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She had spent as long as she had dared on her appearance that night. The cool water she had splashed on her flushed face would have to suffice—she didn't want to risk the time to take the shower that she longed for. Brushing out her silky mane of hair, she considered leaving it hanging around her shoulders, then discarded the idea. The air was still hot and heavy around them; if Emmett saw her with a thick curtain of hair down her back, he'd think his sister was playing with not quite a full deck. Resignedly she re-braided it in one thick plait, pulling out a few softening wisps to frame her high forehead. A touch of mascara and clear lip gloss and she would have to do, she thought critically, surveying her reflection in the small, slowly unsilvering mirror that hung over the bathroom sink.
What had Emmett called her? A lovely young woman? He must have been possessed of more brotherly feeling than he gave himself credit for—no one in his right mind could have called her lovely, she thought critically. Her eyes were brown, her hair was brown, her figure neat but undistinguished, her features even and boring, boring, boring. No high, luscious cheekbones—they were right there in her face where most people's cheekbones were. Only her mouth could claim distinction, being slightly too large for her face. Not the best choice for a distinctive feature: in her early twenties she would have given anything for an aristocratic, aquiline nose with a genteel little hook in it. Anything to give her face the character she thought it lacked.
Rachel hesitated for a moment over what to wear. She had only brought one dress—a bright yellow sun dress with thin spaghetti straps—but the occasion deserved her best. After all, her first dinner with her brother after fifteen years should be something to celebrate.
She had practically raced out of the bedroom, still in bare feet, terrified that he might have changed his mind, might have decided to send her packing to Uncle Harris's after all. But he hadn't said a word, handing her a Heineken with an unreadable expression on his face.
Rachel broke off another piece of overdone hamburger, bringing it to her mouth gamely. Emmett obviously hadn't considered the occasion worthy of celebration: he was still wearing the same disreputable clothes, although he had shoved his feet into a ratty-looking pair of sneakers and buttoned a few buttons on his worn khaki shirt. Several days' growth of beard still adorned his chin, and he made no attempt at dinner conversation. He just sat and watched her, drinking his beer.
He was watching her now with hooded eyes and what looked suspiciously like the beginning of a smile hovering about his mouth. "You can stop now," he said suddenly, and the sound of his voice in the stillness startled her into dropping her fork with a noisy clatter. "You don't have to eat any more to prove you're a good sister."
"It's very good," she lied, washing down the last dried-out piece that still stuck in her throat. "It's just that I'm not very hungry after all the excitement."
"It's edible, but that's about all," he stated flatly. "Are you any good as a cook?"
"Pretty good." Sudden hope flared in her. "I like to cook, and if you do something you like, it's easy to be good at it. I'm not a terribly efficient housekeeper, though," she added doubtfully, aware that this was a mild understatement. If she didn't allow herself the sinful extravagance of having someone come in and clean her cluttered apartment once a week, she'd live in complete chaos. "I could try, though."
"That won't be necessary. You can take care of the cooking; I'll do the cleaning. Sounds like a fair division of labor to me," he drawled.
She held her breath. "Does that mean you want me to stay?"
He shrugged, his eyes still watching her flushed, eager face. "It's up to you. I imagine you'll want to get back before too long."
"Not without you. I'll stay until you're ready to come back with me," she said firmly.
"Won't you miss your friends, your life back there? I don't suppose you have a job you have to get back to, but I expect you'll tire of paradise long before I do."
"I took a leave of absence from my job," she replied diffidently. "You're all I care about, Emmett. All I have. Wherever you are is paradise to me."
He pushed away from the table with a sudden, abrupt motion, taking his beer and moving across the room. He was still limping somewhat, and Rachel stole a covert glance at his tanned, muscled legs in the cutoffs, searching for a scar, some sign of what caused the limp. Nothing was visible, just tanned, strong flesh, and she quickly raised her eyes upward to his back.
"Are you always this open, Rachel?" he said suddenly from his position by the window, his back still toward her. "Aren't you afraid you might get hurt?"
"Not by you, Emmett." She rose and followed him. She wanted to reach out and touch him, to put her hand on his arm, to put her arms around him and rest her head on his shoulder the way she used to years ago. But she stopped a foot away, afraid to crowd him. "You wouldn't ever hurt me, not if you could help it."
He cast a quick glance down at her. "You think just because I'm your brother, you're immune?"
"Not entirely. I'm a fairly good judge of character." The sudden memory of Ralph Fowler entered her mind, and she amended her statement. "At least, I usually am. And I know you wouldn't want to hurt me—that's not the kind of person you are." She allowed herself to take one step closer to him, still lost in the glorious realization that this was really her brother after so many years. "I don't understand what you're so worried about, Emmett. All I want to do is be with you and love you. It's not really very complicated."
He turned back, staring sightlessly out into the darkening shadows. "Did you ever consider that I might not be worth loving?"
A feeling of unbearable sadness filled her, and then she reached out a hand, tentatively placing it on his arm. He didn't flinch, didn't move, didn't look at her in the stillness.
"Emmett, I don't…"
"Yoo-hoo, dear boy, are you home?" Harris Chandler's delicately slurred tones echoed through the night. "I made an absolute killing at bridge, and I've come to celebrate. I've even brought you beer, and something more civilized for myself." He clattered up the steps, flinging open the screen door with a self-satisfied expression on his florid face. "There you are, my boy. Why didn't you answer… ?" His voice trailed off as he took in their motionless figures, and his face fell in an expression of ludicrous dismay.
"Good god, is that you, Rachel?" he gasped. "How in the world did you get here?"
"I flew," she said simply, reluctantly moving away from Emmett to plant a dutiful kiss on her uncle's flushed cheek. "How are you, Uncle?"
"Surprised," he said, sinking into the nearest chair. He looked more stricken than surprised, but Rachel was still concentrating on the silent Emmett and didn't notice.
The man beside her moved then, reaching forward to pluck the six-pack of beer and the whiskey bottle from Harris's limp hands. "I'll get you a drink, Harris," he said blandly. "Do you want something 'more civilized,' Rachel?"
"Beer would be fine," she replied, turning her attention to her uncle. "Are you feeling all right, Uncle Harris? You don't look well."
"I'm fine," he said with a trace of uncharacteristic irritation. "It's just this damned heat." He took a spotless white handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his brow. "What I want to know is what you're doing here, after it was agreed that the family would stay away for a while? Give Emmett a chance to get accustomed to things."
"You may have agreed; I never did. Emmett's my brother, Uncle Harris, my closest relative. I certainly wasn't about to sit around waiting for you to take your own sweet time in coming home." Her voice was calm and reasonable but Harris was having none of it.
"Do you have any idea how inconvenient this is? I sincerely doubt there'll be any space at my hotel—things are pretty well booked up right now. Well, not to worry. We'll find you a bed for the night, and then you can head back to the mainland tomorrow with your mind at ease."
"I'm not going back," she said with quiet firmness. "I'm staying right here until Emmett's ready to come back."
e absurd, my child. Did you ever stop to realize it wasn't me who said the family should keep away? Emmett's the one who needs peace and quiet, time and solitude, to adjust to civilization once more. You'll just be in his way, dear heart, no matter how much you want to help. Even across the island at my hotel would be too close."
"I'm not going to stay in the hotel, Uncle. I'm staying here. With my brother."
"Nonsense, child. He doesn't want you here—he can't have you here."
Emmett reappeared, a dark amber drink in one hand and two Heinekens in the other.
"Emmett, tell this girl she's out of her mind. You can't have her here." Harris took the drink with desperate hands, downing half of it in one gulp.
Emmett's mouth curved in a cynical smile that Rachel was rapidly learning was characteristic of him. "I told her she could stay as long as she wanted," he said, handing her the cold beer.
"Are you out of your mind!" Harris exploded, and Rachel stared at him, amazed at his reaction.
"Easy, Uncle," Emmett said gently. "You're making problems where none exist. My sister has come to visit, and it will give me a chance to catch up on family gossip and to get to know her all over again. Sort of a dry run before we head back to California."
Harris drained his drink, holding it out for a refill with a shaking hand. "I think you're both crazy. At least let me see if there's a room for her at the hotel. This place is too small for the two of you."
Emmett had the foresight to bring Harris's bottle with him, and he tipped him a generous amount. "She stays here." His voice was flat, brooking no opposition, and Rachel found herself staring at him in grateful amazement.
There was a long, stubborn silence between the two men, a clash of wills that Emmett was bound to win. "Very well, my boy," Harris said finally. "It is, after all, your life. But I do think it's a needless complication."
Emmett smiled faintly, stretching his tired body out in the corner of the battered sofa. "Rachel won't complicate matters, Harris. Will you, kid?"
She took the other corner of the couch, keeping as close to him as she dared. Tucking her bare feet up under her, she smiled. "I'll be no trouble at all," she promised, starting in on the beer. She wasn't used to drinking quite so much, and the day had been long and tiring. Not to mention she was suffering from jet lag. She leaned back, watching Emmett's battered profile with lazy affection. If only Uncle Harris would finish his drink and leave, she thought dreamily. She wanted to have her first night alone with Emmett, wanted to find out what he'd been doing for the last fifteen years. Something had kept her from asking questions so far—a fear that he'd throw her out if she became too inquisitive—but she was rapidly losing any reticence. She was also rapidly losing consciousness, she realized with a flash of humor. It had been a long day.
"You'll find your sister has grown up into quite a determined woman," she heard Harris grumble.
"I've already discovered it," Emmett's lazy voice responded, and Rachel smiled dreamily as she drifted further and further away. She was a very determined woman, especially where loved ones were concerned. And there was no one she loved more than Emmett; the more she saw of him the more she knew it. This was going to be a golden time, she thought, resting her head against the sofa and closing her tired eyes. When she looked back to pick the happiest times in her life, this would be one of them. If only it would last forever. If only Harris would go away and leave them alone. If only…
The quiet sound of their voices barely penetrated. "I think my little sister has fallen asleep," Emmett said with a trace of amusement.
"Are you absolutely out of your mind!" Harris hissed. "What the hell do you think you're doing? She can't stay here."
"She can and she is." The voice was so cold and icy that in her sleep Rachel didn't recognize it.
"We have to talk, Nephew." There was an odd emphasis on the last word, but Rachel was drifting deeper and deeper into sleep.
"Fine with me, Uncle. But I'll put my little sister to bed first."
"I'm sure you will." Harris's voice was heavy with sarcasm, but Rachel didn't notice. Strong arms were reaching under her, lifting her up against a hard chest and cradling her there. She snuggled up against him, blissfully secure. When she was little he used to carry her up to bed, and this was one more tie with the past. She only wished she could wake up long enough to enjoy it.
Her room was dark when he carried her into it. Laying her down carefully on the bed, he reached for the light cotton blanket to cover her. Rachel opened her eyes for a moment, smiling up at him in the moonlit room. "I guess you can't put me in my pajamas like you used to," she murmured sleepily.
An answering smile softened his face. "I guess I can't." He turned to go, but her voice stopped him.
"Would you kiss me good night, Emmett?"
He hesitated, but only for a moment. On silent feet he moved back to her bedside, leaned down, and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
"That's not right," she mumbled, feeling childish and cranky and self-indulgent. "The way you used to."
"The way I used to?" he echoed.
"Our special way. You used to kiss me on the forehead, the nose, and the lips. It was our special way," she insisted sleepily.
"I'd forgotten," he said softly, and the answer satisfied her. Leaning down again, he brushed his mouth gently against her brow, then the tip of her nose, and then feathered her lips in a gentle, brotherly kiss.
"Good night, kid," he said, straightening up. "Good night, brother mine. I'm glad I'm here." He hesitated for only a moment. "So am I, kid. So am I."
« ^ »
He had spent more comfortable nights in his time. There was something to be said for the confines of a five-by-eight cell: When another human's noise carried to your sleepless ears, you knew it was someone equally scruffy and unpleasant. You weren't tormented with the image of Rachel Chandler's long, clean limbs stretched out under that cotton bedspread; the feel of her soft lips didn't linger against your own. All you could think of was your own misery, and how soon you would get out of this hellhole.
He had gotten used to doing with only a few hours sleep, gotten used to waking with the sun. He was out on the porch at just past six, eyes bleary from lack of sleep, another day's growth added to his scruffy beard, a cup of wickedly strong coffee in his hand. He rubbed a lazy hand across his chin. Shaving might wake him up, but he was damned if he was going to bother. If Rachel Chandler didn't care for her brother with several days' growth of beard, that was her problem—he wasn't going to change his life to accommodate her patrician tastes.
Now, where did that chip on his shoulder come from? he wondered, tipping his chair back and squinting at the early morning haze. She hadn't done anything to rouse his ire; just arrived on his doorstep, pretty and innocent and sweet-smelling, with those big dark eyes that looked so trustingly up into his. Couple that with the fact that she was supposed to be his sister, and it was little wonder he was in a foul mood. Didn't she know she shouldn't go around trusting every man she meets, no matter who he says he is? That blind innocence and faith infuriated him, and for the hundredth time he told himself he was a damned fool for letting her set foot inside the cottage.
He'd have to get rid of her, of course. He'd realized that somewhere in the dark restless hours between midnight and dawn. The sooner the better, much as he hated to admit that Harris was right. There was no room in their complicated scheming for an ingénue, no room at all. He'd take her to Lihue Airport that very afternoon in his battered four-wheel drive, and then swing by and see if Melea could get off work early that night. He felt no qualms about using her: Melea made no bones about her interest in him. They had suited each other perfectly… His mind caught the past tense, and he swore out loud, softly, his voice quiet in the early morning stillness. He was old enough to know better, old enough not to fall for a pair of trusting brown eyes. Hadn't he learned anything in the last six months?
He could, of course, always revise
his plans. Rachel Chandler could be viewed as a gift from the gods, the means to an end that would be even more effective than he had originally planned. But he didn't think he could do it. Some last shred of decency still remained embedded in his tough old carcass, stubbornly clinging. He couldn't deliberately harm an innocent, no matter how much circumstances called for it. The fallout would be enough as it was. He'd take her to the airport, whether she liked it or not, and forget about her. With luck his plan would come to fruition long before he had to join the bosom of the Chandler family back in California.
In the meantime, though, there would be nothing wrong in making her one day on Kauai a pleasant one. They could drive along the coastal highway to the northwest end by the towering Na Pali cliffs, maybe even have a picnic on Lumahai Beach. Or he could head in the opposite direction, show her the Menehune Fishpond, reputedly built by Hawaiian leprechauns centuries ago. He had a feeling his unwanted houseguest would be enchanted. Even an old cynic like himself was tempted to believe in the little people. The last plane out was scheduled for late afternoon; if she didn't spend the entire day in bed, he could play the kindly big brother, show her the sights, and send her on her way with a charming show of reluctance. Would she be convinced? It depended on just how gullible she really was. He had the unpleasant feeling that apart from her obvious adoration for a prodigal older brother, she was more than a little astute. How much would her familial devotion blind her? He swore again, softly, rubbing his beard once more. He might as well shave; it was too hot to grow a beard here, so he'd have to do it sooner or later. Might as well be now.
Rachel opened her eyes hesitantly, focusing her gaze on the room with the slow-motion wariness of someone who had forgotten where she was. She was still in her sun dress, with the thin cotton blanket pulled across her bare shoulders. Hawaii, she remembered suddenly. And Emmett.