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Her mothers keeper, p.11
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.11

           Nora Roberts
 
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  monotonously in the distance.

  A myriad of thoughts and feelings rushed through Gwen’s mind. Longing warred fiercely with pride. Luke had infuriated her, charmed her, laughed at her, rejected her. I will not fall in love with him, she told herself. I will not allow it to happen. He won’t make a fool of me again.

  “Magnificent,” Bradley murmured.

  “Yes, it is.” Luke slipped his hands into his pockets as he studied the portrait. “You’ve caught her.”

  “It’s rare,” Bradley muttered, touching up the shadows of Gwen’s cheeks in the portrait. “Her looks are just a bonus. It’s that aura of innocence mixed with the hint of banked fires. Incredible combination. Every man who sees this portrait will want her.”

  A flash of irritation crossed Luke’s face as he lifted his eyes to Gwen’s. “Yes, I imagine so.”

  “I’m calling it The Virgin Temptress. It suits, don’t you think?”

  “Hmm.”

  Taking this as full agreement, Bradley lapsed back into unintelligible mutters. Abruptly, he put down his brush and began packing his equipment. “You did beautifully,” he told Gwen. “We’re losing the morning light. We should start a bit earlier, I think. Three more good sittings should do it now.”

  “I’ll walk back with you, Bradley.” Monica rose. “I’ve done about all I can do on this one.” Gathering up her paints, easel and stool, she started after Bradley.

  Gwen slipped down from her seat in the fork of the tree with a quick flutter of white. As her bare feet touched the grass, the wine spun dizzily in her head. Instinctively she rested her hand against the tree for support. Watching her, Luke lifted a brow in speculation. With exaggerated care, she straightened, swallowed the odd dryness in her throat and started to walk. Her legs felt strangely weak. It was her intention to walk past Luke with icy dignity, but he stopped her easily with a hand on her arm.

  “Are you all right?”

  The sun had the wine bubbling inside her. Clearing her throat, Gwen spoke distinctly. “Of course. I am just fine.”

  Luke placed two fingers under her chin and lifted it. He studied her upturned face. Humor leaped into his eyes. “Why, Gwenivere, you’re sloshed.”

  Knowing the truth of his statement only stiffened her dignity. “I have no idea what you are talking about. If you would kindly remove your hand from my face, I would greatly appreciate it.”

  “Sure. But don’t blame me if you fall on it once the support’s gone.” Luke dropped his hand, and Gwen swayed dangerously. She gripped Luke’s shirt to right herself.

  “If you will excuse me,” she said regally, but neither moved nor dropped her hand. Heaving a deep sigh, Gwen raised her face again and frowned. “I’m waiting for you to stand still.”

  “Oh. Sorry. May one ask how you came to be in this condition?”

  “Relaxed,” Gwen corrected.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “That’s what I am. It was either wine or warm milk. Monica’s a whiz at these things. I’m not too fond of warm milk, and there wasn’t any handy in any case.”

  “No, I can see it might be difficult to come by,” Luke agreed, slipping a supporting arm around her waist as she began to weave her way across the lawn.

  “I only had a topful, you know.”

  “That should do it.”

  “Oh, dear.” Gwen stopped abruptly. “I’ve stepped on a bee.” She sat down in a floating film of white. “I suppose the poor little thing will go off and die.” Lifting her foot, she frowned at the small welt on the ball of her foot.

  “Happily bombed, I should think.” Luke sat down and took her foot in his hand. “Hurt?” he asked as he drew out the stinger.

  “No, I don’t feel anything.”

  “Small wonder. I think it might be wise to tell Bradley you don’t want to be quite so relaxed at ten in the morning.”

  “He’s very serious about his art,” Gwen said confidentially. “He believes I’ll become immoral.”

  “A distinct possibility if you continue to relax before noon,” Luke agreed dryly. “But I believe you mean ‘immortal.’”

  “Do you think so, too?” Gwen lifted her face to the sun. “I really thought he and Monica were macadamias.”

  “What?”

  “Nuts.” Gwen lay back in the grass and shut her eyes. “I think it would be rather sweet if they fell in love, don’t you?”

  “Adorable.”

  “You’re just cynical because you’ve been in love so many times.”

  “Have I?” He traced a finger over her ankle as he watched the sun highlight her hair. “Why do you say that?”

  “Your books. You know how women think, how they feel. When I was reading yesterday, I hurt because it was too real, too personal.” The robe shifted lightly with her sigh. “I imagine you’ve made love with dozens of women.”

  “Making love and being in love are entirely separate things.”

  Gwen opened her eyes. “Sometimes,” she agreed. “For some people.”

  “You’re a romantic,” Luke told her with a shrug. “Only a romantic can wear floating white or toss flowers to the stars or believe a magician’s illusions.”

  “How odd.” Gwen’s voice was genuinely puzzled as she closed her eyes again. “I’ve never thought of myself as a romantic. Is it wrong?”

  “No.” The word was quick and faintly annoyed. Luke rose and stared down at her. Her hair was spread out under her, glinting with golden lights. The robe crossed lightly over her breasts, making an inviting shadow. Swearing under his breath, he bent and scooped her into his arms.

  “Mmm, you’re very strong.” Her head spun gently, so she rested it against his shoulder. “I noticed that the first day, when I watched you chop down the tree. Michael lifts weights.”

  “Good for Michael.”

  “No, actually, he strained his back.” With a giggle, Gwen snuggled deeper into the curve of his shoulder. “Michael isn’t very physical, you see. He plays bridge.” Gwen lifted her face and smiled cheerfully. “I’m quite hopeless at bridge. Michael says my mind needs discipline.”

  “I simply must meet this Michael.”

  “He has fifty-seven ties, you know.”

  “Yes, I imagine he does.”

  “His shoes are always shined,” Gwen added wistfully, and traced Luke’s jawline with her fingertip. “I really must try to be more tidy. He tells me continually that the image a person projects is important, but I tend to forget. Feeding pigeons in the park isn’t good for a corporate image.”

  “What is?”

  “Opera,” she said instantly. “German opera particularly, but I fall asleep. I like to watch murder mysteries on the late-night TV.”

  “Philistine,” Luke concluded as his mouth twitched into a smile.

  “Exactly,” Gwen agreed, feeling more cheerful than she had in weeks. “Your face is leaner than his, too, and he never forgets to shave.”

  “Good for Michael,” Luke mumbled again as he mounted the porch steps.

  “He never made me feel the way you do.” At these words Luke stopped and stared down into Gwen’s eyes. Cushioned by the wine, Gwen met his look with a gentle smile. “Why do you suppose that is?”

  Luke’s voice was edged with roughness. “Can you really be so utterly guileless?”

  She considered the question, then shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose so. Do you want me to be?”

  For a moment, Luke’s arms tightened, shifting her closer against him. In immediate response, Gwen closed her eyes and offered her mouth. When his lips brushed over her brow, she sighed and cuddled closer. “Sometimes you’re a very nice man,” she murmured.

  “Am I?” He frowned down at her. “Let’s say sometimes I remember there are a few basic rules. At the moment, I’m finding my memory unfortunately clear.”

  “A very nice man,” Gwen repeated, and kissed a spot under his jaw. With a yawn, she settled comfortably against him. “But I won’t fall in love with you.”

&
nbsp; Luke looked down at her quiet face with its aureole of soft curls. “A wise decision,” he said softly, and carried her into the house.

  Chapter 11

  It was dark when Gwen awoke. Disoriented, she stared at the dim shapes of furniture and the pale silver moonlight. It was a knock at the door that had awakened her, and it came again, soft and insistent. Brushing her hair from her face, she sat up. The room spun once, then settled. Gwen moaned quietly and swallowed before she rose to answer the knock. In the hallway the light was bright. She put her hand over her eyes to shield them.

  “Oh, darling, I’m sorry to wake you.” Anabelle gave a sympathetic sigh. “I know how these headaches are.”

  “Headaches?” Gwen repeated, gingerly uncovering her eyes.

  “Yes, Luke told me all about it. Did you take some aspirin?”

  “Aspirin?” Gwen searched her memory. Abruptly, color rushed to her cheeks. “Oh!”

  Taking this as an affirmative response, Anabelle smiled. “Are you feeling better now?”

  “I haven’t got a headache,” Gwen murmured.

  “Oh, I’m so glad, because you have a phone call.” Anabelle smiled more brightly. “It’s from New York, so I really thought it best to wake you. It’s that Michael of yours. He has a lovely voice.”

  “Michael,” Gwen echoed softly. She sighed, wishing she could return to the comforting darkness of her room. She felt only weariness at the sound of his name. Glancing down, she saw she still wore the white robe. She could clearly remember her conversation with Luke and, more disturbing, the feel of his arms as he carried her.

  “You really shouldn’t keep him waiting, darling.” Anabelle interrupted Gwen’s thoughts with gentle prompting. “It’s long-distance.”

  “No, of course not.” Gwen followed her mother to the foot of the stairs.

  “I’ll just run along and have Tillie warm up some dinner for you.” Anabelle retreated tactfully, leaving Gwen staring down at the waiting receiver. She took a deep breath, blew it out and picked up the phone.

  “Hello, Michael.”

  “Gwen—I was beginning to think I’d been left on hold.” His voice was even, well pitched and annoyed.

  “I’m sorry.” The apology was automatic, and immediately, she swore at herself for giving it. Why does he always intimidate me? she demanded silently of herself. “I was busy,” she added in a firmer voice. “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you.”

  “I hope it’s a pleasant surprise,” he replied. From the tone of his voice, Gwen knew he had already concluded it was. “I’ve been busy myself,” he went on without bothering to hear her answer. “Right up to my chin in a lawsuit against Delron Corporation. Tricky business. It’s had me chained to my desk.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that, Michael,” Gwen said. Glancing up, she saw Luke coming down the steps. Oh, perfect, she thought in despair. She feigned unconcern with a faint nod of greeting, but when he stopped and leaned against the newel post, she frowned. “Do you mind?” she whispered sharply to Luke.

  “No, not a bit.” He smiled but made no effort to move. “Say hello for me.”

  Her eyes narrowed into furious slits. “You’re horrible, absolutely horrible.”

  “What?” came Michael’s puzzled voice. “What did you say?”

  “Oh, nothing,” Gwen said sharply.

  “For heaven’s sake, Gwen, I’m simply trying to tell you about the Delron case. You needn’t get testy.”

  “I am not testy. Why did you call, Michael?”

  “To see when you’d be coming home, sweetheart. I miss you.” He was using his quiet, persuasive tone, and Gwen sighed. Closing her eyes, she rested the receiver against her forehead a moment.

  “Does he always make you feel guilty?” Luke asked conversationally. Gwen jerked up her chin and glared.

  “Shut up,” she ordered, furious that he could read her so accurately.

  “What?” Michael’s voice shouted through the receiver. Luke gave a quick laugh at the outraged voice. “We must have a bad connection,” he concluded.

  “Must have,” Gwen muttered. Taking a deep breath, Gwen decided to clear the air once and for all. “Michael, I . . .”

  “I thought I’d given you enough time to cool off,” Michael said pleasantly.

  “Cool off?”

  “It was foolish of us to fight that way, sweetheart. Of course I know you didn’t mean the things you said.”

  “I didn’t?”

  “You know you have a tendency to say rash things when you’re in a temper,” Michael reminded her in a patient, forgiving tone. “Of course,” he went on, “I suppose I was partially to blame.”

  “You were?” Gwen struggled to keep her voice quiet and reasonable. “How could you be partially to blame for my temper?” Glancing up, she saw Luke still watching her.

  “I’m afraid I rushed you. You simply weren’t ready for a sudden proposal.”

  “Michael, we’ve been seeing each other for nearly a year,” Gwen reminded him, pushing her fingers through her hair in irritation. The gesture caused the V of her bodice to widen enticingly.

  “Of course, sweetheart,” he said soothingly. “But I should have prepared you.”

  “Prepared me? I don’t want to be prepared, Michael, do you understand? I want to be surprised. And if you call me sweetheart again in that patronizing voice, I’m going to scream.”

  “Now, now, Gwen, don’t get upset. I’m more than willing to forgive and forget.”

  “Oh.” Gwen swallowed her rage. “Oh, that’s generous of you, Michael. I don’t know what to say.”

  “Just say when you’ll be back, sweetheart. We’ll have a nice celebration dinner and set the date. Tiffany’s has some lovely rings. You can take your pick.”

  “Michael,” Gwen said, “please listen to me. Really listen this time. I’m not what you want. . . . I can’t be what you want. If I tried, I’d shrivel up inside. Please, I do care about you, but don’t ask me to be someone I’m not.”

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gwen,” he interrupted. “I’m not asking you—”

  “Michael,” Gwen said, cutting him off. “I just can’t go through all this again. I did mean the things I said, but I don’t want to have to say them all again. I’m not good for you, Michael. Find someone who knows how to fix vodka martinis for twenty.”

  “You’re talking nonsense.” It was his cool attorney’s voice, and Gwen closed her eyes, knowing arguments were futile. “We’ll straighten all this out when you get home.”

  “No, Michael,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t hear.

  “Give me a call and I’ll meet your plane. Goodbye, Gwen.”

  “Goodbye, Michael,” she murmured, even while she replaced the receiver. She felt a wave of sorrow and guilt. Lifting her eyes, she met Luke’s. There was no amusement in them now, only understanding. She felt that amusement would have been easier to handle. “I’d appreciate it very much,” she said quietly, “if you wouldn’t say anything just now.” She walked past him and up the stairs while he looked after her.

  ***

  Gwen stood on her balcony under a moonlit sky. Moss-draped cypress trees appeared ghostly and tipped with silver. There was a bird singing in a sweet, clear voice, and she wondered if it was a nightingale. The time seemed right for nightingales. She sighed, remembering that Luke had called her a romantic. Perhaps he was right. But it was not the soft night or the song of a bird that kept her out of bed and on the balcony.

  Of course you can’t sleep, she berated herself silently. How can you expect to sleep at night when you slept all afternoon? Color rushed to her cheeks as she recalled the reason for her peaceful midday nap. I certainly managed to make a first-class fool of myself. Did he have to be there? Couldn’t I have stumbled into the house without an audience? Why can I never be cool and dignified around him?

  And then the call from Michael. Gwen lifted her hand to the base of her neck and tried to massage away the tension. Again she
played over the telephone conversation in her mind, attempting to
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