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"What the hell… ?" The door to the bathroom was flung open, letting out the steamy, scented air, framing the astonished figure of her brother. He stood there for a moment, the wariness gone from his eyes as he took in her slender, rounded figure clad only in the silky underwear. "Lord!" he swore loudly, slamming it shut again. "Can't you lock the damn door?" he shouted from the room beyond. Rachel stared blankly at the wall, too startled to even protest that there wasn't a lock. It would have done her no good: The sound of his heavy footsteps, followed by the roar of the Land Rover told her soon enough that he'd gone again.
With a sigh she turned back to the mirror and picked up her eye pencil with a shaking hand. She hadn't had room to pack a robe in the small suitcase she'd brought. Maybe she ought to go buy one tomorrow, and be sure to wear it at all times. Emmett certainly was getting prudish in his old age, though. They used to go skinny-dipping together when they were younger, and the underwear wasn't much more revealing than the bathing suits she'd worn the last few days. Well, there was nothing she could do but apologize when he returned, and promise to be more discreet. The dinner should go a long way toward placating him. She smiled back at her reflection, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.
Five hours later she was sitting alone on the porch, in Emmett's customary position, her long, bare legs stuck out in front of her, one of his horribly strong cigarettes in one hand, a glass of Harris's whiskey in the other. It was her fourth drink, straight, and she didn't much like it. Leaning back, she drew in on the harsh black cigarette, stifling the sudden urge to choke. As long as she stuck to Emmett's brand, it was highly unlikely that she'd get hooked again. So far she hadn't been able to finish one; the cottage was littered with barely smoked remains of a pack.
When would she ever learn? she demanded wearily of herself. She was a fool to have expectations, when nothing ever came of them but disappointment and disillusion. Emmett, despite the blood tie, couldn't care less about her, wanted her away from here. And after tonight she would go. She loved him enough to leave him alone, if that's what he really needed. And it seemed he did.
The last candle of the dinner table flickered and went out in the living room, and Rachel gazed idly into the room. Wax had dripped onto the whipped cream icing of the mocha cake, flower petals had fallen into the cioppino, and the chilled butter had melted and run all over the folded white sheet Rachel had used for a tablecloth. Well, Emmett had said he'd take care of the housekeeping—it would be up to him to clean up the mess of the meal he hadn't bothered to return for. Maybe the shock of seeing his sister in her underwear had been too much for his delicate sensibilities, Rachel thought with a wryness that barely masked her pain. Maybe during those interminable fifteen years he'd spent time in a monastery and forgotten that women's bodies existed.
And then she remembered the intent light in his eyes, the mocking curve of his mouth, and the way he moved, and she knew that he was a man who would always know far too much about women's bodies. The problem was simple and already clearly stated: She had forced herself on him, and he was doing the best he could to avoid her. There was nothing she could do but brave the terrors of aviation once more and return to California. Maybe by the time Emmett was ready to come home, he'd also be ready to be her brother.
Draining the whiskey with only a small shudder, she stubbed out the cigarette and pulled her tired, slightly inebriated body out of the chair. Suddenly her bedroom seemed very far away indeed. Especially with the hammock so close. She had always liked hammocks, and she didn't hesitate for a moment. The night was warm; she didn't even need a light covering. Kicking off her sandals, she climbed up into the hammock with only a modicum of difficulty. The sound of the ocean was a soothing melody in her ears, lulling her into a sleep she needed. Her last conscious thought was of Emmett, and she contemplated crying herself to sleep. She was dead to the world before the first tear could fall.
The man calling himself Emmett Chandler was not enjoying himself. He had smoked too much, and the inside of his mouth felt like mattress stuffing. He had drunk too much, just enough to make himself contentious, not enough to make himself oblivious. Which was just as well, since he belatedly discovered that he had no desire at all to spend the night with the more than willing Melea. He wanted to be back at the cottage, watching Rachel move with that damnable, unconscious grace of hers, her voice low and soothing as she told him ridiculous stories about their supposed eccentric relatives. He wanted to talk back to her, tell her about the lost years, the horror of the last six months, the need that drove him relentlessly and would cause her nothing but pain and despair…
"You're getting sentimental," he muttered to himself under his breath as he drove slowly back to the cottage. "Must be a midlife crisis. Leave the kid alone." But she wasn't a kid, and well he knew it. He called her that on purpose, and she seemed to like it well enough. It was his way of reminding himself that she was supposed to be his sister, and that she was thirteen years younger than he was. And no matter what he wanted her to be, her allotted role in his life was that of unintentional victim. He didn't want to hurt her any more than he had to, and the only way he could think to avoid it was to keep his distance, ignoring the expression in her soft brown eyes. Damn it, and her, and everything.
He swerved into the drive behind the cottage, trying to drive the memory of that body, wrapped in steam and jasmine and lace, out of his stubborn, frustrated mind. Why the hell hadn't he stayed with Melea? But he knew perfectly well why he hadn't—Melea was no longer enough for him. He wanted more than physical oblivion. He wanted Rachel, and had from the first moment he'd seen her.
And that was just something he was going to have to come to terms with, he thought as he moved slowly up the front path to the steps of the cottage. Wanting something he could never have. He should be used to it by now—life was filled with choices, and he'd made his years ago. He couldn't let a momentary desire for a vulnerable young woman stop him.
He halted on the porch for a moment, listening intently. It was after two in the morning; Rachel would have been in bed for hours. There were no lights left burning for him in the cottage, an unusual occurrence, and the smell of a smoldering cigarette teased his nostrils.
Immediately alert, he pivoted in his tracks. Rachel didn't smoke; they must have had an unexpected visitor. His eyes narrowed against the darkness; he peered around, ready for anything. Had the real Emmett finally responded to his challenge? Was he waiting somewhere out there in the bushes, or had he already disillusioned Rachel about the silent man she'd been living with for the past three days?
There was no sound but the ocean breaking in gentle waves on the beach. And a sudden, sighing sound from the hammock.
Emmett hadn't regained all his strength and agility, but enough of it had returned to assure him that hand to hand, the real Emmett Chandler wouldn't have a chance against him. Few men would, he knew, without pride or doubt. He had been trained years ago, and that training had come in handy more than once during the last decade. And might come in handy again tonight.
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, rather like a cat's, he realized there was a body in the hammock. One solitary glass with the dregs of very dark, straight whiskey rested on the table beside it, and an ashtray full of half-smoked cigarettes still smoldered. He moved to stand over the sleeping Rachel, staring down at her for a long, contemplative moment before reaching out a gentle hand to shake her awake. The rough, callused skin touched the warmth of her bare shoulder, and the scent of her jasmine perfume floated to his nostrils. The last thing in the world he planned to do was carry her to bed. He'd done it once, and that was his limit. He'd hate to imagine her reaction if her beloved brother Emmett climbed into bed with her.
"Wake up, Rachel," he said gently, and was rewarded with her dark brown eyes staring up at him. "You should be in bed." His hands were impersonal as he helped her from the hammock. "You must have fallen asleep."
Sleepily she shook her head, the unbound
chestnut hair a tangled curtain around her face. "I drank too much," she whispered.
"I'm ashamed of you," he chided gently, steering her into the darkened living room, his hand lightly possessive on her waist. "A sister of mine, falling prey to demon rum."
"Demon whiskey," she murmured, leaning against him. The scent of jasmine was just slight enough to drive him crazy, but he didn't push her away, didn't pull her closer. He just stood there and endured the torment. "I was mad at you," she added dreamily.
"Why?" By its own volition his hand came up to caress gently the cloud of hair away from her face, and sleepily she nuzzled at that hand.
"You didn't come home for dinner. Didn't even tell me. I cooked your favorite things, Emmett."
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw the table with its guttered candles and wilting flowers, the food still sitting there, untouched. "I'm a thoughtless bastard," he said, and she nodded in solemn agreement.
"I forgive you, though," she added, smiling dreamily.
"Exactly how much whiskey did you drink?" he inquired as he continued heading her in the direction of her bedroom. She was moving very slowly, and he couldn't say he really objected.
"Whatever was left in Uncle Harris's bottle."
"That was a hell of a lot, little sister. You're going to have some headache tomorrow." Sister, he reminded himself grimly as the feel of her warm body was having a predictable effect on him. She's supposed to be your kid sister.
"That's all right," she murmured as they reached her door. "It was worth it." She turned around and twisted her arms up around his neck. He could feel her body pressing against his, and thanked God she was too drunk and too sleepy to recognize what her nearness was doing to him.
"Good night, Rachel," he said firmly, reaching up to unclasp her hands from behind his neck. "Go to bed."
"Aren't you going to kiss me good night?" she pouted, holding fast.
"Not tonight," he said firmly, resisting temptation. "You're going to bed and sleep it off."
He could have detached her clinging grip if he'd really wanted to, he knew it full well. He told himself he didn't want to inflict even that small amount of pain on her, and he knew he was lying.
Rachel was undaunted. "Well, then, I'll kiss you," she said simply, standing on tiptoes to reach his forehead. Her aim was slightly off, landing on the bridge of his nose. The next wasn't much better, her soft lips brushing against his cheekbone, but the final one was dead on target, her lips pressing sweetly against his, clinging as her arms clung to him, soft and ready to open for him at the slightest pressure.
He did hurt her then, his fingers biting into her wrists and pulling them free from around her neck. She didn't even seem to notice the pain, falling back from him with a dazed expression on her face. "Go to bed, Rachel," he said again, and this time she obeyed, stumbling from him and closing the door behind her with a silent click.
Emmett stood staring after her, his entire body aflame. It was a long moment before he turned to survey the room, the remnants of the meal still sitting on the table. Picking out the hibiscus petals, he stood there and ate more than half of the seafood stew, realizing belatedly that he hadn't eaten since breakfast. The stew was cold and delicious, and he turned to the cake, eating three pieces, waxy whipped cream and all, before putting the remnants in the huge refrigerator that was the only modern piece of equipment the kitchen boasted. He moved silently, so as not to wake up the doubtlessly sleeping Rachel. If she made another appearance, he didn't know if he could resist such delicious temptation. Not in his current condition.
Casting one last look at her closed bedroom door, he moved on silent feet out to the porch. It had to be getting near dawn, he thought, kicking off his running shoes and moving onto the sand. With no other thought in mind, he stretched out on the beach, cradling his head in his hands, staring up into the inky dark sky dotted with stars. A moment later he was asleep.
Rachel, however, wasn't quite so fortunate. For a long time she lay in her bed, staring out her window, her mouth still tingling with a forbidden longing. And when she fell asleep this time, she was crying.
« ^ »
Rachel opened her eyes slowly, wincing as the blinding sunlight shot a shaft of pain through her cloudy head. Her eyes felt sandy, her arms and legs tied down with lead weights, and her mouth tasted like an old ashtray. But the pain was by far the worst symptom. She groaned, very quietly, and the sound sent another streak of anguish soaring across her nerve endings. In complete, careful silence she turned her face into the pillow and longed for a swift, merciful end.
Suffocation was not much of an improvement, and her stomach was beginning to resemble nothing so much as a cement mixer. The smell of frying bacon didn't help, nor did the disgustingly cheerful sound of someone whistling. Until Rachel realized who had to be whistling.
It took all her meager supply of energy to drag her body out of bed, when she realized with an abstract air that she was naked, her clothes strewn from one end of the room to the other. The events of last night were unclear; she remembered finishing Uncle Harris's bottle of whiskey, sitting on the porch and watching the ocean while she felt sorry for herself. Emmett hadn't bothered to come home last night, and therein lay the problem. But he had come home at the last minute, hadn't he? Or was her memory at fault?
The only other thing she remembered from last night was her determination to fly back to the mainland today, to stop imposing on the unwilling and morose Emmett. She didn't seem capable of cheering him up; the least she could do was to leave him in peace. There might even be a boat, a nice, slow, luxurious ocean liner to take her back to California. If she had to go by way of the Atlantic Ocean, it would be small price to pay for the relative safety of sea travel.
In her current foggy state she couldn't even begin to think of getting dressed without a long, hot shower. She yanked the sheet from her bed, leaving the bedspread and thin cotton blanket in a heap on the floor, and draped it around her like a toga. She didn't want to risk stumbling in on Emmett without the proper amount of clothing on her poor abused body.
But the bathroom was blessedly empty. Dropping the sheet on the floor, she headed straight for the sparsely provisioned medicine cabinet. She spilled three aspirin into one shaking hand, tossed them down, and followed them with warm, rusty water from the sink. The aspirin stuck on the way down, leaving a chalky white trail down her mouth and throat, and she shuddered, shaking all over like a wet dog. The shower was next, hot streams of water pouring over her, washing away most of the cobwebs and gritty feeling from the night before. By the time she stepped from her bedroom, dressed in an old pair of shorts and an oversize cotton shirt, she felt almost human, and almost ready to face the day and her unwelcoming host with a modicum of equilibrium. She'd be very cool when she told him she was leaving, she told herself, and she wouldn't cry at his expression of profound relief. If she really cared about him, she could spare him that much.
"I was just about to wake you up." Emmett was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, looking disgustingly fit and cheerful. Rachel stared at him in befuddled amusement, accepting the proffered cup of coffee numbly. He had shaved, and his khaki shirt, if not ironed, was at least freshly washed, and the faded jeans boasted fewer patches than usual. The running shoes were still the same ratty pair, and the lines around his wary hazel eyes belied his early morning bonhomie. But he was actually off the porch and viewing her with something less than his usual distance. "How's the head?" he added with a surprising solicitude only slightly marred by the faint trace of amusement that lingered about his wide mouth.
"Better," she murmured, bracing herself for her first sip of the thick, bitter coffee he usually produced. To her amazement it was very good, and she took another, deeper drink, feeling the caffeine flow through her veins and open her eyes.
"I'm sorry I missed dinner last night." The words came out almost hesitantly, and Rachel knew instinctively that this new-found brother
of hers was a man no longer given to apologies. The words were gruff, graceless, but Rachel accepted them gladly.
"That's all right. I should have told you I was planning something special." She continued to stand there, only a foot or two of the cottage separating them, unable to break the uneasy atmosphere. She was conscious of a nagging feeling that had been plaguing her since she woke that morning, a sense that something wasn't right. At first she'd attributed it to her hangover, but as her alertness was increasing and her headache dissipating, the sense of something guilty and wrong nagged at her. She wanted to take a step or two backward, away from Emmett. He was standing there looking at her out of those fathomless hazel eyes, and for the first time she was uneasily conscious of his body, the aura of a sort of tough strength and grace that stirred something deep within her.
And then he smiled at her, a sweet, singularly innocent smile that lit the dark contours of his face and flowed to her with a gentle warmth. It was the first time he'd really smiled at her since she'd arrived so precipitously, the first time she truly felt welcome. If there was a knowledge lurking behind those eyes, a wisdom that saw her confused unease and recognized its cause, she ignored it.
"I thought I could make up for it," he continued easily. "You haven't seen much of the island yet. Why don't we take a picnic lunch and go for a drive down to a small private cove I know of? Some of the best snorkeling is there, and you haven't spent enough time in the water."