Authors: Sara Orwig
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition September 2013
The Goodies Case
As the bright yellow hot-air balloon gained speed in its descent to the ground, Marilee O’Neil worked frantically to keep it aloft. She looked below. Sprawled on the ground, like an oasis in a desert, was a house, barns, and sheds surrounded by miles of shimmering golden Kansas wheat. Behind the green-roofed house the clear aqua water of a swimming pool sparkled. A man was stretched on a chaise, but he sat up, shading his eyes, as the balloon neared his pool.
Marilee’s heart thudded in fright as the big balloon’s wobbly, angled descent brought her closer and closer to the blue-green water of the swimming pool. She desperately fiddled with the manual controls. If only she could hit the pool and not the house or concrete or trees! The sunbather jumped to his feet.
Abandoning the controls, Marilee didn’t know whether to scream or close her eyes. Instead, frozen in terror, she clung to the wicker gondola. As it bore down, she thought she would drop right on top of the man.
“Look out!” she yelled.
The balloon plunged faster. She was close enough to see every detail below her. The man stood at the edge of the pool, watching her approach. For an instant she was sufficiently startled to forget her predicament. He was nude, deeply tanned, and very fit. He was standing with his fingers splayed on his bare hips. That strip of flesh was pale, contrasting with the rest of his tanned body. On his chest, below broad, muscular shoulders, a mat of curly dark hair tapered to a narrow line across the hard planes of his flat stomach.
A high stake fence surrounded the pool area. Inside the fence were flowerbeds, trees, bright blue wrought-iron pool furniture that matched the large umbrella over a round table. Surrounding the outside were elm trees. The balloon swept over their tops, and Marilee saw the concrete looming up, then the pool. Screaming, she clutched the edge of the gondola as it crashed into the water.
She lost her balance and fell, then tumbled out, and cold water swamped her. Gasping, she surfaced, shook her red hair out of her eyes, and treaded water. The man stood at the edge of the pool with his arms folded over his chest. He seemed oblivious to his nudity.
“At least wrap a towel around yourself!” she shouted.
He threw back his head and laughed. She didn’t want to climb out and talk to a naked man. She stared off to the side at a tall native elm a few yards beyond the pool. “That wasn’t meant to be funny.”
“I have a ten-foot fence,” he said, “armed guards, an alarm system to insure my privacy. You manage to surmount all obstacles, invade my privacy, ruin my peace, and then have the nerve to tell me to get dressed!”
Making an effort not to lower her gaze from his face, to try to forget the blatant masculinity that pulled at her like a magnet, she stared at his eyes. They were startlingly blue. “I’m sorry if I invaded your privacy, but I couldn’t control the balloon.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been up there flying it.”
“I have a license. I’ve had fourteen hours of flight time. If you’ll do the gentlemanly thing and wrap a towel around your middle, I’ll get out of your pool and your life.”
“And if I don’t do the gentlemanly thing?” he asked, laughter filling every word.
Anger was now added to her embarrassment. “I would have the rotten luck to drop into a pool owned by a …”
Another laugh burst from him, making her angrier as her attention returned to the elm. “I didn’t say that to amuse you either. You
“Like hell, lady. I was minding my own business in my own pool on my own property when you descended.”
She clamped her lips together, risking another look at his blue eyes. They were filled with a devilish twinkle. “May I use your phone?” she asked.
“Are you married?”
“What does that have to do with your phone?”
“I’ll bet you’re not.”
“Why do you think I’m single?”
“If you were married I don’t think you’d have such a hang-up about a nude male body.”
“I don’t have a hang-up about naked males.”
“No. Now may I use your phone?”
“Who are you?”
“You know, you’re really aggravating.”
She couldn’t help another peek at his laughing blue eyes. His grin was very appealing. Brown locks of hair curled over his forehead and his firm jaw and prominent cheekbones made his features rugged. His smile was irresistible. Almost irresistible. She wanted to get away from him. He was beginning to make her very nervous. She shifted her gaze back to the elm. “I don’t want to remain in your pool all day.”
“Where’s the phone?”
“Will you have dinner with me?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Nope. You dropped in, you might as well stay for dinner.”
“Thank you, no.”
“That’s a disappointment. How’d you get way out here anyway?”
Remembering the frantic past hour, she bit her lip. “That’s a long story. To make it short, I have a friend who was supposed to race his balloon. When he broke his arm, I said I’d fly in his place.”
“Looks like you lost the race. You’re not married, but there’s a man in your life.”
“You might say so, yes. Are you going to let me use the phone?”
“Are you engaged?”
“No. You ask terribly personal questions. It’s just my luck to fall into the swimming pool of some perverted male. May I use your phone?”
“After you agree to have dinner with me.”
“Thanks, but I have to get back to town.” Silence descended. Smelling of chlorine, the pool water lapped gently around her while she studied
the elm, its broad green leaves, its spreading limbs. Actually, the pool was deliciously cool on this hot May day, but she wanted to go home. She couldn’t tread water indefinitely, though, and she couldn’t hang on to the wicker gondola for it was slowly filling with water and starting to sink. In the perimeter of her vision she could see that he wasn’t moving. The silence was stretching tautly between them, grating her nerves until she felt thoroughly frustrated by the wordless contest of wills. Her gaze felt pulled as if by ropes. Finally, she looked at him again.
“I’m Cole Chandler.”
“How do you do, Mr. Chandler. May I please, please use your phone?”
“Sure. After you agree to stay for dinner.”
“You’re really nuts!”
He chuckled. “And you are …”
She didn’t answer. He tried again. “C’mon, honey. What’s your name?”
“Don’t call me honey!”
“Whooo. Another hang-up.”
Without thinking, she looked at him. He was grinning, a wide, inviting grin full of mischief.
“Are you going to hold me here against my will?”
“I’m not holding you at all. Honey—”
“My name is Marilee. Don’t call me honey.”
“Oh? Any reason I can’t call you ‘honey’? Are you scared of it or has there been some ‘honey’ incident in your past?”
“You’re really crazy! I fell into the pool of a crazy man.”
He laughed, a deep-throated, full laugh that almost melted her anger.
She talked to the tree. “Look here, I need to use your phone. I want to get out of here. Everyone will be looking for me.” And her arms and legs were getting tired.
“Everyone? You must be very, very popular, Marilee … Marilee …?”
“Marilee O’Neil and don’t be ridiculous. The chase vehicle lost sight of me and my friend will be looking for me. He’ll be worried.”
“Ahh, him again. How Important is he to you?”
“That’s none of your business. I’m getting tired of staring at your elm tree while I tread water. Will you please put a towel around your middle?”
“Marilee O’Neil. Other than my name, do you know who I am?”
Her head jerked around. “How would I know who you are?”
“You’re in my swimming pool. You might have wanted to meet me.”
“Do people go to this length to meet you?”
She couldn’t believe such a thing. He was the most aggravating male she had ever encountered in all her thirty years.
But he was appealing, without a doubt. His blue eyes were inviting, sexy. His smile was definitely irresistible, his thick brown hair an inviting tangle. That first image of a broad-shouldered, slim-hipped virile male was impossible to forget. Squelching her thoughts, she glared at him. “You’re an exhibitionist, a crazy egotist!”
“Such flattery, Marilee. That sounds like a Texas name.”
“No, Tennessee originally. My parents moved to Kansas from Tennessee. I’m getting tired of this.”
“Well, Marilee, if you’re tired, get out of the pool. Would you like something to drink?”
“You know the only thing I’d like is a telephone.”
“And you know that as soon as you consent to have dinner with me.
get the telephone.”
“I’m not a pickup!”
He laughed again. “No, you’re not. You dropped in on me like a bomb.”
“That isn’t what I meant. I don’t know you or anything about you.”
“You know more about me right now than some people I’ve worked with for years,” he drawled.
She burned with embarrassment and anger. “I had the grace not to look.”
His mocking grin told her he knew better. Blushing furiously, she amended her answer. “I haven’t looked since the first time. Not that it would bother you.” She thought again about his questioning her if she knew who he was. “Oh, Lord, are you a model for one of those nude male magazines?”
“I look familiar?” He was definitely laughing again.
“No! You seemed to think I might recognize you. It’s logical to think you might be a male model.”
“Thank you. I’ll trust your judgment on the matter.”
“I don’t know anything about the magazines.”
“Oh? Then why did you think I might be pictured in them?”
“Because you have the body for it and you’re oblivious to your nudity.”
“I have the body for it?”
“Where is that phone?”
“As for tonight, I know nothing about you. The little I do know isn’t reassuring.”
He waved his hand. “My house ought to be reassuring.”
She glanced at the sprawling two-story white frame house. “Just because you have a big home doesn’t mean anything.”
“It does to a lot of people. Do you work?”
“I’m a reading teacher and a painter.”
“My teachers never looked like you. What kind of painter? Oils, watercolor?”
“You paint houses?”
“When I’m not teaching. It’s nice work and brings in money.” Why was she telling him that?
“Want to paint my house?”
Startled, she looked at the house again, then turned back to the tree. “It doesn’t need it.”
“Do you always turn down work so quickly?”
“No. What business are you in?”
“I’m a farmer.”
She forgot the elm. “You’re not!” She didn’t believe him for a minute. He didn’t look or act like a farmer. She’d bet he’d never seen a plow in his life. “We’ve had quite a chat and I’m getting tired of treading water. May I use your phone?”
“You know the condition.”
Consternation shook her. She thought about her drifting flight. During the last hour she hadn’t seen a house or store for miles in any direction. She needed to get back to Wichita. Water lapped gently at her neck as she kept her hands and feet moving to stay afloat. She glanced behind her. The gondola was almost completely submerged while the silky yellow envelope, the material of the balloon, hid a bed of flowers, covered patio furniture, and draped over the side of the pool into the water. She knew how much Jack must be suffering, wondering about his balloon, if not about her.
There seemed only one recourse. “Okay,” she told the tree, “I’ll have dinner with you if you promise—”
“Whoa! No promises.”
“How do I know you’re not a rapist?”
In a sexy drawl that sent a shiver racing through her, he answered, “Marilee, honey, you’ll have to take my word. I’m not a rapist.”
She knew he told the truth. He looked like the type of man who had spent most of his life surrounded by very willing females. It rankled though to be at his mercy. She tilted her chin higher. “I wouldn’t expect you to admit it or announce the fact.”
“I promise. You’re safe from rape. Maybe not from seduction …”
Her temper matched the heat of the Kansas sunshine. “I’ll be safe from that! I’ll have dinner with you. In my wet shorts and halter. Now get me a phone and put a towel around you.”
“You want some of my clothes? They won’t fit, but they’ll be dry.”
“Thank you, no. I’ll be happy if you’ll just put on your clothes.”
“I thought a towel would satisfy you.”
“It will! I promised I’d stay for dinner. Where’s the phone?” His laughter irritated her. “Do you think everything in life is funny?”
“Hardly, but I haven’t ever met anyone like you, Marilee.”
A sudden thought struck her. “Are you a nudist?”
“Are you eating dinner nude?”
“Not unless you will too.”
“Indeed, I won’t! You can take your telephone and—”
Through clenched teeth she said, “I’m not eating in the nude.”
“That’s very disappointing. You can look now.”
“I’m perfectly respectable. I have a towel over the offensive region.”
So he did. A white towel was secured around his narrow hips and draped at an angle across a flat stomach, barely touching his muscular tanned thighs. Why would a man with a body like a professional boxer have armed guards, an alarm system, an elegant, enormous house in the middle of nowhere? Thoughts of a gangster, the mob, suddenly came to mind.
“Where’s the phone?” Swimming to the edge of the pool, she climbed out to face him. Water splashed off her, squishing out of her sneakers, leaving her yellow halter and shorts plastered to her body.
With a leisurely scrutiny, his blue gaze moved at a snail’s pace over her halter, which clung to her full breasts, revealing every curve.
His voice was low, husky, and sexy. “And you were angry with me because I didn’t have on any clothes!”