The moon had risen, casting eerie shadows behind him on the darkened sand, and he looked unnaturally tall, standing over her hunched figure. She looked up at him, but his face was in the shadows, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking. She didn't really care.
"Go away." It sounded neither childish nor petulant. Her voice was cool and neutral, despite the rawness left by her bout of tears.
"It's after two, Rachel. Come back to the house." His voice was calm, patient, even politely concerned, she thought savagely.
"No. I'm never going back there." Still in that cool, detached voice, she noted with satisfaction. Maybe once again she'd managed to turn off the pain of his lies. Though she knew from bitter experience that the emotional anesthesia wouldn't last long.
"You can't spend the night out here, Rachel," he said in a reasonable voice. "The temperature gets quite cool this time of year, and you're not dressed for it." His eyes took in her long, bare legs beneath the shorts and the sleeveless shirt that exposed her tanned, chilled arms.
Damn him; in her misery she hadn't even noticed she was cold. "I'm staying here." Now she was sounding petulant, but she couldn't help it. A shiver washed over her body.
"No, you're not. I'm not going to let you." His voice was implacable, and he held out a hand to help her up. It was beautiful in the moonlight, one of the strong, large hands that had cradled her body last night, that had driven her to the edge of madness, and then past it to completion.
"Don't you touch me!" she snapped.
He dropped his hand. "All right. If you'll come back with me on your own accord."
"It's a little late for bargaining, isn't it?"
"I don't know, is it?" he said softly. "Come back to the house, Rachel, and I promise I'll leave you alone. When you wake up tomorrow morning I'll drive you anywhere you want to go."
"Just the airport."
He nodded. "The first plane out is ten thirty. Or there's a later one around noon, and one at two."
"Ten thirty will be fine." She scrambled to her feet, stumbling slightly from cramped muscles, and he put out a hand to steady her. She drew back as if burned. She didn't think she could bear it if he touched her again; that storm of tears wasn't far in the past, and it wouldn't take much to set it off again. The last thing she needed was to break down in front of him again. She didn't want guilt or compassion from him right now; she only wanted his love.
He seemed to hesitate. "Are you all right? I thought you might…"
"I'll come back to the cabin if you don't try to talk to me," she interrupted sharply. "Just keep away from me." Don't, she prayed silently. Take me in your arms and tell me it was all a mistake, that you wouldn't hurt my brother, that you wouldn't hurt me. I love you, Ben. Don't leave me like all the others did.
"All right," he agreed slowly, deaf to her unspoken pleas. "I'll follow you in."
And in complete silence they walked the full mile down the deserted beach back to the dimly lit cottage, Ben right behind her every step of the way. When she got to her bedroom door, he stopped, and she turned to look up at him, wishing she didn't have to, unable to help herself.
In the light of the cottage she could see his face now. Hours later there was still a mark from where she had slapped him, and the hazel eyes that looked down at her no longer looked wary, or mocking, or even guilty. They looked full of a tender longing that could only be called love.
It was the last straw. "Liar," she spat, turning away from him. A moment later she was spun back around, pushed up against her closed bedroom door. His hips ground up against hers, and she could feel him hard against her, wanting her. In self-disgust she accepted the heated surge in her own veins that answered him, and when his hands imprisoned the sides of her head, holding her still for the bitter strength of his kiss, she was powerless to stop her response.
Keep your hands at your side, she told herself through the haze of passion that swept over her. That way you won't be responding. But even as she did so her hips pressed back against his, her nipples hardened through the thin cotton that caressed his chest, and her mouth opened beneath his, allowing—no demanding—his entrance, and his tongue swept past the meager barrier of her small white teeth in a savage kiss of punishment and possession. It was that thrusting, demanding possession that she responded to, her arms betraying her by sliding up around his neck, her tongue catching his in a silent duel of rage and love. She was his, he was hers, and nothing would change that.
Suddenly he thrust her away, and she fell back against the door, staring up at him out of wide, shocked eyes. His own hazel ones were glittering strangely with passion and anger, and a shudder shook his tense body.
"Don't push me any further, Rachel," he said hoarsely. "Go to bed."
She felt lost, adrift. "But…"
"Don't even think it," he said roughly. "You can't seduce me into forgetting about your brother, so don't even try. I'm not going to give you any more cause to hate me than you already have."
"But I didn't…" She hadn't even thought of such a thing, but now that she did, it was a damned good idea. She craved his touch like a strong drug, and she might just possibly sway him…
"Forget it," he said. "Tomorrow I'll drive you anywhere you want me to. Go to bed, Rachel. Now." It was an order, clear and simple, one she had no choice but to obey.
He was right, she thought, disappearing into her bedroom and slamming the door behind her. She had reason enough to despise him. If she gave in to the unbearable longings that were sweeping her body and slept with him, knowing what he had planned for her brother, that hatred could very well take over her life and destroy her.
Except she knew perfectly well that she could never hate Ben O'Hanlon. She would have to try very hard during the next few months to summon forth the animosity required to get over the last week. Somehow she knew she was doomed to failure. Rachel didn't hate easily, and she didn't love easily. Ben O'Hanlon was fated to receive an uneasy mixture of both from her, probably for the rest of her life. It wasn't the most comforting thought to try to fall asleep on.
« ^ »
When Rachel finally struggled out of the mists of sleep she forgot, for one blissful moment, where she was. Instinctively she reached out, subconsciously searching for the warm male body she'd slept with only the night before. Her hand encountered the edge of the narrow bed, and with it came reality and memory, flooding back in all their harsh ugliness.
It amazed her that she had slept at all, but she had, almost the moment her head had hit the pillow, sleeping the sleep of total exhaustion, both physical and emotional. She could be grateful to a less than generous fate for that much—she had the feeling she'd need all the physical reserves she could call on to get through the day.
Waiting for her at the end of it would be her large, untidy apartment in Berkeley and her job catering to the lost and hopeless of society. She'd fit in well, once she got back on her feet enough to join the walking wounded. What in heaven's name had made her choose social work when she went to graduate school? She must have known she'd need it herself some time.
She still hadn't gotten around to buying a decent bathrobe. Wrapping the sheet around her like a toga, she dashed into the deserted bathroom. With any luck at all she wouldn't have to face Ben until he drove her to the airport. She wondered what he'd tell Uncle Harris. The elder statesman of the Chandler clan could have no idea what Ben had in mind for the young heir; she could imagine his reaction when he found out who Ben really was. All the Chandlers had always avoided the press assiduously. Harris Chandler would very likely be drummed out of the clan for harboring a snake in his bosom.
The swift shower didn't help at all. Her large brown eyes were haunted as she stood in front of the mirror braiding her chestnut hair in one thick braid, and there were circles under them. She would return from her Hawaiian vacation looking even more drained than when she had left, albeit a great deal more tanned. So much for a tropical paradise. Next y
ear she'd go to Kansas.
It was a quarter past nine by the time she dressed in the white linen suit she'd arrived in, slid her feet into the high-heeled sandals, and fastened tiny pearl studs in her small ears. Her suitcase, stuffed to the brim, stood by the door; her purse was crammed full of tissues. Last night had taught her a lesson—she had little doubt she was going to cry from Kauai to Oahu to San Francisco, and she intended to be prepared. Maybe that preparation would render her dry-eyed and stoic. Somehow she didn't quite believe it.
She wasn't going to succumb to temptation and try one last cup of his wretched coffee. It was half past nine—more than time to leave for the airport. Taking a deep breath, she grasped the porcelain doorknob with one shaking hand. If she could just carry off the next hour with some small trace of aplomb…
Sometime during the night Ben had put back the hinges on his door. She hadn't even heard it, but it remained firmly shut to her inquiring eyes. He was awake, she was absolutely sure of it. After a moment's hesitation she rapped firmly on the door. The only answer was a muffled grunt.
"I'll need to leave for the airport soon," she called out, sounding as businesslike as she could manage. Something akin to a growl answered her, and she nodded, satisfied. She would wait on the porch until he appeared, savoring the last few moments of the dream she'd lost in her tropical paradise.
It was still and quiet out there, with the early morning sun blazing off the gently rolling waves. The palm trees that edged the beach swayed in the gentle trade winds, and the salt smell mixed with the flowering bush by the side of the house. Rachel sat there, stony-faced in her misery, drinking in the sights and sounds and smells around her. Damn him, couldn't he hurry? A few more minutes of this and she'd throw herself at his feet.
The door opened beside her, and she looked up expectantly, then blinked. He was dressed in his bathing trunks and nothing more, and the sight of that tanned, tough hide of his nearly upset what little amount of equilibrium she had left to her.
"You're driving me to the airport like that?"
He shook his head. "I'm not driving you anywhere. I'm going for a swim."
"But you promised!" Rachel wailed.
"I changed my mind." He was watching her, his face still impassive.
She looked up at him in complete bewilderment. "Why?"
"Because I don't want you to leave me," he replied quite simply, and walked past her, down the steps, and into the sea.
She stared after him, openmouthed in astonishment. And then belatedly she reacted, jumping to her feet. "Wait a minute," she shrieked after him, but he was already knee-deep in water and making no effort to turn around. "Wait just a damn minute, Ben O'Hanlon."
He continued his forward stride, his muscular legs slicing through the surf, and she scrambled down the stairs after him. "You come back here," she yelled. "You can't say something like that and just walk away from me." But apparently he could. His back was broad and imposing, and a moment later he dove into the water, his body skimming through a wave with perfect grace.
"No!" she shrieked, and ran into the water after him. She was knee-deep before she kicked off the sandals, and still she plowed onward, the sea water soaking into her elegant linen suit. The skirt was too narrow to swim in, even with its thigh-high split, and the water was colder than she expected. He was swimming away from her as rapidly as he could, and determinedly she plowed onward, using her arms to push through the water. A cold wave slapped her in the face, and she choked for a moment before opening her mouth to call him again.
"Damn you, Ben, come back here!" she shrieked. "I'll follow you to China if I have to. You can't get away with this. You…" A stronger wave slapped her in the chest, toppling her over, and she went under, her mouth still open in outrage.
When she struggled to the surface she had swallowed what seemed like several quarts of salt water, and she was thrashing about in an impotent fury when two strong arms wrapped around her, pulling her up out of the water. Ben's hazel eyes blazed down into hers.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he demanded, holding on to her with needless force, his fingers biting into the slender arms now covered with wet linen.
She felt forlorn, bedraggled, and suddenly very uncertain. "I don't want to leave you either," she said in a very small, meek voice.
The look of dawning delight in those wary hazel eyes was worth everything: the shattered pride, the wrecked suit, even her prodigal brother. And then he kissed her, his mouth cold and wet and salty and absolutely delicious. She couldn't get enough of the cool, clean taste of him, and a shiver of pure delight ran through her as her tongue eagerly explored the magical cavern of his mouth.
He misinterpreted that shiver, and his grip on her tightened for a moment before he swung her up in his arms, striding with her out of the heavy surf toward the cottage. "You're out of your mind, do you know that?" he said roughly. "Chasing after me with this ridiculous suit on. You could have drowned, do you know that?" All during this tirade he was holding her close against his chest, and she could hear the slow heated beats of his heart.
"No, I couldn't have," she murmured, resting her head against his cool, damp chest. "You would have saved me."
He looked down at her for a moment before climbing the porch steps, making no effort to put her down. "You can't always count on that," he said grimly.
"I know." Her voice was very gentle.
He didn't release her until they reached his bedroom. Kicking the door shut behind them, he slowly lowered her feet to the floor, his mouth reaching for hers again, with light, hungry little kisses as his hands went to the near impossible task of stripping the sodden linen from her chilled body. Rachel was shaking too much to help him, shaking from the cool dampness of her clothes and from something far more elemental. She tried to deepen the kisses, but he proved frustratingly elusive, darting away before her tongue could reach his, as the linen jacket landed on the floor, followed by the ruined silk blouse.
Ben hesitated for a moment when he got to the thin wisp of a bra, and his hands cupped her chilled breasts, warming them, his thumbs gently brushing the softly rounded undersides. She moaned softly, and his mouth followed, his breath heated against the cold flesh. The bra fell apart at his deft touch, and then his lips closed over one turgid peak, his tongue gently circling, touching, tasting her cool, wet skin and turning it to fire and ice. She was an inferno by the time he got to the other one; all the while his deft hands were loosening her waistband and sliding the narrow, wet skirt down over her hips. It landed in a pool at their bare feet, and she was standing there, clad only in the peach silk panties she'd worn when he'd walked in on her days ago.
His clever, sensitive hands trailed down the taut skin of her stomach to rest lightly on the elastic waistband of the bikini panties. "I've fantasized about these for days now," he murmured in a low, sexy drawl. And dropping to his knees in front of her, he pressed his mouth against the thin silk, his hands cupping her round buttocks.
She could feel the damp, moist heat of his breath through the thin, wispy cloth, and an answering warmth and moistness flowed from her. Her knees felt weak, and she reached out to steady herself, holding on to his tanned shoulders as he knelt in front of her. Her fingers were digging into his smooth flesh, clutching him helplessly as his mouth moved slowly, exploringly over the silk-covered mound. And then she was back in his arms again as he lowered her to the bed just behind them, his body covering hers with leisurely grace.
He was so strong, so hard against her. Reaching down between them, she ran a wondering hand over him, exulting in the power of his arousal. With measured deliberation she traced his hard contours, exploring the length and breadth of him, until he groaned against her ear, rolling onto his back. Taking her hand in his, he slid it just inside the waistband of his swimming trunks. It was all the encouragement she needed. Her hand moved lower, and her mouth followed, showering small, tasting kisses on him as she slid the trunks off his narrow hips. She kissed his t
highs, his knees, his calves, his feet, reveling in the salt-sea taste of him, the roughness of the hair beneath her tongue, the warmth of his sun-heated flesh. And then he was reaching down, pulling her up and over him, enfolding her against the tough, solid warmth of him, holding her in a grip so tight it was painful as one hand caught her neck and held her still for his hungry mouth.
Rachel closed her eyes beneath the slow, sensuous onslaught, her heart, her breasts, her body clamoring for him. His hand released her head to trail downward to her hips, slipping the peach silk panties off with a practiced ease that should have disturbed her. And then his hands slipped between her legs to find the heated core of her. With a touch both deft and sure, he brought her the final steps toward readiness.
She reached out for him then, her touch less practiced but no less stimulating. Liquid silk was flowing from him, proclaiming his readiness, and the fierce desire in Rachel's loins flamed out of control. She arched against him, a low, inarticulate cry in the back of her throat. And then she was on her back and he was over her, around her, in her, filling that aching emptiness that had longed for him with a slow, sure, driving thrust that sent her suddenly rigid, her body clenching around his as pure sensation took over. He held her, not moving, as the spasms rocked her body, cradling her tightly until they began to die away.
And then he did move, beginning the sweet, slow rhythm of love, the ebb and flow as timeless as the ocean outside them on the bright sunny morning. Rachel was lost, floating, adrift with the universe, tied forever with the ocean and the land and the man in her arms, who was bringing her back to the edge of fulfillment and taking her beyond, time and time and time again. Until she was weeping against his sweat-slick shoulder, clinging to him helplessly. "Don't leave me," she whispered brokenly against the damp skin. "Come with me."
And when the next wave hit her, she felt his body tense in her arms, heard his muffled cry, and they were there together, lost and found, flung out into the gently rocking ocean of eternity. She was content to cling to him through the storm, safe in his arms at last, reveling in the feel of his strong frame as it shuddered against hers. She felt as old and wise and powerful as the earth, as warm and fertile and serene. For a brief moment in time they were the only two people in the world. Soon enough reality would intrude, hearts would be broken, trusts betrayed. And lies. Without doubt, more lies. But right now it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the man in her arms, his breathing hoarse and ragged, his damp forehead cradled against her neck. Clinging to him fiercely, she pressed her lips against his damp, blond hair and smiled.