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Her mothers keeper, p.10
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.10

           Nora Roberts
 
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  tone, and he let out a long breath. “Good heavens, how easy it is to forget what a child you are.”

  “I’m not, I . . .” Gwen shook her head in mute denial. “It happened so fast, I didn’t think. I just . . .”

  “I can hardly deny that it’s my fault.” His tone had cooled, and its marked disinterest had the edge of a knife. “You’re an extraordinary creature, part will-o’-the-wisp, part Amazon, and I have a problem keeping my hands off you. Knowing I can have you is not exactly an incentive to restrain myself.”

  His matter-of-fact tone scraped at Gwen’s raw pride, even as it tripped her temper. “You’re hateful.”

  “Agreed,” Luke said with a brief nod. “But still, I think, civilized enough not to take advantage of an innocent girl.”

  “I am not . . .” Gwen managed before she felt the need to swallow. “I am not an innocent girl, I’m a grown woman!”

  “As you wish. Do you still want me to take advantage of you?” Luke’s tone was agreeable now.

  “No!” Impatiently, she brushed at the hair on her forehead. “I mean, it wouldn’t be . . . Certainly not!”

  “In that case . . .” Taking her arm, Luke firmly guided Gwen inside Malon’s cabin.

  Chapter 10

  Knocking on Luke’s door was not the easiest thing Gwen had ever done, but it was necessary. She felt it necessary to prove to herself that she would not succumb to a newly discovered weakness again. She was a grown woman, capable of handling herself. She had asked to read Luke’s manuscript, had agreed to proof it. She would not back down because of a kiss or a moment of madness. Still, Gwen braced herself as she lifted her knuckles to the wood. She held her breath.

  “Come in.”

  These simple, ordinary words from inside the room caught at her heart. Letting out her breath slowly, she arranged her features in casual, almost indifferent lines and opened the door. Luke did not even bother to look up.

  Reference books were piled on the table and scattered over the floor. Papers—typewritten, handwritten, crumpled and smooth—were strewn everywhere. On the table in the midst of the chaos was a battered portable typewriter. There sat the creator of the havoc, frowning at the keys while he pounded on them. The curtains were still drawn, closing out the late-morning sun, and the bed was a tangle of sheets. Everywhere were books, papers, folders.

  “What a mess,” Gwen murmured involuntarily. At her voice, Luke glanced up. There was at first a crease of annoyance between his brows, then a look of mild surprise before all was smoothed away.

  “Hello,” he said easily. He did not rise, but leaned back in his chair to look at her.

  Gwen advanced, stepping over books and around papers on the journey. “This is incredible.” She lifted her hand to gesture around the room, then dropped it to her side. “How do you live like this?”

  Luke looked around, shrugged and met the curiosity in her eyes. “I don’t, I work like this. If you’ve come to tidy up, I’ll tell you the same thing I told the girl Anabelle used to send up here. Mess with my papers, and I’ll toss you out the window.”

  Amused, Gwen stuck her hands in her pockets and nudged a book out of her way with her toe. “So, you’re temperamental after all.” This, she felt, was a trait she could understand and deal with.

  “If you like,” he agreed. “This way, if I lose something, I can only swear at myself, not at some hapless maid or well-meaning secretary. I have an aversion for well-meaning secretaries. What can I do for you? I’m afraid the coffee’s cold.”

  The formality in his tone made it clear this was his domain. Gwen schooled her voice to sound briskly professional. “You said yesterday you’d like me to proof your manuscript. I’d be glad to do it. If,” she added with a glance around the room, “you can find it.”

  He smiled his charming, irresistible smile. Gwen hardened herself against it. “Are you an organized soul, Gwenivere? I’ve always admired organization as long as it doesn’t infringe on my habits. Sit,” he invited with a gesture of his hand.

  Gwen stepped over two dictionaries and an encyclopedia. “Would you mind if I opened the drapes first?” she asked.

  “If you wish,” he answered as he reached for a pile of typewritten pages. “Just don’t get domestic.”

  “Nothing could be further from my mind,” she assured him, and had the pleasure of seeing him wince at the brilliance of the sunlight that streamed into the room. “There,” she said, adopting the tone of a nursery school teacher, “isn’t that better?”

  “Sit.”

  Gwen did so after removing a pile of magazines from the chair across from him.

  “You look older with your hair up,” Luke commented mildly. “Nearly sixteen.”

  A fire lit in her eyes, but she managed to keep her voice cool. “Do you mind if I get started?”

  “Not at all.” Luke handed her a stack of typewritten material. “You’ll find a pencil and a dictionary somewhere. Do as much as you like, just be quiet about it.”

  Gwen’s mouth opened to retort, but as he was typing again, she closed it. After locating a pencil under a pile of discarded magazines, she picked up the first page. She refused to admit that the project excited her, that she wanted the job because it meant sharing something with him. Dismissing such thoughts, she resolved to read with objective professionalism. Minutes later, her pencil was forgotten—she was enthralled.

  Time passed. Gwen no longer heard the clicking of the typewriter. Dust motes danced in the insistent sunlight, but Gwen was unaware of them. Luke’s characters were flesh and blood to her. She felt she knew them, cared about them. She was even unaware that her eyes had filled with tears. She felt as the woman in Luke’s story felt; desperately in love, confused, proud, vulnerable. She wept for the beauty of the words and the despair of the heroine. Suddenly, she lifted her eyes.

  Luke had stopped typing, but for how long, she did not know. She blinked to clear her vision. He was watching her. His eyes were intent and searching, his mouth unsmiling. Helplessly Gwen stared back, letting the tears fall freely. Her weakness frightened her. He was not touching her, not speaking to her, yet her whole body felt attuned to him. She opened her mouth, but no words came. She shook her head, but he neither moved nor spoke. Knowing her only defense was escape, Gwen stood and darted from the room.

  The bayou offered a haven, so she abandoned the house and fled toward it. She had calmed herself considerably by the time she neared Malon’s cabin. Taking long, deep breaths, Gwen slowed her steps. It would not do to have Malon see her out of breath and distressed. As she rounded the last bend in the path, she saw Malon stepping from his pirogue onto the dock. Already, she felt reason returning.

  “A good catch?” she asked, grateful she could smile at him without effort.

  “Not bad,” he answered with typical understatement. “Did you come for dinner?”

  “Dinner?” Gwen repeated, glancing automatically at the sun. “Is it so late?” Could the afternoon have gone so swiftly? she wondered.

  “It is late enough because I’m hungry,” Malon replied. “We’ll cook up some shrimp and eat, then you can take your mama her share. Can you still make coffee?”

  “Of course I can still make coffee—just don’t tell Tillie.” Gwen followed him inside, letting the screen door slam behind them.

  Before long the cabin was filled with the pungent scent of shrimp gumbo cooking and the quiet strains of Chopin. Raphael sunned on the windowsill, leaving the humans to deal with the domestic chores. Gwen felt the tension draining from her system. She ate, surprised at her appetite until she recalled she had eaten nothing since breakfast.

  “You still like my cooking, hein?” Pleased, Malon spooned more gumbo onto her plate.

  “I just didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Gwen told him between bites. Malon watched her clean her plate and chuckled. With a contented sigh, Gwen sat back. “I haven’t eaten that much in two years.”

  “That’s why you’re skinny.” Malon leaned
back, too, and lit a strong French cigarette. Gwen remembered the scent as well as she remembered the tastes. She had been twelve—curious and ultimately sick—when she persuaded Malon to let her try one. He had offered no sympathy and no lecture. Grinning at the memory, Gwen watched the thin column of smoke rise.

  “Now you feel better,” Malon commented. At his statement, she shifted her eyes back to his. Instantly, she saw he was not referring to her hunger. Her shoulders lifted and then fell with her sigh.

  “Some. I needed to come here—it’s helped. I’m having trouble understanding myself, and there’s . . . well, there’s this man.”

  “There is bound to be,” Malon agreed, blowing a series of smoke rings. “You are a woman.”

  “Yes, but not a very smart one. I don’t know very much about men. And he’s nothing like the men I’ve known in any case.” She turned to Malon. “The trouble is . . .” She made a small, frustrated sound and walked to the window. “The trouble is, I’m becoming more involved, more emotionally involved with . . . this man than I can afford to.”

  “‘Afford to,’” he repeated with a snort. “What do you mean, ‘afford to’? Emotions cost you nothing.”

  “Oh, Malon.” When she turned back to him, her eyes were unhappy. “Sometimes they cost everything. I’m beginning to need him, beginning to feel an—an attachment that can lead nowhere.”

  “And why can it lead nowhere?”

  “Because I need love.” After running a hand through her hair, Gwen paced the width of the cabin.

  “So does everyone,” Malon told her, carefully crushing out his cigarette.

  “But he doesn’t love me,” she said miserably. Her hands made a futile gesture. “He doesn’t love me, yet I can’t stop thinking about him. When I’m with him I forget everything else. It’s wrong, he’s involved with someone else, and . . . Oh, Malon, it’s so complicated.” Her voice faltered away.

  “Life is not simple, little girl,” he said, reverting to her childhood title, “but we live it.” Rising, he moved toward her, then patted her cheek. “Complications provide spice.”

  “Right now,” she said with a small smile, “I’d rather be bland.”

  “Did you come for advice or for sympathy?” His eyes were small and sharp, his palm rough. He smelled of fish and tobacco. Gwen felt the ground was more solid where he stood.

  “I came to be with you,” she told him softly, “because you are the only father I have.” Slipping her arms around his waist, she rested her head on one of his powerful shoulders. She felt his wide hand stroke her hair. “Malon,” she murmured. “I don’t want to be in love with him.”

  “So, do you come for an antilove potion? Do you want a snakeskin for his pillow?”

  Gwen laughed and tilted back her head. “No.”

  “Good. I like him. I would feel bad putting a hex on him.”

  She realized Malon had known all along she had been speaking of Luke. Always she had been as clear as a piece of glass to him. Still, she was more comfortable with him than with anyone else. Gwen studied him, wondering what secrets he held behind the small blue eyes. “Malon, you never told me you’d been to Budapest.”

  “You never asked.”

  She smiled and relaxed. “If I asked now, would you tell me?”

  “I’ll tell you while you do the dishes.”

  ***

  Bradley frowned at his canvas, then at his model. “You’re not giving me the spark,” he complained as he pushed the fisherman’s cap further back on his head.

  Three nights of fitful sleep had dimmed Gwen’s spark considerably. She sat, as Bradley had directed her, in the smoothly worn U formed by two branches of an ancient oak. She wore the robe he had chosen, with a magnolia tucked behind her ear. Following his instructions, she had left her hair free and kept her makeup light. Because of their size and color, her eyes dominated the picture. But they did not, as Bradley had anticipated, hold the light he had seen before. There was a listlessness in the set of her shoulders, a moodiness in the set of her mouth.

  “Gwen,” Bradley said with exaggerated patience, “depression is not the mood we’re seeking.”

  “I’m sorry, Bradley.” Gwen shrugged and sent him a weary smile. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”

  “Warm milk,” Monica Wilkins stated from her perch on a three-legged stool. She was painting, with quiet diligence, a tidy clump of asters. “Always helps me.”

  Gwen wanted to wrinkle her nose at the thought, but instead she answered politely. “Maybe I’ll try that next time.”

  “Don’t scald it, though,” Monica warned as she perfected her image of a petal.

  “No, I won’t,” Gwen assured her with equal gravity.

  “Now that we’ve got that settled. . . .” Bradley began, in such a martyrlike voice that Gwen laughed.

  “I’m sorry, Bradley, I’m afraid I’m a terrible model.”

  “Nonsense,” Bradley said. “You’ve just got to relax.”

  “Wine,” Monica announced, still peering critically at her asters.

  “I beg your pardon?” Bradley turned his head and frowned.

  “Wine,” Monica repeated. “A nice glass of wine would relax her beautifully.”

  “Yes, I suppose it might, if we had any.” Bradley adjusted the brim of his cap and studied the tip of his brush.

  “I have,” Monica told him in her wispy voice.

  “Have what?”

  Gwen’s eyes went back to Bradley. I’m beginning to feel as though I was at a tennis match, she thought, lifting a hand to the base of her neck.

  “Wine,” Monica answered, carefully adding a vein to a pale green leaf. “I have a thermos of white wine in my bag. It’s nicely chilled.”

  “How clever of you,” Bradley told her admiringly.

  “Thank you.” Monica blushed. “You’re certainly welcome to it, if you think it might help.” Carefully she opened a bulky macramé sack and pulled out a red thermos.

  “Monica, I’m in your debt.” Gallantly, Bradley bowed over the thermos. Monica let out what sounded suspiciously like a giggle before she went back to her asters.

  “Bradley, I really don’t think this is necessary,” Gwen began.

  “Just the thing to put you into the mood,” he disagreed as he unscrewed the thermos lid. Wine poured, light and golden, into the plastic cup.

  “But Bradley, I hardly drink at all.”

  “Glad to hear it.” He held out the cup. “Bad for your health.”

  “Bradley,” Gwen began again, trying to keep her voice firm. “It’s barely ten o’clock in the morning.”

  “Yes, drink up, the light will be wrong soon.”

  “Oh, good grief.” Defeated, Gwen lifted the plastic cup to her lips and sipped. With a sigh, she sipped again. “This is crazy,” she muttered into the wine.

  “What’s that, Gwen?” Monica called out.

  “I said this is lovely,” Gwen amended. “Thank you, Monica.”

  “Glad to help.” As the women exchanged smiles, Bradley tipped more wine into the cup.

  “Drink it up,” he ordered, like a parent urging medicine on a child. “We don’t want to lose the light.”

  Obediently, Gwen tilted the cup. When she handed it back to Bradley, she heaved a huge sigh. “Am I relaxed?” she asked. There was a pleasant lightness near the top of her head. “My, it’s gotten warm, hasn’t it?” She smiled at no one in particular as Bradley replaced the lid on the thermos.

  “I hope I haven’t overdone it,” he muttered to Monica.

  “One never knows about people’s metabolisms,” Monica said. With a noncommittal grunt, Bradley returned to his canvas.

  “Now look this way, love,” he ordered as Gwen’s attention wandered. “Remember, I want contrasts. I see the delicacy of your bone structure, the femininity in the pose, but I want to see character in your face. I want spirit—no, more—I want challenge in your eyes. Dare the onlooker to touch the untouched.”

  “Untouched,
Gwen murmured as her memory stirred. “I’m not a child,” she asserted, and straightened her shoulders.

  “No,” Bradley agreed as he studied her closely. “Yes, yes, that’s perfect!” He grabbed his brush. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught sight of Luke approaching, and then he gave his full attention to his work. “Ah, the mouth’s perfect,” he muttered, “just between sulky and a pout. Don’t change it, don’t change a thing. Bless you, Monica!”

  Bradley worked feverishly, unaware that the wine was a far less potent stimulant to his model than the man who now stood beside him. It was his presence that brought the rush of color to her cheeks, that brightened her eyes with challenge and made her mouth grow soft, sulky and inviting. Luke’s own face was inscrutable as he watched. Though he stood in quiet observation, there was an air of alertness about him. Bradley muttered as he worked. A crow cawed
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