enough time. Let's get started," she said, reaching for the stack of folders Liza had brought by earlier.

"We ought to wait for Captain Parrish before we do anything," Hazel said, running her hand along the carved armrest of the new chair.

"Yeah. What's the rush?" Jiggy Latham asked before May Leigh scooped up the maximum amount of salsa a tortilla chip could hold and shoved the whole thing into Jiggy's mouth. Rick's lanky employee hummed with pleasure at his current love before continuing. "We'll just have to start over when he gets here."

"If he gets here," Bryn said, then instantly regretted it. Four sets of eyes flicked their attention in her direction.

Rita Small, the owner of the Nauti-Us Swimsuit Boutique, pushed her idea list aside to flip over the playing cards in front of her. Leveling a squinty gaze across the table at Bryn, she said, "The truth, sugar pie. You and Liza weren't telling a white lie about Captain Rick being a part of this fund-raiser just to get us to join, were you?"

All four committee members leaned toward Bryn. She gave them a pulse of a smile. Friendly but professional. "Of course he's cochairing with me." Doubt prevailed in each stare directed her way. She sighed with frustration. "If you don't believe me, ask Liza." That appeared to work. They were easing back from her, mumbling contentedly.

Sorting through the folders, Bryn handed the first one to Hazel. Hazel opened it, blinked at the lists inside, then closed it. "I miss Pappy's. Don't you, Jiggy?"

Jiggy Latham's face was suddenly wistful as he stopped testing the edges of his new tattoo and looked at the wall where the mermaid mural used to be. "Yeah. We had the best times at Pappy's. Remember when the Captain bought the
Coral Kiss
and we went down to christen her?" Laughter rippled through the room, encouraging Jiggy to continue. "And the time Bill Harper dragged that ten-foot sailfish up the steps, plunked it on Captain Parrish's table over there, and insisted he buy it a beer?"

"I'd call that one sushi grande," May Leigh managed before collapsing in giggles across Jiggy's lap.

As laughter swelled again, Bryn couldn't deny the funky charm of Jiggy's stories. She pursed her lips to keep back a smile, then gave in to a chuckle. The rest of the group stopped laughing and looked at her. In the unnatural silence that followed, Jiggy cleared his throat.

"Can't see that happening in a place like this," he said, glancing away from the pastel plaid upholstery and over to the French impressionistic paintings leaning against the newly mirrored inner wall. "What time did Captain Parrish say he'd be here?"

"I thought you said that charter was getting back about eight or eight-thirty," Bryn said while attempting to banish the slightly guilty tone in her voice. These people could have a good time at Chez Madison too. Just a different kind of good time.

BOOK: A Woman To Blame
10.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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