Born in ice, p.23
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       Born in Ice, p.23

         Part #2 of Born In series by Nora Roberts
 

  "You're a darling man, Murphy." Grinning, she kissed his cheek.

  "So all the ladies tell me." He tugged on a loose curl of hair. "And what would your Yank think if he came across you charming me in my own field?"

  "He's not my Yank." She shifted as Murphy only lifted one black brow. "You like him, don't you?"

  "Hard not to like him. Is he worrying you, Brianna?"

  "Maybe a little." She sighed, gave up. There was nothing in her heart and mind she couldn't tell Murphy. "A lot. I care for him. I'm not sure what to do about it, but I care for him, so much. It's different than even it was with Rory."

  At the mention of the name, Murphy scowled and stared down at the tip of his cigarette. "Rory's not worth a single thought in your head."

  "I don't spend time thinking of him. But now, with Gray, it brings it back, you see. Murphy... he'll leave, you know. As Rory left." She looked away. She could say it, Brianna thought, but she couldn't deal with the sympathy in Murphy's eyes when she did. "I try to understand that, to accept it. I tell myself it'll be easier for at least I'll know why. Not knowing, my whole life with Rory, what was lacking in me-"

  "There's nothing lacking in you," Murphy said shortly. "Put it aside."

  "I have. I did-or nearly. But I ..." Overwhelmed, she turned away to stare out over the hills. "But what is it in me, or not in me, that sends a man away? Do I ask too much from him, or not enough? Is there a coldness in me that freezes them out?"

  "There's nothing cold about you. Stop blaming yourself for someone else's cruelty."

  "But I've only myself to ask. Ten years, it's been. And this is the first time since I've felt any stirring. It frightens me because I don't know how I'll live through heartbreak again. He's not Rory, I know, and yet-"

  "No, he's not Rory." Furious at seeing her so lost, so unhappy, Murphy tossed his cigarette down and ground it out. "Rory was a fool who couldn't see what he had, and wanted to believe whatever lies he heard. You should thank God he's gone."

  "What lies?"

  The heat stirred in Murphy's eyes, then cooled. "Whatever. The day's wasting, Brie. I'll come look at your car tomorrow."

  "What lies?" She put a hand on his arm. There was a faint ringing in her ears, a hard fist in her belly. "What do you know about it, Murphy, that you haven't told me?"

  "What would I know? Rory and I were never mates."

  "No, you weren't," she said slowly. "He never liked you. He was jealous, he was, because we were close. He couldn't see that it was like having a brother. He couldn't see that," she continued, watching Murphy carefully. "And once or twice we argued over it, and he said how I was too free with kisses when it came to you."

  Something flickered over Murphy's face before he checked it. "Well, didn't I tell you he was a fool?"

  "Did you say something to him about it? Did he say something to you?" She waited, then the chill that was growing in her heart spread and cloaked her. "You'll tell me, by God you will. I've a right. I wept my heart out over him, I suffered from the pitying looks of everyone I knew. I watched your sister marry in the dress I'd made with my own hands to be a bride. For ten years there's been an emptiness in me."

  "Brianna."

  "You'll tell me." Rigid, braced, she faced him. "For I can see you have the answer. If you're my friend, you'll tell me."

  "That 'tisn't fair."

  "Is doubting myself all this time any fairer?"

  "I don't want to hurt you, Brianna." Gently he touched a hand to her cheek. "I'd cut off my arm before."

  "I'll hurt less knowing."

  "Maybe. Maybe." He couldn't know, had never known. "Maggie and I both thought-"

  "Maggie?" she broke in, stunned. "Maggie knows as well?"

  Oh, he was in it now, he realized. And there was no way out without sinking the lot of them. "Her love for you is so fierce, Brianna. She'd do anything to protect you."

  "And I'll tell you what I've told her, time and again. I don't need protecting. Tell me what you know."

  Ten years, he thought, was a long time for an honest man to hold a secret. Ten years, he thought, was longer still for an innocent woman to hold blame.

  "He came after me one day while I was out here, working the fields. He went for me, out of the blue, it seemed to me. And not being fond of him, I went for him as well. Can't say my heart was in it much until he said what he did. He said you'd been... with me."

  It embarrassed him still, and beneath the embarrassment, he discovered there remained that sharp-edged rage that had never dulled with time.

  "He said that we'd made a fool of him behind his back and he'd not marry a whore. I bloodied his face for that," Murphy said viciously, his fist curling hard in memory. "I'm not sorry for it. I might have broken his bones as well, but he told me he'd heard it from your mother's own lips. That she'd told him you'd been sneaking off with me, and might even be carrying my child."

  She was dead pale now, her heart crackling with ice. "My mother said this to him?"

  "She said-she couldn't, in good conscience, let him marry you in church when you'd sinned with me."

  "She knew I hadn't," Brie whispered. "She knew we hadn't."

  "Her reasons for believing it, or saying it, are her own. Maggie came by when I was cleaning myself up, and I told her before I could think better of it. At first I thought she'd go deal with Maeve with her fists, and I had to hold her there until she'd calmed a bit. We talked, and it was Maggie's thinking that Maeve had done it to keep you at home."

  Oh, yes, Brianna thought. At home, that had never been a home. "Where I'd tend her, and the house, and Da."

  "We didn't know what to do, Brianna. I swear to you I'd have dragged you away from the altar meself if you'd gone ahead and tried to marry that snake-bellied bastard. But he left the very next day, and you were hurting so. I didn't have the heart, nor did Maggie, to tell you what he'd said."

  "You didn't have the heart." She pressed her lips together. "What you didn't have, Murphy, you nor Maggie, was the right to keep it from me. You didn't have the right any more than my mother did to say such things."

  "Brianna."

  She jerked back before he could touch her. "No, don't. I can't talk to you now. I can't talk to you." She turned and raced away.

  She didn't weep. The tears were frozen in her throat, and she refused to let them melt. She ran across the fields, seeing nothing now, nothing but the haze of what had been. Or what had nearly been. All innocence had been shattered now. All illusions crushed to dust. Her life was lies. Conceived on them, bred on them, nurtured with them.

  By the time she reached the house, her breath was sobbing in her lungs. She stopped herself, fisting her hands hard until her nails dug into flesh.

  The birds still sang, and the tender young flowers she'd planted herself continued to dance in the breeze. But they no longer touched her. She saw herself as she'd been, shocked and appalled as she'd felt Rory's hand strike her to the ground. All these years later she could visualize it perfectly, the bafflement she'd felt as she'd stared up at him, the rage and disgust in his face before he'd turned and left her there.

  She'd been marked as a whore, had she? By her own mother. By the man she had loved. What a fine joke it was, when she had never felt the weight of a man.

  Very quietly she opened the door, closed it behind her.

  So her fate had been decided for her on that long-ago morning. Well, now, this very day, she would take her fate into her own hands.

  Deliberately she walked up the stairs, opened Gray's door. Closed it tight at her back. "Grayson?"

  "Huh?"

  "Do you want me?"

  "Sure. Later." His head came up, his glazed eyes only half focused. "What? What did you say?"

  "Do you want me?" she repeated. Her spine was as stiff as the question. "You've said you did, and acted as you did."

  "I..." He made a manful attempt to pull himself out of imagination into reality. She was pale as ice, he noted, and her eyes glittered with cold
. And, he noted, hurt. "Brianna, what's going on?"

  "A simple question. I'd thank you for an answer to it."

  "Of course I want you. What's the-what in hell are you doing?" He was out of the chair like a shot, gaping as she began to briskly unbutton her blouse. "Cut it out. Goddamn it, stop that now."

  "You said you want me. I'm obliging you."

  "I said stop." In three strides he was to her, yanking her blouse together. "What's gotten into you? What's happened?"

  "That's neither here nor there." She could feel herself beginning to shake and fought it back. "You've been trying to persuade me into bed, now I'm ready to go. If you can't spare the time now, just say so." Her eyes flared. "I'm used to being put off."

  "It's not a matter of time-"

  "Well, then." She broke away to turn down the bed. "Would you prefer the curtains open or closed? I've no preference."

  "Leave the stupid curtains." The neat way she folded down the covers did what it always did. It made his stomach tighten into a slippery fist of lust. "We're not going to do this."

  "You don't want me, then." When she straightened her open blouse shifted, giving him a tantalizing peek of pale skin and tidy white cotton.

  "You're killing me," he murmured.

  "Fine. I'll leave you to die in peace." Head high, she marched for the door. He merely slammed a hand on it to keep it shut.

  "You're not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on."

  "Nothing, it seems, at least with you." She pressed herself back against the door, forgetting now to breathe slowly, evenly, to keep the wrenching pain out of her voice. "Surely there's a man somewhere who might spare a moment or two to give me a tumble."

  He bared his teeth. "You're pissing me off."

  "Oh, well, that's a pity. I do beg your pardon. It's sorry I am to have bothered you. It's only that I thought you'd meant what you'd said. That's my problem, you see," she murmured as tears glistened in her eyes. "Always believing."

  He would have to handle the tears, he realized, and whatever emotional tailspin she was caught in, without touching her. "What happened?"

  "I found out." Her eyes weren't cold now, but devastated and desperate. "I found out that there's never been a man who's loved me. Not really loved me ever. And that my own mother lied, lied hatefully, to take away even that small chance of happiness. She told him I'd slept with Murphy. She told him that, and that I might be carrying a child. How could he marry me believing that? How could be believe it loving me?"

  "Hold on a minute." He paused, waiting for her quick blur of words to register. "You're saying that your mother told the guy you were going to marry, this Rory, that you'd been having sex with Murphy, might be pregnant?"

  "She told him that so that I couldn't escape this house." Leaning her head back she closed her eyes. "This house as it was then. And he believed her. He believed I could have done that, believed it so that he never asked me if it was true. Only told me he wouldn't have me, and left. And all this time Maggie and Murphy have known it, and kept it from me."

  Tread carefully, Gray warned himself. Emotional quicksand. "Look, I'm on the outside here, and I'd say, being a professional observer, that your sister and Murphy kept their mouths shut to keep you from hurting more than you already were."

  "It was my life, wasn't it? Do you know what it's like not to know why you're not wanted, to go through life only knowing you weren't, but never why?"

  Yeah, he knew, exactly. But he didn't think it was the answer she wanted. "He didn't deserve you. That should give you some satisfaction."

  "It doesn't. Not now. I thought you would show me." He stepped cautiously back as the breath clogged in his lungs. A beautiful woman, one who had, from the first instant, stirred his blood. Innocent. Offering. "You're upset," he managed in a tight voice. "Not thinking clearly. And as much as it pains me, there are rules." "I don't want excuses."

  "You want a substitute." The quick violence of the statement surprised both of them. He hadn't realized that little germ had been in his head. But he lashed out as it grew. "I'm not a goddamn stand-in for some whiny, wimp-hearted jerk who tossed you over a decade ago. Yesterday sucks. Well, welcome to reality. When I take a woman to bed, she's going to be thinking about me. Just me."

  What little color that had seeped back into her cheeks drained. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way, didn't mean it to seem that way."

  "That's exactly how it seems, because that's exactly what it is. Pull yourself together," he ordered, deadly afraid she would start to cry again. "When you figure out what you want, let me know."

  "I only... I needed to feel as if something, you, wanted me. I thought-I hoped I'd have something to remember. Just once, to know what it was like to be touched by a man I cared for." The color came back, humiliation riding her cheeks as Gray stared at her. "Doesn't matter. I'm sorry. I'm very sorry."

  She yanked open the door and fled.

  She was sorry, Gray thought, staring into the space where she'd been. He
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