Authors: Judy Ann Davis
Tags: #Suspense, #Contemporary
“And?” she prompted.
“I finally got a degree in business administration.”
Elise’s head shot up.
“You seem surprised, Liz. It doesn’t fit the picture, does it? The poor little waif, abandoned by his parents and living with his grandmother, getting a college degree?” His smoke-colored eyes blurred with a trace of bitterness or maybe anger.
She looked away, steadying her nerves. If he was looking for a fight, she was not about to tangle with someone plied with beer.
“No, not at all,” she said evenly. She turned on the faucet and filled the carafe with water. “I’m surprised you chose business administration. I guess I always pictured you as the environmental or mechanical type.” She poured the water into the well and snapped the coffee machine to the “on” position. Within seconds, the aroma of coffee filled the kitchen.
“Then you weren’t far off target, kid.” His voice softened. “I ended up full circle to find out I was still addicted to cars. When a unique opportunity popped up, I bought into a small dealership, enlarged it, added a separate specialty body shop which catered to restoring antiques and classics, and finally bought my partner out.”
“And you want to relocate here? Won’t it be tough, trying to run two businesses in two different states?”
“No, I’m going to put a manager in the south and start a spin-off here.” He twisted the can in his hands. “I don’t have a choice.”
She saw it again. The veiled look of desperation and despair. Somehow his brother’s child was playing a vital part in his decision.
“Anyway, I have this college kid who worked for me part-time for four years while he was getting his mechanical engineering degree. He’s a real whiz with automobiles, computers, and finances. He’s agreed to manage my dealership and operations in Atlanta, once I get the restoration garage with its showroom in motion in Scranton.”
“So the business is succeeding?” She wondered just how large an operation it was. She would ask Fritz about it the first time they had some private moments together. If the way Lucas dressed was any indication of his monetary success, he could ill afford to sink a bundle of cash into a new venture in Scranton, unless he was knee-deep in loans. Buying a house would only add more strain. No wonder he was staying with her father.
“It pays the bills,” he said matter-of-factly.
Removing a cup from the cupboard, Elise turned and studied the coffee machine. “I love these gadgets that let you get coffee before the carafe is filled and without spilling a single drop.”
“Only you would.” He shook his head in disbelief.
That made her chuckle. She poured herself a cup. “Sure you don’t want some?”
He held up the beer can in mock salute. “No, you go ahead, I’m fine.”
“Yes, so I see.” She stepped toward the refrigerator. “I need the milk.”
He pushed himself away with a lazy motion, but she could feel his gaze riveted on her as she retrieved the carton. She walked to the counter and poured some into her cup. He was leaning against the door again when she turned to replace it. She stared at him, watching his gray eyes darken to charcoal, as she stood awkwardly wondering what to do next. He took a long swig of beer, his gaze never lifting from her face. The look was sensual, too intimate for her liking. Lowering the can and shifting it to his left hand, he reached out, taking the carton from her grip. She felt his fingers touch hers. She pulled away quickly, spinning and putting distance between them as she moved to her coffee at the far counter. Trembling inside, she took a sip, her back still turned away from him. She heard the refrigerator door slam.
“Lucas, maybe we ought to establish some rules.” She swiveled to confront him.
“Rules?” He scowled at her.
“Yes, house rules.” She felt her senses return to normal as she took control. This is what she did best, orchestrating situations, managing details, maintaining order. “Listen, we have ten days together under the same roof, and we need to have mutual working guidelines.”
“Mutual working guidelines?” He set the can aside and reached into the refrigerator to take out another. “What the hell are those?”
“I wish you wouldn’t drink so much,” she said.
“Is that a guideline, too?” He wandered over to the window on the other side of the room and pulled the curtain aside. “Never mind,” he said, peering out.
“First rule, are you listening?”
He popped the tab on the can. “How can I not?”
She sighed. “First person up in the morning makes the coffee.”
“I want first dibs on the upstairs bath in the evening. You can shower downstairs, morning or night, or use the upstairs bath in the morning, if you do not mind maneuvering around in a trashed bathroom. Be forewarned, I prefer to leave all my things handy and within reach. Bath salts, make-up, toiletries, even lingerie. My one vice is soaking in the tub after dinner.”
“Only one, Liz? Only
vice?” he asked.
“Stuff it, will you, Fisher?” She started tidying up the kitchen, pitching beer cans and paper plates into the garbage. “You also need to know I don’t cook.”
“Don’t or can’t?” she heard him ask over the dull metallic clank of the cans.
“I guess a little of both.”
“Your mother was a wonderful cook,” he said. “She could make the most fabulous cinnamon rolls. I remember when she baked me a chocolate birthday cake for my sixteenth birthday. I was so angry when Fritz ate half of it that she baked another the next day—just for me.”
Elise smiled, remembering the incident. Her mother always had a soft spot for guys and chocolate cakes. She picked up the empty pizza boxes. “So it’s either fast food, order in, or TV dinners, unless we can convince Fritz to come over for a few evenings and cook.”
“Fritz can cook?” Lucas asked, totally surprised by Elise’s words.
“Yes, somehow the insurance salesman got a double dip of mother’s Julia Child gene. Go figure.”
She finished cleaning up and wiped the counters. She was rinsing her cup when she heard him come up behind her. She whirled around. He stood inches from her.
“Any more rules?” His eyes met hers as he slid his beer can onto the counter. He reached up and smoothed a tendril of hair from her face. “It’s as soft as it looks. Kiss me, Liz.”
“Lucas, this isn’t a good idea,” she whispered. “You’ve been drinking. Too much. Much too much.”
“Not enough,” he said and bent his head, touching her lips with his. She staggered back against the counter, but he grabbed her, sweeping her into his arms and devouring her with his mouth. She felt his body vibrate against her, hot and hungry.
For a moment she froze, her head reeling as she remembered a time four years ago when she had refused to comply, refused to yield to a strength she couldn’t match.
Philip had come to her apartment in a drunken stupor, refusing to acknowledge their three-year engagement was over. She could no longer continue to innocently turn her head the other way to all the females who demanded his time and his body.
When she had told him they were finished and handed him the ring, he had gone berserk. He had tried to kiss her and when she refused, the force of his backhand had sent her flying backwards, stumbling over a chair in the living room. She had tried to reason with him, but it had only made him more furious. He had lunged at her again, and she had struggled and screamed, scratching at his dark, angry face, but the blows had only come harder then, faster, until she lay on the carpet in a ball, begging for blackness to descend upon her and take the pain away.
She had awakened later with the tinny taste of blood in her mouth. Her eye was swollen shut, her face and lips battered, and her clothes torn. She knew then that the body and the hands of a lover who had once gently caressed and made love to her was capable of violence and revenge when scorned.
She felt the pressure of hard, demanding lips pressed against hers. This was not Philip Cullington, she told herself. This was Lucas Fisher. Lucas who had been like a brother to her. Regaining her senses, she pushed hard against him. Immediately he released her and stepped backward.
“For the love of God, Lucas, don’t do this! My life is complicated enough. And after what’s happened today. My father—”
Her words were like splashing ice water on him. He took another step backward, away from her, as his face registered reality and his gaze locked with hers. “Liz, I’m sorry. Please believe me, I’m really sorry. I don’t know what came over me.” He pushed his hand through his hair. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“No. No, I’m fine.” Elise swallowed and steadied her trembling hands. “Let’s just call it a night, all right?”
He started to say something, but thought better of it as she stepped around him and walked to the stairs.
“Get the lights and locks, will you?” She halted at the bottom step. Her heart was beating wildly. She glanced through the wide archway and saw him standing by the refrigerator, one arm braced flat against the door, his head bent, disappointment shadowing his face. She knew she should go to him and explain. Reassure him. Help him chase away the demons he was battling.
Instead, she turned and headed for her room. She had her own demons to deal with.
Fresh from the shower, Lucas gazed out the kitchen window at the early morning sky speckled in the same shades of gray as one of Springer’s barn cats. He had taken time only to pull on an old pair of Levi’s, hoping to dispel the grinding pain in his head with some stout caffeine and several ibuprofen tablets. His head pounded as if someone had beaten him with a tire iron, and his stomach felt as if he had swallowed a handful of lug nuts.
He had made a total fool of himself last night. Why hadn’t he kept his hands to himself? Elise Springer was not the kind of woman to be manhandled in her father’s kitchen. What in heaven’s name was he thinking? She was no Monique. Hell, she was nothing close to Monique. He remembered how she didn’t blink when Todd leaped in her lap the other night. Monique would have never allowed him to wrinkle her precious silk suit, let alone take the time to show him how a cell phone operated.
His mind replayed their encounter the night before like a tape in slow motion. He had seen fear, close to terror, in her eyes when he had released her and she skidded away from him like a trapped animal set free. He wondered what or who had been responsible for her fright. Who had hurt her?
“I see you remembered rule one.”
Wearing a pair of black running shorts and a pale pink tee-shirt, she stood in the doorway with Bess beside her. She held a new-fangled, wireless and programmable telephone, complete with speakerphone capability and an answering machine, in her hands. Running shoes, laces knotted, dangled from around her neck.
“I thought you’d be sleeping in.” He was hoping to have a few minutes to dress and collect his thoughts before he had to face her. “Are you always up this early?”
Crossing the room, she brushed past him and dumped the phone and cords on the counter and the shoes on the floor. She poured herself a half cup of coffee. He gave her credit—either she was good at acting the little tough girl part or she had decided to dismiss last night’s incident entirely. Maybe she was being tactfully gracious. He dismissed his last flash of insight as quickly as it occurred. The Liz Springer he grew up with was the kind of woman who’d have no qualms about ripping you wide open when she had the urge to set things straight.
“Most of the time,” she replied. “I try to pick up lost sleep on weekends. Then I sleep until seven or eight.” She brought the cup to her lips, took a quick swallow, and glanced at him from the corner of her eye. “Wow, you look like you drank drain cleaner.”
He winced, stifling a groan as his stomach did a push-up. “You know, Liz, that’s what I always liked about you—your gracious compassion for the sick and dying.”
Her lips curved. “I always thought it was my honesty. Hey, it’s your vice, you big goon, so don’t blame me for the repercussions. I gave up heavy drinking a long time ago.” She cocked her head and studied him for a moment. “You still run?”
“Not much anymore, not like I used to,” he admitted. He wished she’d just get it over with, stop the polite bantering, and sternly berate him. Even a flying object would help, although at the moment, he questioned his strength to duck.
But Elise Springer wasn’t a predictable woman.
She smiled a whimsical smile instead. “I remember when Fritz and you ran track in high school.”
He squinted at her. God, it even hurt to see. “It was Fritz’s wild idea. He thought it would be a good way to meet girls. You can see where it got us.” He paused a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “Elise, about last night.”
“What about it?” She flopped to the floor, untied the laces of her sneakers, and shoved a foot into one. Positioned advantageously above her, he could see she had fashioned her hair into some kind of fancy braid to keep it from falling into her eyes. The shorts she wore were so deprived of cloth, he wondered how she ever found them on the clothes rack. She was all legs, the kind men would kill each other for.
Easy, Fisher, a little voice inside his head warned. This is Anton Springer’s daughter. His
daughter. Those very same legs got you into the mess you’re in now.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t know what to say, except I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again.” He rubbed his temples to try to dispel the thumping sensation. “My behavior was inexcusable. I was a complete jerk.”