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BOOK: Nan Ryan
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At a lull in the conversation, Kurt dropped down on the top porch steps, draped a tanned forearm over his bent knee, and said idly, “Too hot to sleep.”

“Isn’t it,” Helen agreed, and sat down in her armless rocker directly across from him.

“It’s a beautiful night, though,” Kurt quietly observed.

“Yes, it is. I came out here to … I … yes,” she said, feeling suddenly self-conscious, as if he somehow knew what she had been thinking as she stood in the moonlight looking out at the silvered bay.

Longing to put her at ease, Kurt inhaled deeply of the flower-scented air and said conversationally, “Reminds me of the summer nights back in Maryland when I was a boy.”

And he began to talk about those days. In a low, rich baritone he told her he had gone to work on a big horse farm when he was barely fourteen. Said it was a beautiful place, rolling hills that looked like soft green velvet. Said he’d learned everything he knew about horses from Willis Dunston, the man who owned the farm. Told her it was Dunston who had given Raider to him the night Raider was born.

He fell silent, brushed imaginary lint from his black linen trousers, and leaned his back against the solid porch column.

“Please, Captain, do go on,” Helen urged. “What about your parents? Tell me about them.”

Kurt said his mother had died when he was an infant, his father was killed in a knife fight when Kurt was fourteen. That’s when he had gone to the Dunston farm. Said Dunston trusted his judgment, treated him like a man, it had been a good life. Smiling then, Kurt told her it had become an even better life in the spring of ’59 when a Mississippi gentleman came to Maryland to buy horses. He had brought with him his beautiful young daughter.

“Gail Whitney was just seventeen, I was twenty-eight,” Kurt said. “We married that summer and barely nine months later Charlie was born.”

With ease and no self-consciousness, Kurt talked of the happy times and Helen soon relaxed completely. Kurt spoke of the past and of his plans for the future. He told of Willis Dunston’s promise to deed him a section of fine Maryland grassland in exchange for five years of labor. Charmed by the sound of his deep, low voice, Helen found his narrative compelling. But she experienced the slightest twinge of dread when he talked about leaving Alabama.

At last Kurt paused, laughed self-deprecatingly, and said, “Forgive me, Mrs. Courtney. I haven’t talked so much in years. You must feel you know more about me than you ever wanted to learn.”

“Not at all,” Helen quickly assured him. “No, no … go back to the time when you—”

Kurt raised his hand and shook his dark head. “It’s your turn, ma’am. Tell me about yourself. Tell me everything.”

Helen laughed softly and said that would take all night.

Kurt laughed. Then he said, “I have all night. Don’t you?”

She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no.

Kurt waited and soon Helen began talking. At first she spoke haltingly, wistfully of the days gone by. She began by telling Kurt of the handsome young man whom she’d known for as long as she could remember. Said that it had always been understood that when she grew up, she would marry Will Courtney, and of course she had. Said the two of them had spent only six short months as man and wife before Will went away to war.

Helen hesitated then, as if she had decided to say nothing more, but at Kurt’s gentle urging, she was soon talking again, telling about the days when she was a child. She said she too had lost her parents—both of them—when she was just four years old. They had been killed in a storm at sea. She barely remembered them. Said hers had been a happy childhood because of the dear grandparents who had raised her. Said both spoiled her rotten and she loved them for it.

She told Kurt of the wonderful times the three of them had spent together. She talked of their trips into town on Saturday afternoons, of drinking lemonade at the Bayside Hotel with Grandma Burke, of Christmas parties at the church and Fourth of July celebrations over in Mobile. She told of the wonderful summers when they would go all the way down to the Gulf Shores and stay in a white cottage on the broad white beach.

Smiling, she told of how they waded in the surf and went crabbing and built fires on the beach at night. She described the beauty of the sugary white beaches with the sea oats bending in the prevailing winds off the sea and the spectacular sunsets over the Gulf, turning the ocean pink and gold.

She stopped speaking for a moment. Then, her voice rising slightly with excitement, Helen told Kurt about Point Clear, the fancy resort a few miles down the coast from her farm where for decades wealthy families had come to spend their summers.

Her eyes sparkling, she said, “There were grand dances every evening under the stars on a big white dance pavilion built right out over the water. An orchestra always played and sometimes when the night was very still, I could hear the music as I sat here on the porch.” Helen smiled dreamily and charmingly admitted, “I’d pretend that I was at the dance wearing a beautiful white dress and whirling about the floor in the arms of a handsome beau.”

She laughed suddenly, the musical sound pleasing to Kurt. She stopped laughing and confessed, “Of course, I was never really there, but I always wanted … I used to …” She fell silent, sighed softly, and shook her head.

His gaze fixed steadily on her, Kurt rose lithely to his feet. Crossing the moonlit porch, he went directly to her. He bowed formally from the waist and put out his hand. Looking up at him with wide, questioning eyes, Helen placed her hand in his. His firm fingers closed warmly around hers and effortlessly he drew her to her feet.

Smiling at her, he said in a low persuasive voice, “Miss, I couldn’t help noticing you across the pavilion. You’re very beautiful in your white summer dress with your pale golden hair stirring in the breeze off the water.” He drew her hand up to his chest, clasped it there with his own. “I’d be truly honored if you would favor me with this dance.”

Kurt smiled warmly and winked at Helen. Silently urging.
Play the harmless game with me
.

She did.

Enchanted, Helen smiled shyly up at her darkly handsome suitor and said softly, “Why, I do declare, sir, you’ll turn this poor little farm girl’s head if you’re not careful.”

Chapter Thirty-one

C
harmed, Kurt threw back his head and laughed. His teeth flashing starkly white in the darkness of his face, he slid a long arm around Helen’s narrow waist and drew her up into a loose embrace. He began to hum a lively tune in a low baritone.

Helen placed her hand lightly on his right shoulder. She felt the smooth fabric of his white shirt and the steel-hard muscle beneath. The texture of both was pleasing to her sensitive fingertips.

His hand resting lightly at her back, Kurt applied the gentlest of pressure and the pair began to dance there on the moonlit gallery. Soon Helen’s delighted girlish laughter carried on the humid night air as they spun and swayed and lost themselves in the sweet foolishness of the moment, enjoying the lovely summer night.

And each other.

Her temple resting comfortably against Kurt’s cleanly shaven chin, Helen felt giddy and light-hearted, as if she actually were a young starry-eyed girl being romanced at a summer dance by a dark exciting stranger.

A smile in his voice, Kurt teased, “Miss, I do believe your dancing slippers are the prettiest I’ve ever seen.”

Helen pulled back a little, looked up at him, and saw the devilment flashing in the depths of his forest-green eyes. He knew she was barefooted! Oh, well, what did she care? She laughed, made a fist, and playfully hit him on the shoulder.

“Of all my fine dancing slippers,” she said coquettishly, “these are my very favorites, so mind you, sir, don’t step on them.”

“My dear, if I do, you may shove me into the deepest waters of the bay.”

“You can’t swim?” she inquired politely.

Kurt grinned. “Actually I’m a better swimmer than dancer.”

Helen smiled saucily. “So then you’re an excellent swimmer.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, aren’t you? Maybe I shouldn’t wonder, but—”

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” he interrupted, his eyes gleaming. “Maybe we should go swimming together so I can show you.” His dark brows lifted.

“Maybe you shouldn’t make such bold propositions,” she warned haughtily.

“Maybe you shouldn’t say no until you think it over.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t hold your breath while I do.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t.” He grinned at her.

“Maybe you shouldn’t.” She smiled back at him.

They both laughed.

Helen’s girlish giggles mixed with Kurt’s low chuckling and impulsively she leaned her forehead on his chest. They were having fun, kidding each other, flirting a little, laughing over nothing at all, as carefree as two kids. They teased each other about being hooked together on the kitchen floor earlier in the day.

Helen let him know he had looked ridiculously funny racing through the house wearing just one boot. Kurt got her back by inquiring as to whether or not she was now wearing a petticoat or had she given up the practice for good. She most certainly was wearing one, she quickly set him straight. He shook his head doubtfully; how could he be certain unless she showed him? Then he’d have to wonder forever, she quickly rejoined.

The breezy banter and easy laughter continued as they spun dizzily about, moving into and out of the patches of moonlight dappling the broad gallery.

The mindless merriment continued for several minutes and neither could ever pinpoint exactly when or why the frivolous tone of the evening changed. But after a while Helen’s bubbling laughter softened and died and Kurt’s spirited humming became a slow, melodious refrain. They no longer spun and whirled madly about, covering wide expanses of their porch dance floor. The dancing became more subdued, the tempo more languid.

They quieted. They slowed. They barely moved.

The mood changed dramatically.

The seductive heat of the summer night and the seductive nearness of their swaying bodies became almost overpoweringly sensual. Kurt released Helen’s right hand, wrapped both his arms around her, and drew her closer. Sighing, Helen’s left hand slid up from his shoulder to the back of his head. Her fingers tangled in the silky jet hair curling appealingly over his white shirt collar. Her other hand rested on his chest. She could feel the heavy beating of his heart.

They no longer talked. There was no need. Their pressing bodies communicated far more effectively than words. Her lids closing over her shining blue eyes, a little smile touched Helen’s lips. She had imagined that Kurt would be a good dancer, since he moved with such catlike grace, but she’d never dreamed he would be quite this smooth and masterful. She could follow him with absolutely no effort. She sensed his every movement before it was made, without him leading her into it. It was almost like she was a part of him, as if their two gliding bodies were one.

Maybe, she dreamily mused, it was because they fit together so well. Which was surprising. Kurt was a tall man—at least six-two—and while she was by no means short, she was only moderately tall at five-six. Yet magically in his embrace, she felt completely comfortable.

Almost too comfortable.

Dancing on bare tiptoe, her breasts were pressed against the warm solid wall of his chest and through the folds of her skimpy skirts she could feel the slow, erotic movements of his pelvis against her own. Their legs were entangled and so were their heartbeats.

Sighing softly, enjoying every langorous step of the slow, exciting dance, Helen told herself that this sticky summer heat was responsible for her feeling so warm.

But she knew better.

It was the powerful heat of Kurt’s lean body that caused her pulse to pound, her face to flush. Cooling off would be simply a matter of moving out of the strong arms surrounding her. Or was it the opposite? Would she never cool off again unless she
stayed
in his arms? Unless she—

Those forceful arms drew her closer still and Helen felt new waves of warmth envelope her. Every inch of her body strained to be nearer to the searing strength of his. She no longer cared if she was ever again cool. She wasn’t sure she even wanted to be cool. All she knew was she wanted to stay in this dark man’s arms, to move with him, to breathe with him, to be so warmed by him she would never again be cold.

Helen pressed her face against Kurt’s tanned throat and wrapped stroking fingers around the back of his neck. Every few seconds, when she could no longer stand not seeing his handsome face, she lifted her head. Each time she raised her glance it was met by a pair of glowing dark green eyes.

Helen’s breath caught when Kurt placed a hand to the bare curve of her neck and shoulder. His fingertips touched, toyed, spread new heat up to her exposed right ear and down to the sensitive hollow of her throat. Helen stopped breathing entirely when that warm caressing hand casually tugged the low neck of her dress off her shoulder.

She felt the fabric slowly sliding down her upper arm as his low, rich voice just above her ear said, “Isn’t this how you were wearing it?” He added, “I like it this way best.” A tiny shudder went through Helen when his hand, so warm, so gentle, possessively cupped her bared shoulder. She felt an answering shudder surge through his tall lean frame.

His senses stirred to the limit by the sweet closeness of her soft willowy body, Kurt stopped moving altogether. He set Helen back a little. His hand captured her chin. He gazed at her oval face, aglow in the silvery moonlight. She was breathtakingly lovely, every feature perfection. The large, luminous eyes. The high, well-defined cheekbones. The delicate nose. The proud, stubborn chin. The full-lipped mouth. It was a beautiful face. A flawless face. A face he would never forget.

“What is it?” Helen asked anxiously, unnerved by his intense scrutiny. “What are you doing?”

“Looking at you,” Kurt said honestly. “That’s all. Looking at your amazingly perfect face. Have you any idea how beautiful you are, Helen?”

At the sound of her name on his lips, Helen’s heart pounded. It was the first time he had ever called her Helen. He said it again, as if he liked saying it as much as she liked hearing it.

BOOK: Nan Ryan
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