Her mothers keeper, p.2
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.2

           Nora Roberts
 
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  “Isn’t that marvelous, Tillie?” Anabelle carefully put a blue delft sugar and creamer set on the kitchen table. “Gwen is staying for an entire month. Perhaps we should have a party! We have three visitors at the moment. Luke, of course, and Miss Wilkins and Mr. Stapleton. He’s an artist, too, but he works in oils. Quite a talented young man.”

  Gwen seized the small opening. “Luke Powers is considered a gifted young man, too.” She sat across from her mother as Anabelle poured the coffee.

  “Luke is frightfully talented,” Anabelle agreed with a proud sigh. “Surely you’ve read some of his books, seen some of his movies? Overwhelming. His characters are so real, so vital. His romantic scenes have a beauty and intensity that just leave me weak.”

  “He had a naked woman in one of his movies,” Tillie stated in an indignant mutter. “Stark naked.”

  Anabelle laughed. Her eyes smiled at Gwen’s over the rim of her cup. “Tillie feels Luke is singlehandedly responsible for the moral decline in the theater,” Anabelle continued.

  “Not a stitch on,” Tillie added, setting her chin.

  Though Gwen was certain Luke Powers had no morals whatsoever, she made no reference to them. Her voice remained casual as instead she commented, “He certainly has accomplished quite a bit for a man of his age. A string of bestsellers, a clutch of popular movies . . . and he’s only thirty-five.”

  “I suppose that shows how unimportant age really is,” Anabelle said serenely. Gwen barely suppressed a wince. “And success hasn’t spoiled him one little bit,” she went on. “He’s the kindest, sweetest man I’ve ever known. He’s so generous with his time, with himself.” Her eyes shone with emotion. “I can’t tell you how good he’s been for me. I feel like a new woman.” Gwen choked on her coffee. Anabelle clucked in sympathy as Tillie gave Gwen a sturdy thump on the back. “Are you all right, honey?”

  “Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Gwen took three deep breaths to steady her voice. Looking into her mother’s guileless blue eyes, she opted for a temporary retreat. “I think I’ll go upstairs and unpack.”

  “I’ll help you,” Anabelle volunteered, and started to rise.

  “No, no, don’t bother.” Gwen placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “It won’t take long. I’ll shower and change and be down in an hour.” In an hour, Gwen hoped to have her thoughts more in order. She looked down at her mother’s smooth, lovely face and felt a hundred years old. “I love you, Mama,” she sighed, and kissed Anabelle’s brow before she left her.

  As Gwen moved down the hall, she realigned her strategy. Obviously, there was little she could say to her mother that would discourage her relationship with Luke Powers. It was going to be necessary, she decided, to go straight to the source. While climbing the stairs, she searched her imagination for an appropriate name for him. She could find nothing vile enough.

  Chapter 2

  A shaft of sunlight poured over the floor in Gwen’s room. The walls were covered in delicate floral paper. Eggshell-tinted sheer curtains were draped at the windows, matching the coverlet on the four-poster bed. As she always did when she entered the room, Gwen crossed to the French windows and threw them open. Scents from Anabelle’s flower garden swam up to meet her. Across the lawn was a spreading cypress, older than the house it guarded, festooned with gray-green moss. The sun filtered through it, making spiderweb patterns on the ground. Birdsong melded with the drone of bees. She could barely glimpse the mystery of the bayou through a thick curtain of oaks. New York’s busy streets seemed nonexistent. Gwen had chosen that world for its challenges, but she discovered that coming home was like a sweet dessert after a full meal. She had missed its taste. Feeling unaccountably more lighthearted, she turned back into her room. She plucked up her white terry-cloth robe and headed for the shower.

  Mama’s romanticizing again, Gwen mused as the water washed away her travel weariness. She simply doesn’t understand men at all. And you do? her conscience asked as she thought uncomfortably of Michael. Yes, I do understand them, she answered defiantly as she held her face up to the spray. I understand them perfectly. I won’t let Luke hurt my mother, she vowed. I won’t let him make a fool of her. I suppose he’s used to getting his own way because he’s successful and attractive. Well, I deal with successful, attractive people every day, and I know precisely how to handle them. Refreshed and ready for battle, Gwen stepped from the shower. With her confidence restored, she hummed lightly as she towel-dried her hair. Curls sprang to life on her forehead. Slipping on her robe, she tied the belt at her waist and strolled back into the bedroom.

  “You!” Gwen jerked the knot tight as she spied Luke Powers standing beside her dresser. “What are you doing in my room?”

  Calmly, his eyes traveled over her. The frayed robe was short, revealing slender legs well above the knee. Its simplicity outlined her nearly boyish slenderness. Without makeup, her eyes were huge and dark and curiously sweet. Luke watched her damp curls bounce with the outraged toss of her head.

  “Anabelle thought you’d like these,” he said as he indicated a vase of fresh yellow roses on the dresser. His hand made the gesture, but his eyes remained on Gwen. Gwen frowned.

  “You should have knocked,” she said ungraciously.

  “I did,” he said easily. “You didn’t answer.” To her amazement, he crossed the distance between them and lifted a hand to her cheek. “You have incredibly beautiful skin. Like rose petals washed in rainwater.”

  “Don’t!” Knocking his hand away, Gwen stepped back. “Don’t touch me.” She pushed her hair away from her face.

  Luke’s eyes narrowed fractionally at her tone, but his voice was calm. “I always touch what I admire.”

  “I don’t want you to admire me.”

  Humor lit his face and added to its appeal. “I didn’t say I admired you, Gwen, I said I admired your skin.”

  “Just keep your hands off my skin,” she snapped, wishing the warmth of his fingers would evaporate and leave her cheek as it had been before his touch. “And keep your hands off my mother.”

  “What gives you the notion I’ve had my hands on your mother?” Luke inquired, lifting a bottle of Gwen’s scent and examining it.

  “Her letters were clear enough.” Gwen snatched the bottle from him and slammed it back on the dresser. “They’ve been full of nothing but you for months. How you went to the theater or shopping, how you fixed her car or sprayed the peach trees. Especially how you’ve given her life fresh meaning.” Agitated, Gwen picked up her comb, then put it down again. His direct, unruffled stare tripped her nerves.

  “And from that,” Luke said into the silence, “you’ve concluded that Anabelle and I are having an affair.”

  “Well, of course.” His tone confused her for a moment. Was he amused? she wondered. His mouth was beautiful, a smile lurking on it. Furious with herself, Gwen tilted her chin. “Do you deny it?”

  Luke slipped his hands into his pockets and wandered about the room. Pausing, he studied the view from the open French windows. “No, I don’t believe I will. I believe I’ll simply tell you it’s none of your business.”

  “None of my . . .” Gwen sputtered, then swallowed in a torrent of fury. “None of my business? She’s my mother!”

  “She’s also a person,” Luke cut in. When he turned back to face her, there was curiosity on his face. “Or don’t you ever see her that way?”

  “I don’t feel it’s—”

  “No, you probably don’t,” he interrupted. “It’s certainly time you did, though. I doubt you feel Anabelle should approve of every man you have a relationship with.”

  Color flared in Gwen’s cheeks. “That’s entirely different,” she fumed, then stalked over to stand in front of him. “I don’t need you to tell me about my mother. You can flaunt your affairs with actresses and socialites all you want, but—”

  “Thank you,” Luke replied evenly. “It’s nice to have your approval.”

  “I won’t have you flaunting your affair with my mothe
r,” Gwen finished between her teeth. “You should be ashamed,” she added with a toss of her head, “seducing a woman a dozen years older than you.”

  “Of course, it would be perfectly acceptable if I were a dozen years older than she,” he countered smoothly.

  “I didn’t say that,” Gwen began. Her brow creased with annoyance.

  “You look too intelligent to hold such views, Gwen. You surprise me.” His mild voice was infuriating.

  “I don’t!” she denied hotly. Because the thought made her uncomfortable, her mouth moved into a pout. Luke’s eyes dropped to her lips and lingered.

  “A very provocative expression,” he said softly. “I thought so the first time I saw it, and it continues to intrigue me.” In one swift motion, he gathered her into his arms. At her gasp of surprised protest, he merely smiled. “I told you I always touch what I admire.” Gwen squirmed, but she was pinned tight against him, helpless as his face lowered toward her.

  His lips feathered lightly along her jawline. Gwen was caught off guard by the gentleness. Though his chest was solid and strong against her yielding breasts, his mouth was soft and sweet. Disarmed, she stood still in the circle of his arms as his mouth roamed her face. Through the slight barrier of the robe, she could feel every line of his body. They merged together as if destined to do so. Heat began to rise in her, a sudden, unexpected heat as irresistible as his mouth. Her lips throbbed for the touch of his. She moaned softly as he continued to trace light, teasing kisses over her skin. Her hands slipped up from his chest to find their way into his hair, urging him to fulfill a silent promise. At last his lips brushed hers. They touched, then clung, then devoured.

  Lost in pleasure, riding on sensations delirious and new, Gwen answered his demands with fervor. She rose on her toes to meet them. The kiss grew deeper. The roughness of his beard scratched her skin and tripled her heartbeat. A tenuous breeze fanned the curtains at the open windows, but Gwen felt no lessening of heat. Luke moved his hands down her spine, firmly caressing her curves before he took her hips and drew her away.

  Gwen stared up at him with dark, cloudy eyes. Never had a kiss moved her more, never had she been so filled with fire and need. Her soft mouth trembled with desire for his. The knowledge of what could be hers lay just beyond her comprehension. Luke lifted his hand to her damp curls, tilting back her head for one last, brief kiss. “You taste every bit as good as you look.”

  Abruptly Gwen remembered who and where she was. The fires of passion were extinguished by fury. “Oh!” She gave Luke’s chest a fierce push and succeeded in putting an entire inch between them. “How could you?”

  “It wasn’t hard,” he assured her.

  Gwen shook her head. Tiny droplets of water danced in the sunlight. “You’re despicable!”

  “Why?” Luke’s smile broadened. “Because I made you forget yourself for a moment? You made me forget myself for a moment too.” He seemed to enjoy the confession. “Does that make you despicable?”

  “I didn’t . . . It was you . . . I just . . .” Her words stumbled to a halt, and she made ineffectual noises in her throat.

  “At least try to be coherent,” Luke said.

  “Just let me go,” Gwen demanded. She began a violent and fruitless struggle. “Just let me go!”

  “Certainly,” Luke said obligingly. He brushed back her disheveled hair with a friendly hand. “You know, one day you might just be the woman your mother is.”

  “Oh!” Gwen paled in fury. “You’re disgusting.”

  Luke laughed with pure masculine enjoyment. “Gwenivere, I wasn’t speaking of your rather exceptional physical virtues.” He sobered, then shook his head. “Anabelle is the only person I know who looks for the good in everyone and finds it. It’s her most attractive asset.” His eyes were calm again and thoughtful. “Perhaps you should take time to get to know your mother while you’re here. You might be surprised.”

  Gwen retreated behind a film of ice. “I told you, I don’t need you to tell me about my mother.”

  “No?” Luke smiled, shrugged, and moved to the door. “Perhaps I’ll spend my time teaching you about yourself, then. See you at dinner.” He closed the door on her furious retort.

  ***

  The front parlor had both the color and the scent of roses. It was furnished in Anabelle’s delicate and feminine style. The chairs were small and elegant, with dusky pink cushions; the lamps, china and terrifyingly fragile; the rugs, faded and French. Even when she was not there, Anabelle’s presence could be felt.

  Gwen pushed aside a pale pink curtain and watched the sun go down while Anabelle chattered happily. The sky gradually took on the hues of sunset, until it glowed with defiant gold and fiery reds. Its passion suited Gwen much more than the soft comfort of the room at her back. She lifted her palm to the glass of the window, as if to touch that explosion of nature. She still felt the aftershocks of the explosion that had burst inside her only a few hours before in the arms of a stranger.

  It meant nothing, she assured herself for the hundredth time. I was off guard, tired, confused. I’m sure most of what I felt was pure imagination. I’m on edge, that’s all, everything’s exaggerated. She ran the tip of her tongue experimentally along her lips, but found no remnants of the heady flavor she remembered. Exaggerated, she told herself again.

  “A month’s quite a long time for you to be away from your job,” Anabelle said conversationally as she sorted through a basket of embroidery thread.

  Gwen shrugged and made a small sound of agreement. “I haven’t taken more than a long weekend in nearly two years.”

  “Yes, darling, I know. You work too hard.”

  The cerulean blue dress suited Gwen well, but as Anabelle glanced up at her, she again thought how thin her daughter looked. She was slim and straight as a wand. Gwen’s hair caught some of the last flames of the sun, and the mass of curls became a flood of rose-gold light. How did she get to be twenty-three? Anabelle wondered. She went back to sorting her thread. “You always were an overachiever. You must get that from your father’s side. His mother had two sets of twins, you know. That’s overachievement.”

  With a laugh, Gwen rested her forehead against the glass of the window. It was as refreshing as her mother. “Oh, Mama, I do love you.”

  “I love you, too, dear,” she answered absently as she scrutinized two tones of green. “You haven’t mentioned that young man you were seeing, the attorney. Michael, wasn’t it?”

  “It was,” Gwen returned dryly. Dusk began to fall as she watched. With the mellowing of light came an odd, almost reverent hush. She sighed. Dusk, she thought, was the most precious time, and the most fleeting. The sound of the first cricket brought her out of her reverie. “I’m not seeing Michael anymore.”

  “Oh, dear.” Anabelle looked up, distressed. “Did you have a disagreement?”

  “A series of them. I’m afraid I don’t make the ideal companion for a corporate attorney.” Gwen made a face in the glass and watched it reflect. “I have too many deep-rooted plebeian values. Mostly, I like to see the little guy get a break.”

  “Well, I hope you parted friends.”

  Gwen closed her eyes and stifled a sardonic laugh as she recalled the volatile parting scene. “I’m sure we’ll exchange Christmas cards for years to come.”

  “That’s nice,” Anabelle murmured comfortably as she threaded her needle. “Old friends are the most precious.”

  With a brilliant smile, Gwen turned toward her mother. The smile faded instantly as she spotted Luke in the doorway. As her eyes locked with his, she felt herself trembling. He had changed into tan slacks and a rust-colored shirt. The effect was casual and expensive. But somehow there seemed little difference between the clean-shaven, conventionally clad man Gwen now saw and the rugged woodsman she had met that morning. Clothes and a razor could not alter the essence of his virility.

  “It’s a fortunate man who has two exquisite women to himself.”

  “Luke!” Anabelle’s hea
d lifted. Instantly, her face was touched with pleasure. “How lovely it is to be flattered! Don’t you agree, Gwen?”

  “Lovely,” Gwen assented, as she sent him her most frigid smile.

  With easy assurance, Luke crossed the room. From Gwen’s grandmother’s Hepplewhite server, he lifted a crystal decanter. “Sherry?”

  “Thank you, darling.” Anabelle turned her smile from him to Gwen. “Luke bought the most delightful sherry. I’m afraid he’s been spoiling me.”

  I’ll just bet he has, Gwen muttered silently. Temper flared in her eyes. Had she seen it, Anabelle would have recognized the look. Luke both saw it and recognized it. To Gwen’s further fury, he grinned.

  “We shouldn’t dawdle long,” Anabelle said, unconscious of the war being waged over her head. “Tillie has a special supper planned for Gwen. She dotes on her, you know, though she wouldn’t admit it for the world. I believe she’s missed Gwen every bit as much as I have these past two years.”

  “She’s missed having someone to scold,” Gwen smiled ruefully. “I still carry the stigma of being skinny and unladylike that I acquired when I was ten.”

  “You’ll always be ten to Tillie, darling.” Anabelle sighed and shook her head. “I have a difficult time realizing you’re more than twice that myself.”

  Gwen turned toward Luke as he offered her a glass of sherry. “Thank you,” she said in her most graciously insulting voice. She sipped, faintly disappointed to find that it was excellent. “And will you be spoiling me, as well, Mr. Powers?”

  “Oh, I doubt that, Gwenivere.” He took her hand, although she stiffened and tried to pull it away. His eyes laughed over their joined fingers. “I doubt that very much.”

  Chapter 3

 
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