Authors: Ginna Gray
"Yeah, he is that," Sean agreed drowsily.
"It's amazing when you think about it. Matt knew Mother for over fifteen years and to tell you the truth, I don't think he even liked her. Then all at once they fell head over heels in love and got married." She chuckled at the memory. "That really knocked some people for a loop, especially the Washington social leaders. For years, Matt had been D.C.'s most eligible, most elusive bachelor."
"Well, your mother is a special lady. She's beautiful, she's bright, she's nice and just about as classy as they come. It's easy to understand why Matt fell so hard." Sean's chest shook, and beneath her ear, Joanna heard the soft rumble of laughter before it left his throat. "Hell," he admitted with a little snort of rueful amusement, "I came very close to falling in love with Claire myself."
Joanna went perfectly still. Her heart began to pound with slow, painful thuds and a sick sensation curled in the pit of her stomach. Sean? In love with Claire? Oh, God!
A quivering hurt started deep in the center of Joanna's being and spread outward, encompassing every cell, every molecule. Suddenly she felt cold and achy and very fragile. She had to get out of there. Now! Before she shattered.
"Hey. Where are you going?" Sean asked in surprise when she firmly eased out of his embrace and sat up.
Joanna blushed when she saw her dress. The fluttery silk chiffon creation lay on the floor where she had stepped out of it the night before, like a circular puddle of pastel flowers. Beside it lay her bikini panties and her tiny gold mesh evening bag. The lacy garter belt and stockings were draped wantonly over the chair, just as they had landed when he stripped them from her and tossed them aside.
Keeping her back to Sean, Joanna picked up her panties and stepped into them, then hastily drew on the wrinkled chiffon gown. "I've got to go back to my suite," she said over her shoulder, struggling to keep her voice calm. "I told you that a while ago."
Sean exhaled a resigned sigh. "Okay, honey, if it'll make you feel better, go ahead. I'll take a shower and order breakfast while you're gone. What would you like?"
"Anything. It doesn't matter." After retrieving her purse from the floor, Joanna snatched up her garter belt and stockings and rolled them into a tight ball. With hurried, jerky movements, she stepped into her shoes and headed for the door. She was reaching for the knob when Sean's arms encircled her from behind.
"Hey, not so fast," he chided huskily in her ear. "You're not getting out of here without telling me goodbye." He kissed the sensitive spot he had discovered on her neck and playfully batted her lobe with his tongue. Moving closer, he settled his middle more firmly against her derriere.
Through the thin chiffon of her gown, Joanna could feel his manhood pressing against her. He had come to her naked, and his warmth and his male scent enveloped her. She closed her eyes briefly, swamped with conflicting feelings of despair and longing.
His splayed hands were gliding caressingly over her midriff and abdomen. Joanna grasped his forearms to stop the tantalizing motion. "Sean, please," she scolded with a feigned lightheartedness that required a great effort of will. "If you don't stop that I'll never get out of here."
"Oh, all right."
He reached up to turn her face to the side for his kiss. His muscular forearm fit snugly between her breasts, against her skin above the low cut gown. Their lips clung sweetly in the softest of kisses that served to increase her inner trembling. When he lifted his head Sean looked deep into her eyes and whispered, "I'll see you in a half hour. Now go, before I change my mind."
Unable to speak, Joanna nodded and fled.
Magnificently naked, Sean stood in the middle of the floor for several seconds after the door closed behind her, a bemused smile tugging at his mouth. Feet apart, hands on his hip bones, he threw his head back and chuckled at the ceiling, a soft masculine rumble of amused self-derision. Joanna. Joanna Andrews. If anyone had told him, even a week ago, that she would become the center of his world he would have said they were crazy. Yet, that was exactly what she was. She had gotten under his skin, become as necessary to him as food and drink, as breathing. Even now he had to stifle the urge to stomp out after her and drag her back.
God, Fleming. You've really got it bad if you can't bear to let her out of your sight for only a few minutes. Shaking his head, he turned and started for the shower.
All the arguments he had given her for not getting involved were still valid, he reminded himself as he adjusted the water and stepped beneath the spray. He was too old for her. Too experienced. Their backgrounds were totally different. Though not exactly poor, he certainly wasn't in her financial bracket. And Claire and Matt would probably have a walleyed fit when they discovered that he and Joanna were lovers. Sean rubbed the bar of soap over his chest and shoulders, creating mounds of creamy lather. His face wore a pensive smile. Hell, Matt would probably get out his shotgun.
It was a daunting list of negatives, but this morning they just didn't seem all that important. He squirted shampoo into his palm, closed his eyes and scrubbed his ebony curls until they squeaked. If he was going to have breakfast delivered before Joanna returned he would have to hurry. Sticking his head under the shower spray, he hummed happily as the bubbles streamed down over his face and sleek, wet body.
Damn, I feel terrific!
* * *
Joanna felt wretched. Confused, sick at heart, she paced the floor of her sitting room. Though she tried to banish it, Sean's casual comment played over and over in her mind.
"I came very close to falling in love with Claire myself."
How close was close? A mild attraction? An infatuation? A burning passion? What?
Joanna stopped by the window and stared out at the ocean gliding by. They were cruising leisurely toward Jamaica. This was a day at sea, a day she should be enjoying with Sean, not hiding out in her room harboring these nasty suspicions. But she couldn't help it. They gnawed at her unmercifully.
Looking back, a lot of things were clearer now: the long, hard hours Sean had devoted to Claire's senatorial campaign four years ago—hours that had kept him in almost constant contact with her, the way he had been so protective of Claire when Matt had walked out on her, the fondness in his eyes whenever he looked at her mother. At the time Joanna had merely thought that he was an extremely good and conscientious press secretary, doing his job. Instead, it was unrequited love.
Recalling the crush she'd had on Sean then, Joanna gave a bitter little laugh. She crossed her arms over her middle and gazed, unseeingly, at the sky. Lord! No wonder Sean hadn't even noticed that she was alive. He'd only had eyes for Claire.
Not that she blamed him. Her mother was, then and now, a beautiful woman. She was also intelligent, articulate and very strong, yet she possessed that soft femininity that fascinated and charmed both men and women.
Joanna knew perfectly well that there had never been anything between her mother and Sean, and that whatever Sean had felt, he had kept to himself. Claire was totally, passionately, irrevocably in love with Matt. Yet, every time Joanna thought of Sean loving her mother she felt a spurt of anger that terrified her.
Making a harsh sound, Joanna turned away from the window and raked both hands through her silky hair, slicking it back away from her face and pressing her palms flat against her temples. Lord, she didn't want to feel this way. Especially not about her mother. It had taken a long time and a lot of growing up on Joanna's part for her to appreciate Claire. In the past few years they had developed a close and loving relationship, and Joanna didn't want anything to jeopardize that.
She wanted very much to believe that Sean really cared for her, that what they had shared the night before had been special, but she couldn't help but wonder if she had just been a substitute for her mother. If the love that Matt felt for Claire could be extended to include her, then why couldn't Sean's?
Tormented by the thought, Joanna paced faster. With every circuit of the room her movements grew more and more agitated. "I will not run the risk of being used," she muttered forcefully, fighting back tears of despair. "Nor will I allow myself to be eaten up with jealousy. I
The vow had barely left her lips when the telephone rang, making Joanna jump. She swung around and stared at it as though it were a coiled snake about to strike. It shrilled repeatedly, but Joanna made no move to answer it. She knew who was calling.
When the insistent ringing finally stopped, Joanna walked to the sofa and sat down. As she had known he would, within seconds Sean knocked on the door.
"Joanna? Joanna are you in there?" She didn't reply, and after a few seconds he knocked again, harder this time. "Joanna?"
He tried several more times and though she could detect the growing note of concern in his voice, she remained still and quiet. When at last the pounding stopped Joanna leaned her head back against the leather sofa and closed her eyes. Tears squeezed from between her lids and her chin quivered. Her heart felt like a lead weight in her chest.
Joanna stayed in her room for the remainder of the day. Hiding. Hurting. Sean knocked on her door and called several more times, but she gritted her teeth and ignored him. She paced and cried. She lay on her bed and cried. She stared out at the sea and thought and cried. Over and over she told herself she was doing the right thing, but it didn't help.
Lunch time came and went and Joanna didn't notice, but by evening her empty stomach was beginning to protest. Briefly, she considered ordering dinner in her suite, but quickly dismissed the idea. They would be cruising for another week yet. Sooner or later she was going to have to face Sean.
Deciding that there was no point in prolonging the inevitable, she bathed her puffy eyes in cold water, applied her makeup carefully, donned a confidence-building strapless yellow voile dress and headed for the dining room.
Hoping that Sean would not make a scene in front of the others, she deliberately arrived late. It was a futile hope, for he bounded up out of his chair the moment he saw her. His expression held not even a trace of his usual nonchalance.
"Where the hell have you been?"
"In my room."
"In your room!" She couldn't have shocked him more if she had said she'd been on the moon.
"Yes." Joanna gave him a cool look and slipped into her chair, leaving him standing there simmering impotently. As she calmly shook out her napkin and draped it across her lap she could feel his incredulous gaze raking over her.
"I knocked on your door several times, and I called your room every half hour. Why the hell didn't you answer?"
"Sean, please, don't stand there shouting. People are beginning to stare."
"I don't give a good—" He bit off the profane curse he was about to utter and glanced around at the avid expressions on the faces of their table companions. A muscle rippled along his clenched jaw. With barely controlled violence, Sean flung himself back into his chair and leaned close to Joanna. "If you're worried about me making a scene, then you'd damn well better give me some answers, and fast. Why didn't you answer your door or your phone? For that matter, why the hell didn't you come back to my cabin like you were supposed to?"
Joanna turned a deep pink and cast an anxious glance at the others.
"I had a headache. I didn't feel like talking."
"And you couldn't have picked up the phone and told me that? Dammit, Joanna, I spent the whole day searching this ship for you. I've been frantic. I was beginning to think you'd fallen overboard."
"I'm sorry, but I really don't feel that I have to explain myself to you or anyone. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to order dinner. I'm starving. I haven't eaten all day."
Sean seethed. Joanna could feel the fury radiating off him in waves, and she held her breath, sure that he was going to explode at any moment. Apparently so did the others, for no one moved or spoke.
After what seemed like a small eternity, Sean said tightly between clenched teeth, "All right. We'll have dinner. But afterward you and I are going to have a talk."
The silence around the table was so tense it fairly hummed. At first Mary tried to make small talk but everyone was so ill at ease, after a while she gave up. Despite a day without food, Joanna's appetite was nonexistent, and she did little more than move her food around on her plate. Sean didn't even pretend to be interested in eating. Throughout the meal he merely watched Joanna through narrowed eyes and sipped from the glass of bourbon beside his plate. The close scrutiny twanged her nerves like a plucked string.
The others finished quickly and began to excuse themselves. When Mary announced that she and Charles were going to the show in the Caribbean Lounge, Joanna made a last-ditch attempt to avoid the confrontation that was brewing between her and Sean.
"That sounds like fun. Do you mind if I join you?" she asked ingenuously, rising to her feet as they did.
Mary and Charles exchanged dubious looks, but they were spared the necessity of a reply when Sean said succinctly, "I mind."
Joanna sputtered, but before she could voice an objection he rose and clamped his hand firmly around her arm. With a nod and a terse, "Excuse us" for the Wrights, he turned and all but frog marched Joanna from the dining room.
Without a word, he led her down the stairs to their deck. She shot him a cool glare when he stopped outside the door to her suite. "You surely don't expect me to invite you in?"
"We need someplace private to talk. It's either this or my cabin. The choice is yours."
Joanna gritted her teeth in silent frustration, but after a moment, dug into her purse for her key.
"All right, now I want to know just what you think you're doing," Sean demanded the moment they stepped into the room, and the door clicked shut behind them.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Joanna replied haughtily.
"I'm talking about this little game of hide-and-seek we've been playing all day. What the hell was that all about?"