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He found he liked the idea, picturing her with a solemn face, those great dark brown eyes too big for her, her thick hair in two plaits down her back. She would have been a quiet, kind child, practicing none of those subtle cruelties children seem to revel in. Her children would be like that.
He moved back into the cottage, restless and on edge, and stopped for a moment as he caught sight of the damage done to the hinges of his door. For the first time a smile touched his lips. She was quite a surprise; he should have known she'd have enough ingenuity to get past a simple lock. Well, she had taken the door off; she'd have to put it back on for him. In the meantime he was damned well going to undress as usual, and if she was too squeamish, that was her own bad luck.
It was going to be a tough day tomorrow, one that he had better be ready for. He'd almost regained his strength after his enforced imprisonment in that hellhole that passed for a government prison, but whether he was up to a daylong climb up the Na Pali cliffs was another matter. He'd feel better about it if he'd managed to corner Father Frank, but the priest as usual had been damnably elusive. The gardener was second best, but in the end had probably proved more helpful. Emmett Chandler had been seen on those cliffs more than once in the last few months—hiding out in one of the many obscure encampments that lay hidden in the hills. Ben could only hope the gardener was as knowledgeable as he swore he was.
And then, as always, there remained the problem of Rachel. She had made it surprisingly easy, coming up with a perfect excuse for his pursuit. As long as she believed the latest variation she would keep relatively quiet. By the time she knew what he was really after, it would be too late. For Emmett. And for Ben and Rachel.
Not that there ever had been a Ben and Rachel, he told himself savagely, passing the vandalized door and heading toward the kitchen and a cold beer. There had never been a chance for them, not since the events of fifteen years ago. He was a fool if he hadn't accepted that simple fact yet. But then, when had he had any doubts recently about just how big a fool he was? It took forty years to get to his advanced stage of idiocy, and he only made it by sheer determination and hard work. And as a special prize for his efforts, he was awarded Rachel Chandler, with her melting eyes, tremulous mouth, and beautiful, long-limbed body. He had a feeling he was going to hate the scent of jasmine for the rest of his life.
It was one of the longest nights of his life. He managed to kill forty-five minutes packing a knapsack for the strenuous climb tomorrow. Another half an hour went for the dinner that he didn't eat, fifteen minutes per beer, and for a final twenty-five minutes he showered. He even shaved, telling himself it helped pass a boring night. By the time he left the bathroom it was nearly eleven o'clock, and Ben felt like nothing so much as a Victorian father. Where the hell was she? he fumed. She didn't even know Stephen Ames; she was just fool enough to be dazzled by his beach-boy looks.
Moving on restless feet, he paced out onto the porch. The clean white shirt was hanging loose around his bare torso, the faded jeans low on his hips. Leaning against a column, he stared out at the wine-dark sea, listening to the thick, tropical silence that pressed down around him. What if she didn't come home at all tonight? he thought suddenly. What if she spent the night with that swaggering idiot? The very thought sent such a shaft of white-hot rage through him that he shook with the effort to control it. If she tried anything like that he'd…
But what the hell could he do? He had no say in the matter, no rights over Miss Rachel Chandler. If she fell in love with Stephen Ames, it would only be for the best.
But she wasn't going to fall in love with Stephen Ames. He had been around women most of his life; he knew that she was well on her way to being in love with him, if not there already. For all her fury with him, her hurt, and her ultimate fear, she wanted him with every fiber of her being. Just as he, heaven help him, wanted her.
He heard the car's engine from way off. It wasn't the low, throaty rumble of Ames's Jaguar, and it wasn't the stately purr of Harris's Lincoln. It wasn't until the headlights glared at him, waiting with seeming patience on the porch, that he recognized the humble charms of Louie's Taxi Service.
The headlights were shining too brightly to enable him to make anything out. He remained motionless, listening, as the door opened and closed, heard the low murmur of voices, and then the taxi backed away, leaving them in darkness once more. He could barely make out her shadowed figure in the drive. There was something about her silhouette, the set of her shoulders, that alerted him.
"Rachel?" he said softly.
He heard her clear her throat. "I…uh, I think I'll go for a walk," she said.
"Where's Ames?" He kept his voice low, easy, so as not to alarm her. He could hear the pain and fright in her voice—one word and she would panic as easily as a cornered doe. If she took off into the tangled underbrush he'd have a hard time finding her on this moonless night.
"He…uh, we decided, that is…he stayed behind. I just got a taxi." Her voice was high-pitched with tension, and slowly, easily he moved down the steps, one at a time, edging toward her still, dark silhouette.
"What happened, Rachel?" Ben's voice was soothing, gentle, infinitely tender. She was almost in reach; if she tried to bolt for it, he could catch her in time. "Did he hurt you?"
She stood there, motionless, completely silent. And then the dam broke. She moved into the pool of light cast by the house, and he took in the ripped dress, the swollen mouth, the tears streaming down her face. "Oh, Ben," she murmured brokenly, looking up at him beseechingly out of those huge, pain-filled dark eyes. "Or is it, Oh, Jake, or Oh, Emmett?" Her voice was ragged with pain. "I don't even know what damned name to call you!"
He moved then, no longer afraid of her panic, pulling her into his arms with one swift, sure move, holding her tight against him. "Hush, Rachel. Hush now. No one's going to hurt you. Hush, love." Her body was stiff and tight in his arms, suffering his embrace, until suddenly, with one convulsive movement, a sigh left her body, and the stiffness with it, and she was relaxed, pliant against him.
"I warned you," she murmured against the comforting solidity of his shoulder. "I did warn you."
"What did you warn me, love?" he murmured, allowing himself to brush the tangled hair away from her tear-streaked face.
"That nice men were no good. No good at all," she whispered against him. "They smile and they charm and then they hurt you. I like bastards like you much better."
"I'm glad to hear it." He let his lips brush the cloud of hair. "So for all my transgressions I'm not quite as bad as Stephen Ames?"
"Don't," she gasped. He felt the shudder that passed through her body, and his arms tightened around her.
"What did he do, Rachel?" He kept his voice low and calm, all the while a dangerous rage building inside him. "What happened to him?"
She struggled for a moment in his tight embrace, shaking her head. And then she gave in. "I decided it was past time for me to come home. He didn't agree." Shivering slightly, she looked up at his shuttered face. "I don't think he's very comfortable."
A small smile curved his lips. "What did you do to him, wicked girl?"
"Kicked him, I'm afraid. He…he wasn't used to hearing no." She managed a rueful grimace. "He said it was my fault. I suppose it was. I shouldn't have bought this dress, shouldn't have dressed up like that, if I didn't mean to go through with it. But when he put his hands on me I just…just panicked."
"It was nobody's fault but his, Rachel; don't let anybody fool you. Whether he likes it or not, a decent man knows how to take no for an answer." He loosened his hold just a tiny bit, reluctantly.
"I'm afraid he… wasn't terribly decent," she stammered. "He said he liked a fight in a woman."
Ben loosened his hold, guiding her up the front steps with a gentle hand. "He didn't realize what he was tangling with," he said, ruffling her thick curtain of hair.
Rachel even managed a rusty-sounding laugh. "That's the truth. I don't know if he'd try anything like
that again in the near future."
"Probably not. Where did you leave him?" His voice was studiedly casual.
"At the Winding Lei. Once I got free of him I just ran—I don't know if he's still there or not."
"I'll let you know," he said pleasantly. "You go on in, pour yourself a large drink, and wait for me. I won't be long."
"No!" She turned in a panic, grabbing his arm. "Don't do anything stupid. I got away from him in time. He's just a stupid kid with overactive glands, and I guess I was sending him the wrong message or something. I'm okay, no harm done."
Ben smiled, a cool, gentle smile that was even more alarming, and one hand gently brushed her cut lip. "Go on in, Rachel. I'll stop in at the hotel on the way and send Uncle Harris to keep you company."
"No!" She was being propelled up the porch steps, across the porch, and into the living room. "You're not my brother; you don't have to defend my honor."
He made no response, and before she quite realized what was happening he had her ensconced on the lumpy living-room sofa, a worn cotton blanket around her, a very dark, very strong glass of rum and ice in her hand.
"Drink all of it," he ordered, tucking the blanket around her long, bare legs. She'd lost her sandals somewhere along the way, he noted with a distant anger. He was overwhelmed by her innocent vulnerability; angry and frightened and guilty that she could be hurt so easily. Reaching out a gentle hand, he smoothed the tangled curtain of hair away from her pale face. "And stay put. If you don't want your uncle, that's okay, as long as you promise not to leave this house."
"I don't want you going," she said in a small, weary voice. "Please, stay here."
For one long moment he was sorely tempted. Never had she looked more desirable. And never was she in greater need of not being desired. He doubted he could do that if he did stay, and beating the hell out of Stephen Ames would go a long way toward easing the hard knot of frustration that had taken to lodging permanently in his gut.
Kneeling down beside her, he cupped her chin in one strong hand. "I have to," he said softly, his thumb stroking the sensitive underside of her jaw. He wanted to kiss her so badly it hurt, wanted just to touch those sweet, soft lips of hers that he'd only begun to taste. Dropping his hand, he rose to his full height. "I'll be back." And he was gone into the night.
The silence grew around her, a beneficial silence, not a threatening one. Her hand tightened around the cold, tall glass of rum, and dutifully she brought it to her lips, taking a very large, determined gulp. The strong, fiery liquid burned its way down her throat, and she coughed, choking on the unexpected harshness of the drink.
Carefully she leaned forward, setting the half-empty glass on the floor. After the piña coladas Stephen Ames had been forcefeeding her all night, she didn't need any more rum to melt her brain. Too much had happened in the last week, more than she had had time to assimilate, and she needed to retain whatever remnant of a clear head remained to her.
She had found her brother, lost her brother, been tormented by the specter of incest, infuriated by being made a fool of, been moon-eyed by an ill-placed attraction, been lied to, suffered the dangers of flying, snorkeling, and sunburn, and to top it all off, had almost been horribly raped by a half-drunken playboy she should have known to steer clear of in the first place. And it was all Ben O'Hanlon's fault. When he returned from beating the hell out of Stephen Ames, she would tell him so.
Though she had to admit, the thought of him beating up Stephen Ames was irresistibly charming. She could only hope Ben would be the beater, not the beatee. Stephen Ames had quite an amazing set of muscles, and he was ten years younger than Ben. But he lacked a certain ruthless quality that Ben had in abundance. The same ruthless quality that made him able to lie to her again and again and again, she reminded herself. Maybe it would be nice if Stephen Ames managed to connect a few times before Ben mashed him to the ground.
Sighing, she pulled her legs up, under herself, and stretched out on the couch. She was too weary, too sad, and admittedly just a tiny bit too drunk to get to her bedroom. She would have to watch it: drinking too much rum was not the proper way to handle the stressful situations she kept falling into. Uncle Harris was enough of a drinker for the illustrious Chandlers.
Besides, she would be interested to see what Ben would do when he came home and found her there. It was a wicked temptation, but one Rachel was in no mood to resist at that point. Closing her eyes, she lay her head back down with a sigh. If she had any sense at all she'd get up and straggle back to her room. But then, she hadn't shown much sense in the last week; why should she set a precedent?
The night was still and quiet as she lay there, drinking in the sounds of the night birds, the rustle of the palms, the whisper of the surf on the dark sand in front of the cottage. With a distant feeling of wonder Rachel realized that she was perfectly content, lying there, waiting for Ben to come back. There was no anxiety, no resentment in the anticipation. Just a deep security that he was coming. Coming back, to her. And with a small, happy sigh she gave herself up to sleep.
« ^ »
It was very dark when Rachel opened her eyes. Dark and silent; even the omnipresent night birds seemed to have settled for the moment. Rachel's head weighed a thousand pounds as she lifted it to stare hazily at the illuminated clock by her bed, and she shivered. Never in her life had she felt so cold, so lonely, so alone.
Twenty-five past two. The middle of the night, in fact. She sank back into the pillow with a hopeless sigh. And then she realized where she was. And what she was wearing.
The last thing she remembered was lying on the sofa, dressed in her torn dress. Slightly drunk and blissfully awaiting Ben's return from defending her honor. At which time she had fully expected to be seduced into bestowing said honor on her slightly battered champion.
Apparently Ben had had other ideas, none of which included bedding Rachel Chandler. He must have carried her in here when he got back—her bedroom, not his. He had even managed to remove her clothes and replace them with a loose cotton nightgown. And then left her.
She sat up then, completely, furiously awake. A small part of her mind pleaded for sanity—he didn't want to take advantage of her; she'd been nothing but hostile to him in the last twenty-four hours. None of that made any difference. She loved him, wanted him, and had deliberately, if subconsciously, set up a situation for him to take her back into his bed. And he had ignored it.
Throwing back the thin blanket, her bare feet slammed onto the floor. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, she told herself grimly. It didn't matter if it was logical—at that point she was past logic. Ben O'Hanlon had effectively thrown her offer of love back in her face, and she wasn't going to lie in bed and cry about it. She was going to do something about it—a small, perfect act of revenge.
She slammed her door open, and the thin wood bounced against the wall. The living room of the cottage was dark and deserted, lit only dimly by the late rising moon. The dismantled door to his room still rested against the wall, and without a moment's hesitation she stormed in there, standing over his sleeping form like an avenging goddess.
Something should have softened in her, watching him. He slept the sleep of total exhaustion, his eyes shadowed, the golden lashes a fan beneath them. There was a cut on his cheekbone, a bruise on his temple, a raw scrape on his chin. Received from Stephen Ames during his defense of her, no doubt. Very carefully she leaned over him, the scent of her jasmine perfume tickling his sleeping nostrils. Very carefully she reached beside his head, took a pillow, and raising it high over her head, smacked him sharply in the face.
He was instantly awake, roaring in fury. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
That was a little difficult to answer. Fortunately she still retained hold of the pillow. "Saying good-bye," she snapped, and swatted him again with the pillow.
This time he was ready for her. He'd already swung to the side of the bed, and he caught the pill
ow in time, yanking it out of her grasp before it could connect. Bereft of her meager weapon, unarmed in the face of his formidable anger, Rachel did what most Chandlers would do. Turned and ran.
He caught her on the porch, his hand biting into her arm, no doubt adding to the bruises he'd already inflicted, she thought angrily. "What the hell is wrong with you?" he shouted, shaking her. He was wearing dark blue jockey shorts, nothing else, and his chest rose and fell with the sudden exertion. She had to use what little self-control she had left to keep her eyes jerked upward.
"Nothing!" She fought back, remembering but ignoring that it would be a useless struggle against his implacable strength. "I'm leaving."
"Like that?" he asked derisively, and belatedly she realized she was standing there clad only in a light eyelet nightdress and bare feet.
"If you'll let go of me," she began with a noble attempt at icy calm, "I'll go in and change. Someone will bring the Land Rover back for you."
He eyed her in silence for a long moment, as if trying to fathom what was going on behind the cool face with the blazing eyes. "What's gotten into you, Rachel?" he finally asked, and his voice was treacherously tender.
It almost proved her undoing. "I just want to leave," she mumbled miserably.
"Why? I thought we were getting along better. I kept my distance, put you safely in your own bed like a nice little Boy Scout…" Something, a mere flicker in her dark eyes, must have betrayed her, for he let out a sharp, surprised breath. "That's it, isn't it? You're angry because I put you in your own bed?"
"You're demented!" she snapped. "Believe it or not, every woman in this world isn't panting for your dubious favors."
"Not every woman," he agreed. "But you are."