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"You're not that bad," he said soothingly, that rough voice of his curiously caressing against her shattered nerve ends. "You just have a few phobias."
"That's putting it kindly indeed, brother dear." She used the title deliberately, to remind herself of what she didn't dare forget. "I'm afraid of flying, of the ocean, of storms, snakes, love, and death. Not necessarily in that order."
He remained very still beside her, and she could smell the strong, rich smell of coffee on his breath, feel the body heat emanating from his lean, tough body. "What aren't you afraid of?" His voice was soft and low.
"I'm not afraid of you, Emmett," she said softly, keeping her face, like his, directed out at the stormy sea. They stood like that for a long moment, shoulder to shoulder, not another word passing between them. And then Rachel stirred herself, moving away in a deliberate effort to break the hypnotic mood that seemed to spin out from him. "More coffee?"
"What?" He seemed startled by the mundane question, and the hazel eyes that turned to look at her seemed out of focus for a moment. As if he were looking far, far away, a long time ago. "Oh, no thanks. I need to stretch my legs. I'll be back in a while." Setting the empty mug down on the windowsill, he headed for the door.
"In the rain?"
"It won't rain for hours yet, Rachel. I've been here long enough to read the weather pretty well—the storm shouldn't hit until sometime late this afternoon or early evening. Plenty of time to batten down the hatches. You'll be all right." He stopped his forward stride for a moment. "Won't you?"
Fixing a bright smile to her face, she waved airily at him. "Of course. Go ahead." There was a definite air of escape to him as he took the front steps two at a time. Rachel moved back to the window, watching him move down the beach at a rapid pace. He had demons too, he'd said last night. Looking at him now, she could readily believe it. But were his demons hers?
The day moved at a snail's pace, the hours crawling by as the weather worsened. For two hours Rachel walked the floors, longing for Emmett to return, too edgy to settle down for more than a couple of minutes at a time. By the time he finally did return, windblown and even more taciturn, her nerves had only shredded further; she felt ready to scream with frustration and tension. The heaviness of the air, the approaching storm, the steady, nerve-wracking whoosh of the wind, combined to give her an unreasoning sense of doom. Disaster seemed about to befall her, that wretched Greek tragedy that she so wanted to avoid.
She spent more than an hour sitting in the living room across from Emmett, watching him out of the corner of her eyes. Not a word was exchanged. Emmett, always slightly taciturn, had become monosyllabic, leaning back in a straight chair and keeping his cool, wary gaze on the book in his lap. During the hour they sat there she never once saw him turn a page.
The house was getting darker and darker, but neither of them made any effort to turn on a light. The wind was picking up in force, and Rachel could barely restrain a tiny shudder of apprehension. The tense atmosphere of the room only added to the clawing panic that was building inside her, but she wasn't going to ask Emmett for help this time. She was going to keep as far away from him as possible until some semblance of sanity returned to her enfeebled brain.
To her amazement Emmett finally turned a page in the thick, hardcover thriller he was ostensibly reading. That studied, deliberate movement was the last straw, and Rachel knew she couldn't sit still a minute longer without going out of her mind. Jumping to her feet, she knocked over the glass of iced tea that had balanced, forgotten, on the armrest. Emmett looked up, absolutely no expression on his face, watching her as she made an ineffectual effort at mopping up the tea that spread in a puddle over the rough pine floor.
"I think I'll take a nap," she said breathlessly. She had to get away from him, away from those wary hazel eyes that looked right through her, away from that tanned, compact body that she should have been scarcely aware of. She didn't dare go for a walk; with her luck she'd be just out of reach of the cottage when a tidal wave would hit. The open Land Rover was equally suspect, and the kitchen provided little protection.
"Good idea," Emmett growled, turning back to his book. "I'll be going out for a couple of hours; we can have dinner when I get back."
"You're…going out?" She couldn't keep the forlorn note out of her voice, and almost against his will a smile curved Emmett's cynical mouth. "Could I go with you?" Being trapped in the narrow confines of the Land Rover with him was the last thing she wanted, but she was even more frightened of the incipient storm than her incomprehensible longing for her brother.
" 'Fraid not. I've got too much to do in too short a time, and I can't have my kid sister tagging along with me." His voice was cool, almost bored, and implacable. For the first time she began to feel like a kid sister, importunate and in the way.
There was no way she could continue with her pleas. "All right." Her tone matched his for coolness. "I assume you'll come rescue me if a hurricane hits?"
"You assume right. Go take a nap, Rachel. You probably won't even know I'm gone, and you might possibly sleep through the storm, if you're lucky."
"You mean you'll be gone during the storm?" It came out in a panicked shriek that she couldn't help.
Emmett closed his book with a sigh, looking across at her in the darkening room. "I'll be back, Rachel. Nothing's going to hurt you."
"You promise?" She was unconvinced.
He hesitated for a long, uncomfortable moment, and she had the impression he was weighing his every word. "I'll do the absolute best I can not to let you get hurt, kid," he said finally. He opened his mouth to add something, then closed it abruptly.
He should have followed it with his customary instruction, "Trust me." But he hadn't; something had stopped him, something that Rachel couldn't begin to fathom. She hesitated, then offered it unasked. "I trust you, Emmett."
Was it pain that darkened his face for a moment? She couldn't tell in the shadowy room. "Go take your nap kid," he said, dismissing her. With a small, lost shrug, she went.
A nap might not have been the best possible idea either, she realized forty-five minutes later, lying flat on her back on her narrow bed. The sunburn had lessened enough to make that position comfortable, and staring at the ceiling was definitely preferable to staring at her rumpled pillow. Emmett had left a few minutes ago—the noise of the Land Rover starting up had wrenched her out of the first few moments of the sleep that had so stubbornly eluded her. There was no way she would get back to sleep, she thought wearily. The wind around the cottage was picking up, the waves had crescendoed to a muffled roar, and she was alone and lonely, and quite as miserable as anyone had ever been. There was nothing she could do but lie there and wait for a sleep that wouldn't come. At least it would keep her free from disturbing dreams. She could concentrate on what she was going to do when she got back. This extended holiday was all well and good, but she had a living to make. If the idea of returning to her job was less than enthralling, those were simply the breaks. A few days of hearing people with real problems would soon wipe out her self-indulgence.
There was Mrs. del Gado, with thirteen children and advanced breast cancer. There was Marty Halprin, so prone to destructive rages that he hadn't been able to hold a job for more than three months in all his forty-five years. And there was Robbie, young-old Robbie, abused by her father at age five, a runaway at ten, a prostitute at twelve. She was fifteen now, and worn out by life's battles. The very thought of her made Rachel shrink in shame.
All her problems were of her own making, and she could damn well unmake them. She had been a coward too long—it was past time for her to face up to the mess she'd made. And she would, just as soon as she caught a little bit of sleep. Turning into her pillow, she closed her eyes for a brief moment as the storm raged outside.
He was there with her, as she knew he would be once she fell asleep. He looked like Emmett, talked like Emmett, but he wasn't her brother. Of that she was irrevocably certain. He was leaning aga
inst the foot of the narrow iron bedstead, and his hazel eyes were no longer wary or unreadable, and those hands, those large, beautiful hands that could never belong to a Chandler, reached for her.
He was hazy and insubstantial as he stretched out beside her, a demon lover come to claim his earthbound bride. He kissed her, but she couldn't feel his mouth on hers. Her clothes were gone, yet she hadn't felt him remove them. She was alone with him, at his mercy, lying on the bed aching for him to come to her, but the slow, sensuous touch never connected with her hungry skin. Wrapping her in his arms, he cradled her against him, and still she was lost, lost in a cocoon of emptiness. "Please," she whispered against the strong neck she could see but not feel.
"Please what?" She knew his voice, strong and rough and strangely tender.
"Please," she begged again. "I need you. I can't feel you, can't touch you. Please, let me."
His lips brushed hers, maddeningly, and she thought she could just begin to taste their warmth. "Please, who?" he prompted in her ear. She could feel his breath hot on her, but his mouth still seemed locked away.
"No," she moaned. "I can't."
"Yes, you can, Rachel. Tell me who it is you want. Say my name, Rachel, and I'll be there." The lips brushed hers again, maddeningly, and she could feel him parting her legs. But she couldn't feel him, his hands, his strong tanned body, his mouth.
"No," she said one last time. He was the demon lover, come to claim her, and if she spoke his name out loud her soul would be lost.
He drew himself up, looming over her, dark and mysterious, yet someone she knew so well and loved so well. "My name, Rachel," he demanded in a strong, husky whisper, and she could feel the tension trapped in that voice. And suddenly it no longer mattered; she had to shatter the invisible barrier that kept him from her, and if she lost everything in the doing, it would still be worth it.
"Emmett," she whispered, her voice filled with love and longing and unshed tears. "Emmett, love me."
Suddenly the tiny bedroom exploded. A bright flash of light illuminated the room; the rumble of a hundred angry gods deafened her. She sat up, screaming in panic, to stare at her darkened room. She was fully dressed, alone, and shattered. Another flash of lightning streaked across the black landscape, followed by the roar of thunder far too close for her peace of mind.
"It's all right," she said out loud in a shaking voice, hoping vainly that the sound of her voice would banish some of the panic. "It was only a dream. The storm woke you up. It was only a dream." Balancing on one trembling elbow, it was all she could do to reach over for the light. There was a soft click and absolutely nothing happened.
For a moment Rachel stared at the light numbly. The power must have gone off, she thought dazedly, climbing out of bed. She would have to find candles, matches, some way to keep the darkness at bay. Where was Emmett when she needed him?
It was warmer now, and the jeans were clinging humidly to her long legs. Stripping off her clammy clothes, she pulled on the faithful yellow sun dress, its soft cotton folds settling loosely around her fevered body. The air was thick, hot, and damp; the incipient violence of the weather hung heavy in the air.
The living room was only slightly lighter than her pitch-dark bedroom. She had no idea what time it was, didn't really care. All that mattered was that she was alone in a rickety old cottage during what sounded to her frightened ears like a typhoon at the least, and she could rely on no one but herself. A little light would help, she thought, keeping her eyes averted from the angry ocean outside the front windows. A few candles, and maybe hunt around for something strong and soothing to drink. If worse came to worse, she could take the new bottle of rum Harris had brought by, return to her bedroom, and drink herself into such a stupor that the storm would be no more than a minor irritation.
Another bolt of lightning sizzled by, followed by another crash of thunder, and Rachel dashed into the kitchen. "One more of those," she muttered shakily, rummaging through a kitchen drawer she could barely see, "and I won't answer for the consequences." There was an answering rumble from the sky, a dare if she ever heard one. Perhaps God was going to punish her for her sinful thoughts. She couldn't deny she deserved it.
No matches in that drawer, nor candles either. Slamming it shut, she pulled out the next one, shoving her hand into it without thinking.
Another bolt of lightning illuminated the dark, menacing figure that watched her from the doorway. Her hand caught on the wickedly sharp knife that lay point out in the drawer, and the thunder crashed about them like the judgment of God.
Rachel screamed, and then slumped forward in something very close to a faint.
« ^ »
Emmett was there to catch her before she fell. She felt the familiar warmth of him against her face, the scent of the hot tropical rain emanating from his cotton shirt, and her fingers clung tightly to his shoulders. His voice was low, caressing, ever so slightly mocking in her ear. "Was that an actual faint, kid? I didn't know you could be so gothic."
She nodded her head, then cradled it back against his neck. "You scared me," she admitted in a small voice. "I didn't hear you come in."
"I would have had to be a herd of elephants to be heard over this din." Another crash of thunder punctuated his point, and Rachel shivered uncontrollably. "It's all right, Rachel," he murmured gently, and his breath was hot and damp by her ear. "Nothing's going to hurt you."
She stood very still in the circle of his arms, afraid to move, afraid to breathe. One of his hands cupped her neck, the thumb absently stroking the delicate skin of her throat as he held her against his shoulder. The other was around her waist, pressing her slender, trembling body against his, holding her against the solid strength of him. Something seemed to flow between them, a tangible heat that started in the pit of Rachel's stomach, spread downward, and turned her shattered nerve endings to liquid fire. She could feel his strong, muscled thighs pressed against her, the broad back that sheltered her from the angry elements, the comforting shoulder where she could hide from the world. Her arms were around him, her fingers kneading the tight muscles of his back without her even realizing it as he tensed in her hold.
His heart was beating as rapidly as hers in the small, dark kitchen, and the breath that feathered her hair was coming more swiftly now. With a surprising gentleness the hand that cupped her neck reached around and caught her chin, forcing her to look up at him through the darkness. That closed, unreadable expression that usually haunted his hazel eyes was gone, banished seemingly forever. He was looking down at her with intent, white-hot desire, only distantly tinged with doubt.
"Rachel," he whispered in the rain-swept night. "What are you doing to me?"
Her eyes widened as guilt swept over her. Guilt, but no revulsion, no horror. Even that was denied her. She stood there, trapped in the shelter of his arms by his strength and her own weakness, as he continued to watch her out of passion-dark eyes. And then his head dropped, his cynical mouth moved to take hers, and she was mesmerized, waiting for the possession of his lips.
The streak of lightning was like the wrath of God exploding in the kitchen. Rachel tore herself out of the dubious protection of his arms with an anguished cry, panic and despair sweeping over her. She stared at him for a long, horrified moment, and then she ran from the room, her bare feet swift and silent on the rough wood floor.
She slammed the bedroom door behind her, leaning against it, breathless from fear and confusion. There was no way she could continue to deny it—she was in love with Emmett, desperately, unequivocally in love with him, and she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anyone in her entire life. And through some tragic twist of fate he seemed to want her too, no matter how forbidden such a longing was.
She had hesitated long enough, playing with fire, and now was in grave danger of being consumed in the conflagration. She had to leave, now, tonight, before the inevitable happened. She had no desire to play Antigone to her brother.
Ignoring the storm, the darkness, the throbbing pain of her lacerated hand, she began throwing all her clothes into the suitcase she'd dumped on her bed. They didn't all quite fit, and she left the remainder strewn about the pitch-black room before she zipped the bag. There was no sound from the room beyond, and she could only hope that Emmett, recognizing what had almost happened between them, was making himself scarce. She only had to make it as far as the Land Rover without seeing him. Uncle Harris could find a bed for her for the night, or Father Frank could provide even better sanctuary. And with the first plane tomorrow morning she'd be far, far away.
Yanking the suitcase off the bed, she ignored the pain in her hand. She flung open the bedroom door and headed toward the porch; the living room was lit by the soft glow of a kerosene lamp. Emmett was standing by the kitchen, watching her out of hooded eyes. "What do you think you're doing?" he drawled, that cool, mocking voice back in force.
"I'm leaving." She hesitated a moment too long, still mesmerized by him.
"Don't be ridiculous!" he snapped. "What did I do to send you storming off like a prima donna?"
"Nothing," she said. "You did nothing." She raised tear-filled eyes to his, no longer hiding all the misery and love she'd done her best to deny. "Don't you realize? It's me, not you. I have to leave." She all but ran from the door.
She had just managed to pull it open when he was there, slamming it shut with enough force to crack the windows. "You're not going anywhere." She was backed up against the wall, his arms on either side of her holding her captive against the hard wood. "You may not have noticed, but there's a storm going on, and the Land Rover doesn't have a roof. Not to mention that some of the roads are washed out. You're going to stay right here and we'll work this out."
He was too close to her—she could feel the warmth of his body penetrate her chilled bones. "No," she moaned. "I'll walk if I have to. Let me go, Emmett, please."