Authors: Cindy Gerard
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Contemporary, #Fiction
Sure, she thought, and cowboys rode cows.
As he stood beside her, she was aware that he was quietly but obviously amused.
“You’re really very good at this, you know,” he remarked as they watched a steady stream of cars speed by.
She exhaled slowly, her patience near its threshold. “Good at what?”
“Executing a brush-off.”
“If I’m so good, why isn’t it working?”
“Damned if I know,” he said, as if his own persistence amazed him. “I guess I just never learned to accept defeat gracefully. But then, I’m not altogether certain I’ve been defeated.”
That was when the first raindrop fell. They looked toward the darkening sky at the same moment.
Her growl of exasperation earned her a lopsided grin.
“Right on cue,” he said, as if he’d masterminded the entire scenario.
“Nice trick,” she said drily. “What do you do for an encore? Walk on water?”
He laughed, and despite the autumn chill, January felt the same warm and intensely intimate sensation she’d experienced the first time she’d heard that sound.
“Too easy,” he said. “I go for the really tough stuff . . . like rescuing stubborn women from themselves.” He looked again toward the sky as a rapid succession of fat, splattering drops bombarded them. “Come on, Counselor.” He grabbed her briefcase in one hand and her elbow in the other. “Like it or not, you’ve lost both the opening and the closing arguments on this case. My car’s right over here. Let’s make a run for it.”
Michael’s younger brother, Rob, took affectionate sibling pleasure in pointing out that much of Michael’s success was predicated on sheer dumb luck. As Michael guided a slightly wet, slightly prickly January Stewart into the passenger seat of his Jeep Wrangler, he was—and quite happily—inclined to agree. Besides, at this point he’d accept any help he could get. If it took an autumn rainstorm to get the lady’s undivided attention, hey, who was he to argue with Mother Nature?
He didn’t want to argue with anyone. Especially not with January. He had other things in mind for her.
“You okay over there?” he asked, settling in behind the wheel.
She smoothed her wet skirt over her knees and looked straight ahead. “Fine.”
“We’ll have some heat here in a second,” he promised, cranking on the ignition, then fiddling with the heater. “It’ll take the chill off and dry us out a bit.”
She fussed with her hair, not, he guessed, because she was concerned with her appearance, but because she needed something to do with her hands. He just knew she was afraid of him, and what frustrated him, what had him thoroughly irritated, was that he didn’t have a clue as to why.
Dragging his fingers through his own wet hair, he tuned in the radio and watched her. She was as tense as a sinner in confession. For some reason, knowledge of that tension provoked him to increase it. He reached across her for her seat belt. She almost sprang through the roof when his arm “accidentally” brushed her breasts.
“Relax,” he said, all innocence, as he fastened the belt at her hip. He paraphrased the signs posted on every major highway in the state. “It’s the law. Can’t have an officer of the court breaking the law, now can we?”
He was not surprised that she didn’t smile. The quick, electric flash of panic in her eyes, however, momentarily stunned him. Then it was gone, and he was left wondering if he’d imagined it.
“So,” he said, sliding back behind the wheel, “where’s home?”
She blinked slowly. “Given the fact that you know my unlisted home phone number and my schedule well enough to show up at the courthouse, do you honestly expect me to believe you don’t know where I live?”
He grinned. She had him there. Did he know where she lived? You damn betcha. And before he was through with her, he’d know a lot more. Like what it took to make her smile. And what the hell she was afraid of.
Turning on the windshield wipers, he set the Wrangler in gear and pulled out of the lot. Hanging a left off Pearl, then eventually easing into the flow of traffic on the turnpike, he was content for the moment simply to have her in a position where she couldn’t throw him out or run away.
The next fifteen minutes of silent driving gave him time to regroup and sift through his feelings. Since first seeing her at the conference, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his head. When he’d gone to her office a week ago, he’d convinced himself he had a vested interest in writing an article and a passing interest in the lady herself. Passing, hell. It wasn’t going away . . . at least not anytime soon. After meeting her face-to-face, he had finally given up trying to reason out why she intrigued him. She just did.
Rob would call it a midlife crisis. Michael called it hell. Until now the ladies in his life had been as interested as he in no-strings, no-strain relationships. This one had him thinking of hearth and home and a hundred other sappy sentiments that led smart men into trouble.
Trouble was exactly what he was in.
He loved to listen to her talk. Even when she was telling him to get lost, her voice had a husky, silky resonance that made him think of black lace, dark midnights, and warm, giving flesh.
He knew a lot of sexy ladies, but this one had a certain vulnerability, an innocence, even, that was at intriguing odds with her legal prowess and the cool, confident persona she presented to the public. He wanted to crack that cold exterior. He wanted to make January thaw. Hell, he just wanted her, pure and simple. Only it wasn’t so pure. And, he had to admit, it wasn’t so simple. If it were just sexual, he could deal with it. But it wasn’t. And that was the part that was giving him trouble.
He whipped his head around to look at her. She had been quiet for so long, her soft voice startled him. “I’m sorry. Did you say something?”
She met his eyes for a moment, then, lifting her chin, looked past the swishing windshield wipers to the wet highway and the curtain of dusk that cast the last of the afternoon in incandescent darkness. “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you do us both a favor and just let it go?”
He let out a soft, self-derisive snort and swung onto the exit ramp. “I was just asking myself the same question.” He didn’t think she was ready for the truth. Not the whole of it anyway. So he offered a part of it that surprised even him.
“Something . . . something really profound struck a chord when I heard you speak. No wait, let me finish. I think maybe I saw something in you, heard something in what you said that I used to have inside myself. Conviction. Purpose. A whole fistful of determination to make a difference. You reminded me of myself ten years ago, and until I listened to your speech, I hadn’t realized that somewhere along the way, I’d lost all those qualities that make you special.”
He laughed. “Not exactly what you expected to hear, was it? Trust me, it wasn’t exactly what I expected to say.”
She was silent for a long time again before finally speaking. “I’ve found no lack of conviction in your work.” Her brow furrowed as though she wasn’t very pleased with her admission.
The compliment, he could tell, cost her. It made him smile, and it loosened his tongue even more. “I’ve been riding the wave of some earlier successes for too long now. I’ve been content, blindly so, to slide along with a much softer perspective. Fluff, even. I—I guess I finally realized that I don’t like myself much these days. Not so much for the work I’m doing, but for what I’m not doing. When I went to that conference and heard you, really heard what you were saying, it hit me like a missile. It’s time I get back on track. And I owe you for the eye-opener.”
Once more, she was a long time responding. “I find it difficult to accept credit for a decision that was yours alone to make.”
He grinned and thought of the date he’d broken for tonight, not to mention the assignment in the Bahamas he’d turned down because he hadn’t wanted to leave without settling this business with her. “If you believe you weren’t instrumental in some decisions I’ve made lately, you’re dead wrong.”
“I believe people have it within themselves to determine their own course of action.”
“That may very well be, but in the right place, at the right time, a gentle nudge in the right direction has been known to move mountains. You moved my mountain, January,” he teased in an intentional bid to lighten what was fast becoming a heavy conversation. “And now I’d like to move yours.” He flashed her a grin full of innuendo.
She wanted to smile; he could see it in her eyes. But she fought off the urge, as he suspected she was fighting off many other urges. “My mountain’s just fine where it is, thank you.”
“Is that another way of saying no, you still won’t consider the article?”
She hesitated, then said softly, “That’s another way of saying no.”
He was prepared for that answer, but he had no intention of giving up. “Then I guess that gets us back to dinner. I know tonight’s out, but would you consider letting me take you to the Flagstaff House on Saturday?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and let out a sigh of exasperation. “You just don’t quit, do you?”
He pulled up in front of the modest house he’d driven by several times during the last week and shut off the motor. Turning toward her, he propped one arm on the seat back and the other over the steering wheel. “No, January. I don’t quit. Not when I’m going after something I really want.”
An awareness flickered in her eyes that even the twilight of evening couldn’t hide. “There . . .” She stopped and cleared her throat. “There must be a hundred more marketable topics you could write about.”
He leaned toward her and deftly unfastened her seat belt. “I’m not talking about the article. I’m talking about you.” Watching her profile, he let that settle before adding in a voice that sounded as thick as the suddenly pulsing flesh at his groin, “I want to see you, January. You fascinate me.”
She sucked in a sharp breath. It made a thready little sound that added to the sweet discomfort in the lower part of his body.
“I frustrate you,” she corrected him with conviction. “You’re just not used to being told no.”
He cupped her jaw in his hand and slowly turned her face toward him. “What I’m not used to is being turned inside out by the sound of one woman’s voice, by the thought of how one woman’s mouth would feel opened against mine.” His gaze dropped to her mouth and lingered. When her small pink tongue unconsciously slipped between her lips to wet them, he damn near exploded. “Do you think about that, too, January? Do you think about what it would be like with me?”
She seemed to wilt, to go all soft and yearning right before his eyes. Then she swallowed hard and met his gaze with a fire in her eyes that even the night’s rain wouldn’t have doused. “You’re out of line, Hayward.”
He sighed deeply. “I know. I just don’t know what to do about it. I’m coming on like a stag during the rutting season, aren’t I? I’m sorry. I really wanted to take this slow. But being around you is like some grueling exercise in self-restraint.”
“Restraint,” she whispered in a thin voice, “is not a word I would have used in relationship to you.”
Hearing a certain gentling, sensing a tentative yielding, he slid his hand into the wealth of heavy hair at the nape of her neck. “I want to kiss you, January. Would you let me?”
She shook her head, but her denial lacked real conviction.
He touched a finger to her cheek, forcing her to look at him. “Don’t send a kitten to do a cat’s work, Counselor,” he warned softly. “If you really mean no, you’ll have to be more convincing than that.”
When she swallowed hard yet said nothing, he pressed the issue gently. “Just once. Only once . . .”
Her eyes were big and round and uncertain as he lowered his mouth to hers. “No, baby,” he whispered, dropping a tender kiss of introduction at the corner of her mouth. “Don’t be afraid. I’d never hurt you.”
But she was afraid. He could feel it beneath his hand as he stroked her hair, beneath his lips as they touched hers with such great care.
He wanted to ravage the hot, wet interior of her mouth; he wanted to tumble her to her back then and there. Her wants took priority, though. Her needs held greater value. He’d never been like this with a woman. And while his protective instincts baffled him, he didn’t question that they were right on target. She needed to know that she could trust him.
So he delivered on his promise and took her mouth slowly, pressing against her soft, trembling lips without insistence.
She was sweet. Lord, so sweet. He could taste her desire simmering beneath the surface, but kept his own hunger in check. He could also taste her fear. It was the latter he catered to.
Much sooner than he wanted to, he pulled away. He smiled at her stunned expression. “And that, Ms. Stewart,” he said, touching a finger to her parted lips, “is what you call exercising restraint.”
She blinked slowly, a trait he was finding increasingly endearing. “And this,” she said on a shaky breath, “just in case you miss the message, is what you call saying good-bye.”
Grabbing blindly for her things, she shouldered her way out of the Wrangler and ran through the rain to her door.
Michael sighed in resignation. It had been a long time since he’d chased a woman. In fact, the last woman he’d chased hadn’t been a woman at all. She’d been ten years old and so had he, and they’d been playing tag in the school playground. But chase he did as he snagged her forgotten briefcase and headed up the walk to her front door.
He rang the bell several times before she answered it. By then, he was wet to his underwear. He figured it would give him an edge.
The door swung open. “What?” she snapped, ready to lay into him with both barrels.
He looked pathetic. He knew it. He played on it. Dangling her briefcase from one dripping finger, he brushed his soaking hair out of his eyes and gave her a lost-puppy grin. “Guess you’ll have to let me in so I can dry out, huh? Sort of return the favor for the ride home?”
She glared at him. “Do
a favor, Hayward. Go away. Stay away.”
He was still wearing that stupid grin when she unceremoniously relieved him of the briefcase and slammed the door in his face.
Michael counted to ten, walked stiffly to his Wrangler, and drove directly to the nearest bar. Two beers and forty-five minutes’ worth of contemplation later, he was back. He didn’t bother with the bell. He just hammered the hell out of her front door.
He was about ready to start yelling when from inside a hall light came on. He heard some fumbling, then the metallic glide of a safety latch being slipped into place, and finally, the click of a dead bolt. The door opened a crack. A pair of wary brown eyes stared at him from behind huge, round-rimmed glasses.