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"I don't know how to snorkel," she stammered, this time taking a small, hesitant step backward. For a moment she wasn't quite sure she could trust his sudden affability.
"I'll teach you."
"I don't think so. I'm still afraid of the water. There are nasty things lurking in there—sharks and jellyfish and piranhas."
She sensed more than saw the instant alertness in his body. "You're still afraid?" he questioned softly.
She managed a shaky smile. "I didn't have you around to help me get over it. I used to try to remember what you told me, about not being afraid of it, but I never could seem to manage it. I'd think about you, start sinking, and panic."
His eyes were clear and warm as they looked down into hers. "I won't let you sink, Rachel," he murmured in the sudden stillness. And then he smiled, his old, self-mocking smile. "Come on, kid, I'm calling a truce. I'll keep all the man-eating jellyfish away. Are you with me, or have I managed to drive you back to California with my bad temper?"
A nagging feeling of guilt still tugged at the back of her mind. Without hesitation she squashed it down, smiling up at him with blinding happiness. "I'm with you," she said recklessly. "Just give me time to pack a lunch."
"Already taken care of," he said. "All you need is your bathing suit." Plucking the now-empty coffee cup from her, he placed a hand on her shoulder and whirled her around in the direction of her room. "Go ahead and change and I'll meet you in the Land Rover."
It was a good thing her back was to him. The touch of his hand, heavy on her shoulder, had brought back her memory of the night before with a resounding force, and with it embarrassment mixed with guilt. For a brief moment she had forgotten who he was, forgotten he was her brother. She couldn't afford to let that happen again if she was to continue living in such close quarters with him. Brother or not, there was no denying he was a very attractive man, with a sort of world-weary air that made a person want to wrap her arms around him and cradle him against her breast. Maybe she should go back to California, despite this sudden thawing. But as she stripped off her clothes and tugged on the sleek black-and-red striped maillot, she knew she was staying right where she was. For as long as he'd let her.
It was a perfect day—all that paradise had to offer—and Rachel found herself opening up to it with a wholehearted abandon that swept away early morning doubts and hangover-induced guilt. The small private cove was as beautiful as Emmett had predicted, and the water warm and crystal clear beneath the deep blue of the sky. She couldn't quite remember when she had ever been as happy, she thought, stretching out on the sand, the hot sun baking into her bones, the bones Emmett had insisted she cover with a thick sunscreen. He hadn't offered to help with her back, and for that she was perversely disappointed. And grateful.
She stuffed herself like a pig, still amazed at Emmett's provisions. Deviled eggs, cold fried chicken, sliced ham and cheeses, and crusty French bread filled the basket, complemented with a chilled white wine instead of Emmett's usual Heinekens. He partook sparingly of the wine, and smoked far fewer cigarettes than usual, seemingly content to just lean back against an outcropping of rock, his eyes closed, his long legs stretched out in front of him, at peace with the world. Rachel knew without asking that those moments of peace were few and far between, as they were for her, and she wished there was some way she could prolong the moment, the day, the time of resting.
Rolling over on her stomach in the sand, she watched him out of suddenly curious eyes. Up until now she had avoided looking at him, kept her eyes averted like a chaste maiden, she thought with sudden self-disgust. The sound of his heavy, even breathing told her he was asleep, and pushing her sunglasses up on her slippery nose, she allowed herself to stare at the sleeping Emmett, looking for faults.
There were a surprising number of them, she thought with wry amazement. He was forty years old, and he looked as if he'd lived every year of those forty to the fullest. His legs beneath the swimming trunks were admittedly long and tanned and muscled, the thighs firm and lightly covered with hair. His shoulders were neither too broad nor too narrow—slightly bony, they had an inherent strength in them, a strength that traveled to his arms and that Rachel had felt more than once. His chest was the chest of a forty-year-old, still firm enough, with a light matting of sandy blond hair that trailed in a V down his stomach to disappear beneath the waistband of his trunks. The hair was a new addition; in his twenties Emmett had still been smooth and hairless. All in all she liked the hair, she mused, digging her toes into the soft white sand. And she liked his body, tired and slightly beaten-up looking and a far cry from Ralph Fowler's California beach-boy perfection. She liked the way the gray mixed with his shaggy blond hair, the way his mouth curved in that cynical, world-weary smile, the way the lines crinkled around his wary hazel eyes. The eyes that were now open and watching her with barely suppressed amusement.
She could always hope the flush that mounted in her face could be mistaken for sunburn. But she had already discovered that Emmett wasn't often mistaken about anything. "Find anything interesting?" he drawled, unwilling to let the embarrassing moment pass.
Rachel grinned reluctantly. "I was trying to see if I could remember you from fifteen years ago," she admitted with a rueful laugh, ignoring any other reason for her interest.
"And you don't?" He seemed no more than casually curious.
" 'Fraid not. But then, I was only twelve; I wasn't used to paying a lot of attention to you. You were just my brother—there when I needed you." And gone when I needed you most, she thought, then banished that old pain with sudden decision. "Where did you get that scar on your shoulder?"
Emmett made a face. "A bullet from a stray war."
Rachel's eyes widened behind her dark glasses. "And the one on your stomach? I hope you're going to tell me it was something like an appendectomy?" That scar is lower," he murmured, and watched, fascinated, as her color deepened again. "I'm afraid the one on my stomach came from a knife fight. In a bar in Nicaragua. The one on my chin was from Beirut."
Rachel pulled herself into a sitting position, shivering despite the blazing tropical sun. "I guess I'm lucky you're still alive."
"I don't know if you're lucky or not." He was reaching for his cigarettes, his eyes abstracted. He took as long as he could in lighting the dark, strong cigarette, then turned his fathomless eyes on her. "I've told you before, Rachel, I'm something of a bastard. No fit brother for you, when it comes right down to it. You'd be far better off with some nice guy who'll care about you instead of hanging around with a brother who doesn't care about anyone but himself." He blew out a cloud of smoke, watching it curl up against the sky with an intense gaze.
Rachel pushed the dark glasses up on her forehead, squinting at him through the bright sunlight. "You're wrong," she said abruptly, with a certainty that brought a reluctant smile to Emmett's face.
"Wrong about what?" he countered. "Wrong about being a bastard, or wrong about you needing a nice guy who cares about you?"
"Wrong about both." Her voice was firm. "If you really don't care about anyone but yourself, how come you've let me stay with you when you'd obviously rather be left alone?"
"Maybe I have my reasons," he drawled, that mocking smile that was uncomfortably close to a sneer playing about his mouth.
"If you do, I certainly can't imagine what they'd be. There's no way my presence at the cottage could benefit you." He didn't bother to deny it, just kept watching her out of unreadable eyes. "And you're wrong about my needing some nice guy to care about me. I don't like nice guys, I don't trust them. I prefer people like you."
That surprised a laugh out of him. "Thanks a lot, kid."
"No, I mean it," she said earnestly, edging closer to him across the sand. "I've been surrounded by nice guys most of my life; I've gone out with them, gone to bed with them, even almost married one of them. And they've all been so nice, all smiles and surface charm, and nothing underneath but a well-hidden cruelty that can break your heart. Everyo
ne's got some goodness and some meanness in them; I prefer people with their meanness out in the open for everyone to see, rather than those who reveal it as a nasty surprise later on."
She was close enough to touch him, but she kept her hands at her side, her fingers trailing loosely in the sand. It was Emmett who reached out and touched her, his fingers brushing the side of her face in a soft, tender caress. "It sounds like my little sister hasn't had too easy a time of it in the last fifteen years," he said gently. "Or maybe you've just been choosing the wrong nice guys."
She smiled. "It's been okay. Getting hurt is part of life. But I've missed you, Emmett, missed you even more than I realized. It wasn't until I saw you that I knew just how much you meant to me. I took one look at you and felt like I was coming home."
His hand pulled away as if burned. "You're nuts," he said abruptly, jumping to his feet. Rachel stayed where she was, looking up at him, small, graceful and very vulnerable. "And you're also going to learn how to snorkel."
The moment had passed, safely enough, it seemed, and Rachel let out her pent-up breath. "No way," she said, rising to her feet in one graceful motion.
"For a woman supposedly devoted to her brother, you don't seem very eager to please him," he drawled in challenge. "Can't face a little shallow water?"
"Of course I can," she shot back, following him down to the shore. "It's the creatures I don't like. Besides, I don't see why I have to try it."
"To prove something." The snorkeling equipment was in a canvas bag by the edge of the water, and he squatted down, rummaging around in it, keeping his face averted from hers. There was no way she could see his expression, no way she could know whether he was serious or not. She reached down a hand to touch one tanned, bony shoulder, then drew it back.
"Prove what?" she stalled, looking at the mask and breathing apparatus he held in one large, well-shaped hand, looking at the clear blue ocean that could close over her head and suffocate her, that was no doubt teeming with dangerous livestock.
"That you trust me." He was looking up at her, and his eyes looked almost green in the bright sunlight.
She stared down at him for a long moment. He needed her trust, for some obscure reason it mattered terribly to him; she could read it in his eyes. Well, she had faced the terrors of aviation for him; she would face certain death in the blue, blue ocean with even greater equanimity. She held out her hand to him. "Lead on, Macduff." And as his warm, strong hand closed over hers, the last trace of panic vanished.
« ^ »
The feel of the water filtered through her semi-conscious mind, rocking her as she lay sweltering among the clean white sheets of her narrow bed. She could still feel the pull of the undertow, the buoyancy of the salt water, the gentle rolling motion haunting her as she lay there, drifting in and out of sleep. If she allowed her mind to wander, she would find herself floating facedown in the incredible blue ocean, Emmett's hand steadying her as she faced the fear and the wonders of the world underwater, could relive the hours she lay there, cushioned by the warm Pacific, her body drifting against Emmett's as they floated together, legs brushing, arms touching in an unconscious ballet that was only rendered innocent by the warm water surrounding them.
It was too hot to sleep, she grumbled to herself, turning over in the narrow, tumbled bed and punching the pillow, too hot and humid. The restlessness was eating away at her until she thought she might scream. It was after two in the morning—for once Emmett had gone to bed when she had, and he was doubtlessly sound asleep. If only Rachel could say the same for herself.
Rolling over again, she finally pulled herself into a sitting position, wrapping her arms around her long legs and staring out into the tropical darkness. Perhaps she was just too happy to sleep. It had been a perfect day; Emmett's truce had extended through the evening. He had set himself out to charm his little sister, Rachel thought, and had succeeded far better than even he would have guessed. Not that Rachel was fooled by the charm he obviously had in abundance. She could still see the traces of shadows in his hazel eyes, feel the fleeting moments of wariness as he watched her. He wanted her to trust him, and she did, implicitly, with all the faith and love that had been shunted aside for years. But why couldn't he trust her?
There was a sudden, muffled sound in the night, and Rachel was instantly alert. Only silence answered her questioning ears. Was someone outside, wandering along the beach, skulking through the bushes? The sound came again, a crashing sound, followed by what sounded ominously like a groan. It couldn't be Emmett—she knew for certain he hadn't left his room. Did he sleep so heavily he couldn't hear the creature crashing about outside, waiting for his chance to rip her into shreds?
Stop it, she ordered herself sternly. There's no need to be such an abject coward. All you have to do is turn on the light and go wake Emmett. He'll check and make sure everything is all right. If you can survive airplane flights and snorkeling, you can survive things that go bump in the night.
Climbing out of bed, she moved as silently as possible, so as not to alert their nocturnal visitor. It had been too hot for nightclothes, and she stopped long enough to pull a light, seersucker nightdress over her nude body before stepping into the hall in silent bare feet. Moonlight illuminated the cottage, the ramshackle chairs and sofa silent sentinels in the night stillness. Crossing the rough pine floor on bare feet, she stopped outside Emmett's door and tapped softly. "Emmett," she whispered.
There was no answer, and for a moment Rachel dealt with the panic that he might have left after she had fallen asleep, might have gone into town to the bar once he'd gotten his innocent young sister settled for the night. Leaving her all alone with the monster that groaned and crashed…
Another groan and crash, this time from directly behind Emmett's door, wiped out the last of her indecision. The doorknob yielded easily to her fingers, and she stepped into the room, trying to accustom her eyes to the darkness. "Emmett?" she said again.
He was lying angled across the bed, and Rachel thanked an impartial God that he was still wearing his cutoff blue jeans, though nothing else. As far as she could tell he was sound asleep, but his big strong body was covered with a film of sweat that had nothing to do with the warmth of the night, and he was wracked with tremors that shook the sturdy double bed with their force. He muttered something that sounded like, "No, don't," and thrashed his head back and forth against the rumpled sheet. The pillows had long since been discarded, the covers a heap on the floor, the room dark and silent like a tomb. There was no question but that the thumps, groans, and crashes she had heard had come from his nightmare-ridden body.
"Emmett, wake up," Rachel said in an urgent undertone, moving uncertainly into the room. Still caught in the middle of his nightmare, he continued thrashing, oblivious to her presence. She tried again, raising her voice, but he paid no attention. Rachel paused there by the door, halfway in the room, halfway out, wondering whether she should leave him, whether she should shake him awake or if he needed to dream the dream through.
And then he sat up, his eyes sightless and staring in the darkened room, looking straight at her but through her. "Oh, God, please don't," he whispered in a voice full of such pain and torment that the last bit of wisdom left her, and she ran to the side of the bed, climbing up and taking his trembling body into her arms.
He started violently at her touch, then subsided as the night terrors began to leave him. His breath was still coming too rapidly, but he allowed her to cradle his body in her arms, his head resting against her soft breasts, as she crooned to him soothing, meaningless words that she wished someone had crooned to her when loneliness and terror had overwhelmed her. "It's all right, Emmett, I'm here," she whispered, rocking him gently, her hand brushing the sweat-dampened hair from his face. "It's okay, Emmett, everything's fine." Meaningless, stupid words, but the sound of her voice seemed to calm him. She could feel the tension drain from the strong, hot body in her arms, and she wished more than any
thing she could see his face, see whether he wanted her there or wished she were on the other side of the world.
His voice broke the stillness, hoarse and whispered. "Don't leave me," he said against the warmth of her breasts.
Relief and love flooded her, and she tightened her hold on him. "I won't," she promised. "I won't ever leave you, Emmett," she murmured. He needed her, wanted her, for the first time in a long time she mattered to someone. She could feel him relax further in her arms, hear the steady rhythm of his breathing deepen, and realized, to her absolute amazement, that he had fallen back asleep, this time without the horrifying dreams that had tormented him.
Of course, there was no telling if those nightmares would return later in the night. Rachel had promised him she wouldn't leave him, and she would keep her promise, even if it meant a sleepless night for her. She would watch over him, keep the night terrors at bay. But what in the world lurked in his past, that would crop up in the vulnerable hours of sleep to torment him so? She wouldn't ask; she could wait for him to tell her, if he ever wanted to. It was enough that he wanted her with him, needed her.
With a sigh of pure happiness she leaned back against the tumbled sheets, her arms still cradled around Emmett's sleeping body. As a matter of fact, she'd prefer not to sleep. These moments of closeness were precious and few, and she didn't want to waste them sleeping. Once more she was filled with the indefinable feeling of having come home, and she smiled into the darkness. A moment later she was asleep.
When Emmett awoke hours later the faint smell of jasmine tickled his nose. He was used to that—all his waking and sleeping hours seemed to be haunted by Rachel Chandler. It was little wonder he imagined her distinctive scent.
But was it imagination? Something warm and soft and heavy rested against his chest, something that stirred when he moved, emitting small, sleepy sounds. It was with a real effort that he silenced his groan of despair as he realized he wasn't alone in the big old bed. Rachel was lying beside him, her dark eyes closed, her body curled up next to him, lost in a dreamless, innocent sleep.