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"Since he returned," the priest replied. "I gather the cottage and all the land surrounding it belongs to your family, at least indirectly. Someone told me Emmett lived there at the end of the sixties, and then disappeared. No one ever knew where, and at that time it seemed better not to ask questions." Father Frank's obvious concern filled his voice.
Rachel leaned back against the seat of the taxi, oblivious to the spring sticking into her damp back. "I remember hearing about the place. We had offers to sell it—incredible offers—but Ariel never would. She thought he might come back to it, and he did." The soft note of triumph blended with the barely controlled fear, a fear Father Frank recognized.
"Don't worry, Rachel. Emmett won't hurt you," he said softly. "I've heard that he's a good man, a fair man. You may come as a surprise to him, but I'm sure once the initial shock is over he'll welcome you. And you know if there's any problem, if you need a place to stay, someone to talk to, I'm always available."
Rachel opened her eyes, smiling across at him in gratitude. "You're very kind. But you're right—there's not going to be any problem. He'll be surprised at first, but Emmett and I were always best friends. I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone in my life, and he knows I wouldn't hurt him. It's only natural that I'm a little…nervous. After all, it's been fifteen years, and I was so terribly afraid he was dead."
Father Frank patted her hand, and the warmth of his touch was comforting. "Well, apparently he's not dead, he's very much alive." With a sudden sinking feeling Rachel realized that the taxi had stopped. "And he's not more than a few hundred yards down that path. I'll be more than happy to come with you if you prefer."
Resolutely Rachel shook her head. "No, thank you, Father. I've planned this for years; I'm not going to let an attack of cold feet stop me now. I appreciate all you've done for me." Her icy cold hand reached for the door handle, opening it before she could have second thoughts.
"Wouldn't you like some help with the luggage?" Father Frank stack his balding head out the taxi window. "I'm sure the driver wouldn't mind."
Rachel shook her head, hefting the small canvas suitcase in one hand, her purse and tote bag in the other. "I'm fine. I'll call, Father, when I get the chance. Don't worry." She managed a creditable laugh at his troubled expression. "I'm going to be fine."
His smile seemed almost an effort. "I'm sure you are, Rachel. Only be sure to come to see me if there's a problem."
She stood there in the sandy soil, watching as the taxi backed around and took off down the rutted road. And then she was alone, surrounded by the exotic sounds of nature, the swish of the palm trees, the not-too-distant rush of the surf, the calls of a dozen strange and beautiful birds. Her white suit was plastered to her lean body, the linen blend that was guaranteed never to wrinkle in a crumpled mess. She could feel her usually sedate hair escaping its thick braid and curling with the moisture, and the first few steps she took along the sandy path almost buckled her ankles beneath her.
"Damn," she muttered under her breath, dropping the suitcase and bags to massage one ankle. She stripped off her thin, high-heeled sandals and added them to her burdens before starting off down the path once more. All her fantasies were crumbling around her: there'd be no beautiful reunion, with her cool and elegant, a sister any man would be proud of. Instead an overheated waif would arrive on his doorstep, and she wouldn't blame him if he viewed her with less than complete enthusiasm. Well, if he refused to let her stay, she could always find Uncle Harris's hotel. Or Father Frank would provide something. It was comforting to know there was someone she could turn to if this was a complete fiasco. God, what was he going to look like after all these years?
A thousand questions rushed through her mind, flitting in and out like the birds through the towering palms above her. And then suddenly the clearing was upon her, and she stopped dead, her numb fingers still clutching her possessions like a shopping-bag lady.
It was a small cottage, much smaller and more tumbled down than Rachel had imagined. The porch showed signs of recent renovations, the new lumber white-yellow next to the weathered gray boards. The small porch ran the length of the front of the house, holding a few comfortable-looking chairs, a hammock, and three empty beer bottles. If there had ever been a drop of paint on the rough siding it was long gone, and the roof looked in need of patching. But the windows looking into the house were spotless, reflecting the bright sunlight like unseeing eyes, and the shrubbery around the house was trimmed and neat.
"Lady, what the hell are you doing here?" The voice came from a little way behind her, and she whirled around, dropping her bags into the sand, to stand staring, mouth agape.
He took a step toward her, glaring, that offensive tone still rich in his voice. "I said, what are you doing here? This is private property; off limits to tourists. Understand? Comprende? Capisce?" She continued to stare at him blankly, and he shook his head in disgust. "Just my luck, to have a dimwit show up on my doorstep. Listen, lady, leave. Get out, vamoose, scram!"
Rachel just continued to stare at him, transfixed. He was both exactly what she had expected and something far different. He still had blond hair, but it no longer hung in lank curls halfway to his waist. It was cut short, too short, and shaggy, with streaks of gray lightening it. The hazel eyes that stared at her were Emmett's color, but the look of trust and gentle good humor was gone, replaced with a mocking hostility that grieved her. He was taller than she remembered, closer to six feet, and his shoulders had filled out. His legs were long and tanned beneath the cutoff jeans, and the chest exposed by the tattered shirt was muscled and covered with a thin mat of sandy-colored hair.
But it was his face that mesmerized her. Battered, lined, with a blunt nose that had been broken at least once since she'd last seen him, and a cynical, world-weary mouth, he was still far more attractive than she had ever remembered. And more dangerous. Those hazel eyes that looked as if they had seen too much looked straight through her, and his cynical mouth curved in disgust.
"Listen, lady, am I going to have to remove you forcibly? Believe me, I wouldn't have any qualms about it. So, if you don't want a few bruises on that pretty white skin, I suggest you hightail it out of here."
That threat, absurd though it was, managed to galvanize her. Not that he wasn't capable of violence—it only took one good look at him to recognize him as a man capable of whatever was needed to get the job done. But he also wasn't the sort to beat up on a lone woman lost on the beach. She found herself smiling, with sudden relief and joy. This was her Emmett.
The smile didn't escape him. "Lady, are you out of your mind? I'm threatening you and you just stand there grinning like an idiot. If you aren't going to go away, then why don't you tell me who the hell you are and what you want?"
Rachel's smile moved from her mouth to her entire face, filling it with a light that made Emmett draw a sudden, startled breath. "I'm Rachel, Emmett. Your sister." And she ran into his arms.
« ^ »
Emmett had taken one look at the slim, rumpled, undeniably feminine figure in white who stood staring at his cottage and muttered a pungent curse under his breath. This was the last thing he needed—another idiot tourist lost in his backyard. He had pushed himself too hard and too long today. Harris's unexpected visit had banished any last trace of weariness, filling him with a nervous energy that made it impossible for him to spend the afternoon lying in a hammock and drinking beer as he had planned to do. He had jumped up the moment Harris had left, pushing his protesting body further still, forcing the cramps in his legs to loosen up, making another mile down the beach and back in the still, humid air. At that moment there was nothing he wanted more than to stagger to the refrigerator, grab another beer and collapse into the hammock. He wasn't in the mood for another unwanted visitor.
And then she had turned around at the sound of his voice, and for a very brief moment any claim to rational intelligence left him. Those huge brown eyes staring up at him in
shock in her pale, sweat-streaked face, the rumpled white suit that almost disguised the clean, strong, feminine lines of her body, the astonished mouth that looked as if it ought to be kissed, and often. Emmett stared back, taking a moment to marshal his defenses.
"I'm Rachel," she had said. "I'm your sister." And the feel of her hot, strong body in his arms, the scent of jasmine on her slender white neck, the tremors that shook her as she wept against his shoulder made his arms tighten instinctively around her, holding her closer. This was one thing he hadn't anticipated, and a small groan escaped him.
Rachel was laughing and crying in his arms, her fingers clutching his shoulders in disbelief. Now that she could see him, touch him, hold him, it was like coming home. It hadn't taken long for her to recognize the haven he represented, and she didn't even stop to wonder if he was glad to see her. He felt strong and alive beneath her clutching fingers, and he smelled of hot sun, sweat, and beer. She felt his arms tighten around her, felt rather than heard the small groan, and in sudden self-consciousness she moved away, backed out of his arms, with a light, nervous laugh. Looking up into the face she had waited so long to see again, she couldn't make out a thing from his expression. The hazel eyes looking down at her were unfathomable, the cynical mouth was a thin, straight line, and his whole body radiated extreme wariness.
Rachel ran a nervous hand through her rapidly escaping hair. "I guess I surprised you."
He continued to stare at her. "You could say so."
"But you and Uncle Harris couldn't think I'd just stay in northern California? Not when you finally showed up? I couldn't, Emmett, I just couldn't." His stillness as he watched her added to her nervousness, and she rubbed her fingers against her damp palms. This wasn't going the way she'd so often imagined it; she was somehow making a mess of it, and she didn't know how to remedy the situation.
"I thought you were too terrified of airplanes to ever fly?" he drawled, and Rachel flushed.
"I am," she admitted. "But I had to do it. It's been fifteen years, Emmett. I haven't seen you since I was twelve years old; I barely remember you."
The wary look around his eyes dwindled somewhat. "If you've waited fifteen years, don't you think you could have waited a few weeks longer?" He watched that hopeful expression on Rachel's face begin to crumple.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. "Don't you want me here?"
Once a sucker, always a sucker, he told himself in disgust. "It's not that. You just came as a surprise. Where are you staying?"
She looked up at him, her crushed expression warring with the faint stirrings of hope in her deep brown eyes. "Here?" she said softly.
This time Emmett didn't hide his reaction. "Damn!" The expletive was muttered under his breath, and Rachel flinched.
"I don't have to stay here," she said hurriedly. "I could always find someplace else. Perhaps with Uncle Harris, or the local priest said he could help me. I wouldn't want to inconvenience you."
"You could go back to the mainland." He tried to steel himself against the barely hidden pleading in her face.
She shook her head stubbornly, and for the first time he saw a trace of the strength of will that had driven her family crazy on more than one occasion. "I'm staying here. I have no intention of getting on another airplane until I recover from my last trip."
A curious resignation filled him. "Why?"
"Because I want to be with you. I won't bother you, I promise, Emmett. But I've missed you so much, and I need you." Her voice shook an infinitesimal amount, and with sudden self-consciousness she cleared her throat. "You're the only family I have left."
"What about our thousand and one aunts and uncles and cousins?" He was stalling, and he knew it.
"You don't remember very well if you think there's much family feeling in them. You and I were always outsiders. Please, Emmett."
He stared down at her for a long, meditative moment. "I must be out of my mind," he muttered, reaching down for her suitcase. He hefted it easily, shooting her a curious glance. "Is this all you've got? It's not very heavy. How long were you planning to stay?"
"Until you're ready to come home." She was still unsure of him. "I figured I wouldn't need much—just some bathing suits and shorts and stuff."
"Great," Emmett growled, picturing that strong, lithe body roaming around the tiny cottage in nothing more than a skimpy bathing suit. Someone up there took sadistic pleasure in trying his endurance. Melea had only begun to take the edge off a six-month hunger; it was just his luck that this beautiful, shyly sexy creature would turn out to be Emmett Chandler's sister.
"Come on, kid." With a jerk of his head he signaled for her to follow him as he made his way back to the cottage. She scrambled after him, her bare feet silent in the sand. He stopped on the wide porch, dropping the suitcase unceremoniously and turning to look down at her. "I suppose we'd better try and let Uncle Harris know you're here. We'll have to drive over there; I don't have a telephone." He hesitated a moment. "We may as well wait till after dinner. Are you hungry?"
Rachel considered it for a moment. On the one hand, her stomach was in a complete knot from nerves and apprehension, on the other, she wanted to delay as long as possible his ejecting her. "How is Uncle Harris?" she queried, stalling for time. Maybe she could pretend to sprain her ankle, making it impossible for her to go to the hotel tonight. It had been such a long time… She didn't want to lose him so quickly.
As swiftly as the thought entered her mind she banished it. She had never been a devious person, and that would have been a rotten way to renew her relationship with her long-lost brother. "I'm more thirsty than hungry," she said truthfully, her eyes still watching him as if they couldn't get enough.
There was a strained silence between the two of them, only the sound of the surf breaking on the sand filling the humid air. "I imagine you'd like to wash up," he said finally. "Your room is on the right. We'll have to share the bathroom—this isn't the Hilton, you know." He grabbed her suitcase and disappeared into the cottage, almost as if he was afraid he'd change his mind.
Rachel stared after him for a moment, disbelief and joy filling her. And then she rushed after him.
For a moment the darkness of the room was blinding after the bright sunlight. He was standing in a doorway, staring at her. Without a moment's hesitation she ran to him, flinging her arms around him.
"Thank you, Emmett," she babbled happily. "I promise, I won't get in the way, and I'll cook for you, and clean for you, and won't ask any questions that you don't want to answer."
He suffered her embrace for a long moment. She felt him withdraw a moment before his strong hands came up and unclasped her arms from around his neck. He put her away from him, firmly but very carefully. "I don't need you to cook or clean for me, Rachel," he said gently. "I can take care of myself—I have been for years. And you can ask all the questions you want; if I don't want to answer, I won't. And one more thing…"
"Anything," she said rashly, smiling up at him starry-eyed with happiness.
"You've come as quite a surprise to me. I think it would be a good idea if you didn't make a habit of hugging me all the time—at least not until I'm used to you. It's going to take a little while to realize that my baby sister has grown up into a lovely young woman." His voice was surprisingly gentle, but Rachel flushed anyway.
"Of course, Emmett." She met his wary gaze straight on, smiling. "I'll do anything you want me to."
His cynical mouth curved in a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "Sure, kid. In the meantime why don't you clean up, and I'll meet you on the front porch in a few minutes with a beer. That is, if you haven't developed your uncle's patrician disdain for beer. 'Cause that's all that's here and cold."
"Beer would be great." She watched his retreating back for a moment, her eyes filled with tenderness. He was limping slightly, and she almost called out to him with sudden concern. At the last moment she stopped herself. There would be time enough for all her questions, she realized, turning into her roo
m and shutting the door behind her.
The room was small and spotlessly neat. The narrow bed was covered with a rough cotton bedspread and the rag-rug on the unfinished pine floor was a bright splash of color. The small sturdy dresser would more than hold the little amount of clothing she had brought with her. There was only enough room for a small rocker besides the bed and dresser, and moving around would be more than a little cramped. No curtains were on the window to keep out the lush greenery surrounding the house; there was no closet to hang her one dress. The only other door led to the bathroom she'd be sharing with her brother.
Her brother, she echoed to herself, smiling dreamily. She was finally here with her brother, and she had him all to herself. As she moved to unpack the suitcase that Emmett had dumped on the bed, she found herself humming softly and happily under her breath. She felt happier than she ever had in her entire life, she realized. Like a girl on her first date, like a bride on her honeymoon, like a woman who's just discovered life.
She didn't stop to recognize the danger of those comparisons. Still humming, she headed for the bathroom, her bare feet silent on the rough wood floor.
Emmett stood in the kitchen, two open beers in his hand, listening to the sound of her moving about her room, the quiet sound of her humming. Moving toward the porch, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, recognized the look of expectation on his own battle-worn face. He stopped for a moment, staring into his reflection. "You're a damn fool, you know," he said softly. The man in the mirror nodded his agreement, and then he headed out onto the porch.
« ^ »
Emmett might announce he could cook, but in at least that one area he was less than truthful. Rachel dutifully took another forkful of the dried-out hamburger, still doing her best to avoid the soupy instant mashed potatoes and the canned peas that had been cooked almost beyond recognition. Even the beer that accompanied the meal was warm. Emmett had eaten quickly, with the no-nonsense attitude of one performing an unpleasant duty, and after one taste Rachel could understand why. He now sat, tipped back against the wall, drinking his third beer and watching her out of hooded, unfathomable eyes.