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Authors: Ginna Gray

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BOOK: Sweet Promise
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"I'm not playing a game."

"Then what do you call it?"

"I told you, I had a headache."

Sean's one word reply was blunt, to the point and crude.

Joanna sucked in her breath. "All right! That's it!" she huffed. "Just get out. This discussion is over."

Spinning around on her heel, she started to march toward the bedroom, but Sean grabbed her wrist and whirled her back. Momentum sent her stumbling forward until she collided with his chest. Sean's arms encircled her, and he thrust his furious face so close to hers their noses were almost touching.

"That's what you think," he growled. "You're not going anywhere, Joanna, until I have some answers. Last night we became lovers, and this morning you pull a disappearing act and now you're giving me the deep freeze treatment. I want to know why!"

Joanna braced her forearms against his chest and strained to break his hold, but she only succeeded in bringing their lower bodies into even closer contact. Though Sean's face remained stern the glint in his eye told her he was aware of the intimacy and enjoying it. After the miserable day she'd had, that was the final straw. Joanna's temper shot up like a Roman candle on July Fourth.

"All right! I'll tell you why," she all but shouted. "I decided that I don't want to be a substitute for another woman, that's why!"

"Another... Substi... What the hell are you ranting about? What other woman?"

"My mother, that's who."

Sean's arms fell away from her, and he took a couple of staggering steps backward. Mouth agape, he stared at her in blank shock. Then, to Joanna's utter astonishment, he threw back his head and roared with laughter.

Chapter Eleven

"
D
on't you dare laugh at me, Sean Fleming!"

"I ca... I ca-can't... help it," Sean choked out between the deep, rumbling guffaws.

Joanna was torn between anger and hurt, but anger soon won out. She blinked furiously to keep the tears at bay, and stuck her chin out at a,pugnacious angle, though it still quivered uncontrollably. "There's nothing funny about this situation."

Finally, either her irate tone or the wounded look on her face got through to Sean. With a struggle, he managed to control his mirth, but remnants, of it were still visible in his twinkling eyes and twitching mouth. "
You
are what's funny, sweetheart. Good grief, Joanna, where on earth did you get the idea that I'm in love with Claire?"

"From you."

"Me!"

"Yes. You admitted as much this morning. When we were talking about how strange it was that Matt and Mother fell in love, after knowing each other for years, you said that you had come very close to falling in love with her yourself."

"So, because of that innocent comment, you think that I've been carrying a torch for Claire all this time?" The amusement faded from Sean's face, and a tiny frown tugged between his brows. A hint of sadness touched his expression. "And because I couldn't have her, I settled for you, is that it? You actually think I'm the type of man who would do that?"

Joanna wilted and heaved a dispirited little sigh as some of the fight went out of her. "Oh, not consciously," she said, with a forlorn twitch of her mouth. "But unrequited love can drive us to do strange things. I ought to know. I followed you on this cruise on the flimsiest of excuses."

Leaning back against one of the leather easy chairs, Sean crossed his arms over his chest and smiled crookedly. "So, you admit to that now, do you? And do you realize that you've as much as admitted that you're in love with me, and have been for a while?" Sean tipped his head to the side and cocked one brow. "Did you have a crush on me four years ago, Joanna? Was I too blind to notice?"

"Sean, please, don't tease me," Joanna pleaded, giving him a desperate look and blinking against a fresh rush of tears. "Not now."

"Ah, sweetheart, don't cry." Sean crossed the space between them and took her hands. As he searched her unhappy face his expression was a mixture of tenderness and exasperation. "Joanna listen to me. I am
not
in love with Claire. Almost falling in love is one heck of a long way from actually falling in love."

"But you were attracted to her, weren't you?" Joanna wanted to kick herself for asking. It was like probing a sore tooth with your tongue: you knew it was going to hurt but you couldn't resist doing it.

Sean sighed heavily. "Yes, I was. Claire is one heck of a woman. And yes, I'll admit that things had been different,
if
there hadn't been Matt, and your mother had been attracted to me, it might have happened. But, darling, those are all very big if's. I haven't been pining away from unrequited love for the past four years. It never went that far. The truth is, I'm glad things turned out as they did. Matt is my best friend, and your mother runs a close second. I'm happy for them."

Catching her bottom lip between her teeth, Joanna looked at him worriedly: A lingering trace of doubt mingled with the hope and longing in her hazel eyes. "Are you sure?"

"Positive."

Sean raised his hand and traced the elegant line of her cheek and jaw. Then he threaded his fingertips through the silky hair at her temple. His thumb skated lightly back and forth over the tiny mole at the corner of her mouth. "Oh, Joanna, you goose. I can't believe you've put us through this miserable day over that one offhand remark. After what we shared last night, how could you possibly think that I was in love with another woman?"

Covering his hand with hers, Joanna pressed her cheek against his palm and closed her eyes wearily. "I don't know. I... I guess I still can't quite believe that this is happening. Us, I mean. I suppose, deep down, it seems too good to be true, and I keep expecting something to go wrong."

Sean felt his heart constrict. An overwhelming tenderness gripped him as he studied the fragile beauty of her face, the delicate sweep of dark lashes against pale skin. Lord, she was so sweet, so guileless. He couldn't remember ever feeling such a strong desire to protect a woman, to cherish, to claim her for his own.

Sean slipped his thumb beneath her chin and tipped her head up. "Joanna, look at me," he commanded, and Joanna's lids drifted open. She gazed up at him with soft, luminous eyes filled with love, and he felt as though his insides were melting. "There is only you," he said in a soft, rough whisper. "There will be only you. Here, on this ship, and when we return home to Washington. You're the only woman I need. The only one I want."

It was more of a commitment than he had ever made before, but strangely, with this woman, it just wasn't enough. He wanted more. Wanted to give more. "Joanna, I..." He hesitated, his chest aching with a yearning pressure as he stared down at her. She was waiting, watching him with her heart in her eyes, and suddenly his own widened. "I love you." He said the words slowly, as though stunned by the discovery, his face blank with amazement.

And then, softer, surer, in a voice deepened by awe, "I love you."

Joanna sucked in her breath. For a timeless moment she stared up at him, her eyes slowly filling with tears. "Oh, Sean," she choked out unsteadily through quivering lips. "Do you mean that? Please don't say it unless it's true. I—"

"Shhh. Shhh, sweetheart." He placed his fingers over her mouth to stop the anguished flow of words and looked at her tenderly. "I mean it. It took me by surprise, but I do love you, Joanna. Very much."

"Oh, Sean." She struggled valiantly to contain the tumultuous storm of emotion that buffeted her, but it was impossible. Her mouth and chin wobbled as tears spilled over and trickled down her cheeks, and with a joyous little cry she flung herself against him, burying her face against his chest and wrapping her arms tightly around his lean middle.

Sean held her close and rocked her gently. With a tender smile, he rubbed his chin against the top of her head as she laughed and cried at the same time. "I'm going to assume that you*re crying for joy. Otherwise my ego is going to take a hell of a beating."

Joanna sniffed and hiccuped. Leaning back within his embrace, she laughed self-consciously and wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hands. "Of course I am. Oh, Sean," she said in an emotion-packed voice, looking up at him with melting eyes. "I've loved you for so long, but I never really believed that you would ever love me back. You never seemed interested in a serious relationship, even though there have been many beautiful, glamorous women in your life—"

"Hey." He stopped the flow of words with a quick, breath-stealing kiss. When it ended he smiled into her eyes. "That's all over now. I was never serious about any of them, because I didn't love them. I do love you, Joanna. Very much."

She cupped his face between her palms. "And I love you, darling," she whispered tremulously.

Their lips met in a slow, sweet kiss. Joanna twined her arms around his neck and held him close, her heart swelling with a pleasure so intense it was almost pain. Sean's arms enclosed her, binding her gently but firmly to him, flattening her breasts against his chest. His hand splayed over her buttocks, pressing her feminine cradle tight against the hard ridge of his arousal. Heat sizzled between them. Their aching bodies throbbed. Taut muscles quivered. And still the tender kiss went on and on.

When Sean's lips left hers to trail moistly over her cheek Joanna stroked her hands over his shoulders and neck and tunneled her fingers in the thick hair at his nape. A shudder rippled through her when his tongue wetly traced the delicate swirls in her ear, and she sighed. "Oh, darling, this seems too wonderful to be true. I'm terrified I'm going to wake up and find it was all a dream."

"This is no dream," he murmured, nibbling a wet path down the side of her neck. "This is real. I intend—" his lips pressed against the pulse at the base of her throat "—to show you just how real."

Sean's mobile mouth blazed a tormenting trail back up over the arch of her throat, lingering a moment to nuzzle the tender skin on the underside of her jaw. Then his lips claimed hers again in a slow, drugging kiss that made her senses swim, her knees go weak.

Breaking the thrilling contact suddenly, Sean scooped her up in his arms. He paused, holding her high against his chest, his dark, fiery gaze searing over her flushed face with a possessiveness that made Joanna's skin tingle. "It may take me all night," he said huskily.

Joanna looped her arms around his neck and smiled. "I hope so."

Sean growled, and his mouth came down hard on hers. Without breaking the thrilling contact, he headed for the bedroom with long, purposeful strides.

The next few days passed in a haze of sheer happiness. They were so perfect, Joanna still had trouble convincing herself she wasn't dreaming it all.

In the evenings after dinner they went dancing or saw a show in the main lounge, or just strolled the decks, arm in arm, before returning to either Joanna's suite or Sean's cabin. Their nights were filled with passionate loving so intensely beautiful it left them both shaken and awed, but their hunger for each other went beyond the physical. For hours, lying in each other's arms while the ship rocked gently beneath them, they talked quietly, sharing secrets, hopes, joys and disappointments.

The daytime hours were spent ashore on the islands. Together, Joanna and Sean explored Ochos Rios and toured Jamaica's heavily cultivated coastal lowlands and valleys and the inland limestone plateau. On Grand Cayman they visited a turtle farm and strolled hand in hand for hours down the beautiful seven-mile beach.

The ship's next port of call was Cozumel, where Joanna and Sean spent the morning strolling through the quaint shops before succumbing to the lure of the beach. With rented snorkeling equipment, they explored the turquoise water for over an hour. Then, like two children, they indulged themselves in a boisterous game of tag, splashing and dunking each other mercilessly. Finally, exhausted, they hauled themselves out of the water and collapsed on the large towels they had spread on the sand.

Sean flopped down on his back and flung his forearm over his eyes. "Whew! I may never move again. Keeping up with a sweet young thing like you is tough on an old man."

Joanna dropped onto her knees beside him and began to towel dry her hair. "Oh, come on, you're not that old. Don't tell me a little shopping and swimming has you tuckered."

Rolling his arm up a quarter turn, Sean gave her a long, sizzling look and drawled, "It's not so much the shopping and swimming, as all those strenuous nights."

"Complaining?" Joanna asked with a sultry smile.

Sean's face softened, and he reached out and lifted a drop of water from the end of her nose with his fingertip. "Hardly," he said huskily.

Joanna took his hand and brought it to her mouth. Holding his gaze, she kissed the end of his finger tenderly.

"Ouch!" Sean yelped when she nipped the pad, and Joanna laughed throatily, the sound full of delight and mischief and sensual promise.

"You little devil, you—"

"Oh, look," Joanna cried, cutting him off as she sprang to her feet. "There's someone selling ice-cream cones." She looked at him eagerly and began to search through her terry cloth beach bag for some money. "You want one?"

Sean's smile was indulgent. "I think I'll pass. But you go ahead."

BOOK: Sweet Promise
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