Her mothers keeper, p.4
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.4

           Nora Roberts
 
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  not just for the money, I need the responsibility it imposes, I need to be involved.”

  “Yes, you always did . . . My, the beignets look marvelous.”

  “They are,” Gwen assured her mother as she rested her elbows on the table and her chin on her open palms. “I felt obligated to try one before I offered them to you.”

  “See, I’ve always told you you were sensible,” Anabelle said with a smile before she tasted one of the oddly shaped doughnuts. “Delicious,” she proclaimed. “Tillie doesn’t make them any better, though that had best be our secret.”

  Gwen allowed time to pass with easy conversation until she poured the second cup of chocolate. “Mama,” she began cautiously, “how long does Luke Powers plan to stay here?”

  The lifting of Anabelle’s delicate brows indicated her surprise. “Stay?” she repeated as she dusted powdered sugar from her fingers. “Why, I don’t know precisely, Gwen. It depends, I should say, on the stage of his book. I know he plans to finish the first draft before he goes back to California.”

  “I suppose,” Gwen said casually as she stirred her chocolate, “he’ll have no reason to come back here after that.”

  “Oh, I imagine he’ll be back.” Anabelle smiled into her daughter’s eyes. “Luke is very fond of this part of the country. I wish I could tell you what his coming here has meant to me.” Dreamily, she stared out into the hazy sky. Gwen felt a stab of alarm. “He’s given me so much. I’d like you to spend some time with him, dear, and get to know him.”

  Gwen’s teeth dug into the tender inside of her lip. For the moment, she felt completely at a loss. She raged in silence while Anabelle smiled secretly at rain clouds. Despicable man. How can he do this to her? Gwen glanced down into the dregs of her cup and felt a weight descend on her heart. And what is he doing to me? No matter how she tried to ignore it, Gwen could still feel the warmth of his lips on hers. The feeling clung, taunting and enticing. She was teased by a feeling totally foreign to her, a longing she could neither identify nor understand. Briskly, she shook her head to clear her thoughts. Luke Powers was only a problem while he was in Louisiana. The aim was to get him back to the West Coast and to discourage him from coming back.

  “Gwen?”

  “Hmm? Oh, yes, Mama.” Blinking away the confused images and thoughts of Luke, Gwen met Anabelle’s curious look.

  “I said blueberry pie would be nice with supper. Luke’s very fond of it. I thought perhaps you’d like to pick some berries for Tillie.”

  Gwen pondered briefly on the attractive prospect of sprinkling arsenic over Luke’s portion, then rejected the idea. “I’d love to,” she murmured.

  ***

  The air was thick with moisture when, armed with a large bucket, Gwen went in search of blueberries. With a quick glance and shrug at the cloudy sky, she opted to risk the chance of rain. She would use her berry-picking time to devise a plan to send Luke Powers westward. Swinging the bucket, she moved across the trim lawn and into the dim, sheltering trees that formed a border between her home and the bayou. Here was a different world from her mother’s gentle, tidy, well-kept home. This was a primitive world with ageless secrets and endless demands. It had been Gwen’s refuge as a child, her personal island. Although she remembered each detail perfectly, she stood and drank in its beauty anew.

  There was a mist over the sluggish stream. Dull and brown, cattails peeked through the surface in search of the hidden sun. Here and there, cypress stumps rose above the surface. The stream itself moved in a narrow path, then curved out of sight. Gwen remembered how it twisted and snaked and widened. Over the straight, slender path, trees arched tunnellike, garnished with moss. The water was silent, but Gwen could hear the birds and an occasional plop of a frog. She knew the serenity was a surface thing. Beneath the calm was a passion and violence and wild, surging life. It called to her as it always had.

  With confidence, she moved along the riverbank and searched out the plump wild berries. Silence and the simplicity of her task were soothing. Years slipped away, and she was a teenager again, a girl whose most precious fantasy was to be a part of a big city. She had dreamed in the sheltered bayou of the excitement, the mysteries of city life, the challenges of carving out her own path. Hard work, determination and a quick mind had hurried her along that path. She had earned a responsible job, established an interesting circle of friends and acquired, just lately, a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.

  Overworked, Gwen self-diagnosed, and popped a berry into her mouth. Its juice was sweet and full of memories. And, of course, there’s Michael. With a frown, Gwen dropped a handful of berries into the bucket. Even though it was my idea to end things between us, I could be suffering from the backlash of a terminated romance. And those things he said . . . Her frown deepened, and unconsciously she began to nibble on berries. That I was cold and unresponsive and immature . . . I must not have loved him. Sighing, Gwen picked more berries and ate them, one by one. If I had loved him, I’d have wanted him to make love to me.

  I’m not cold, she thought. I’m not unresponsive. Look at the way I responded to Luke! She froze with a berry halfway to her mouth. Her cheeks filled with color. That was different, she assured herself quickly. Entirely different. She popped the berry into her mouth. That was simply physical, it had nothing to do with emotion. Chemistry, that’s all. Why, it’s practically scientific.

  She speculated on the possibility of seducing Luke. She could flirt and tease and drive him to the point of distraction, make him fall in love with her and then cast him off when all danger to Anabelle was past. It can’t be too difficult, she decided. I’ve seen lots of the models twist men around their fingers. She looked down at her own and noted they were stained with berry juice.

  “Looks as though you’ve just been booked by the FBI.”

  Whirling, Gwen stared at Luke as he leaned back comfortably against a thick cypress. Again he wore jeans and a T-shirt, both faded and well worn. His eyes seemed to take their color from the sky and were more gray now than blue. Gwen’s heart hammered at the base of her throat.

  “Must you continually sneak up on me?” she snapped. Annoyed with the immediate response of her body to his presence, she spoke heatedly. “You have the most annoying habit of being where you’re not wanted.”

  “Did you know you become more the Southern belle when you’re in a temper?” Luke asked with an easy, unperturbed smile. “Your vowels flow quite beautifully.”

  Gwen’s breath came out in a frustrated huff. “What do you want?” she demanded.

  “To help you pick berries. Though it seems you’re doing more eating than picking.”

  It trembled on her tongue to tell him that she didn’t need or want his help. Abruptly, she remembered her resolve to wind him around her berry-stained finger. Carefully she smoothed the frown from between her brows and coaxed her mouth into a charming smile. “How sweet of you.”

  Luke raised a quizzical eyebrow at her change of tone. “I’m notoriously sweet,” he said dryly. “Didn’t you know?”

  “We don’t know each other well, do we?” Gwen smiled and held out the bucket. “At least, not yet.”

  Slowly, Luke straightened from his stance and moved to join her. He accepted the bucket while keeping his eyes fastened on hers. Determinedly, Gwen kept her own eyes level and unconcerned. She found it difficult to breathe with him so close. “How is your book going?” she asked, hoping to divert him while she regained control of her respiratory system.

  “Well enough.” He watched as she began to tug berries off the bush again.

  “I’m sure it must be fascinating.” Gwen slid her eyes up to his in a manner she hoped was provocative and exciting. “I hope you won’t think me a bore if I confess I’m quite a fan of yours. I have all your books.” This part was easier because it was true.

  “It’s never a bore to know one’s work is appreciated.”

  Emboldened, Gwen laid her hand on his on the handle of the bucket. Something flashed
in his eyes, and her courage fled. Quickly slipping the bucket from his hold, she began to pick berries with renewed interest while cursing her lack of bravery.

  “How do you like living in New York?” Luke asked as he began to add to the gradually filling bucket.

  “New York?” Gwen cleared her head with a quick mental shake. Resolutely, she picked up the strings of her plan again. “It’s very exciting—such a sensual city, don’t you think?” Gwen lifted a berry to Luke’s lips. She hoped her smile was invitingly alluring, and wished she had thought to practice in a mirror.

  Luke opened his mouth to accept her offering. His tongue whispered along the tips of her fingers. Gwen felt them tremble. It took every ounce of willpower not to snatch her hand away. “Do you—do you like New York?” Her voice was curiously husky as she began to pull berries again. The tone was uncontrived and by far the most enticing of her tactics.

  “Sometimes,” Luke answered, then brushed the hair away from her neck.

  Moistening her lips, Gwen inched away. “I suppose you live in Louisiana.”

  “No, I have a place near Carmel, at the beach. What marvelously soft hair you have,” he murmured, running his hand through it.

  “The beach,” Gwen repeated, swallowing. “It must be wonderful. I’ve—I’ve never seen the Pacific.”

  “It can be very wild, very dangerous,” Luke said softly before his lips brushed the curve of Gwen’s neck.

  There was a small, strangled sound from Gwen’s throat. She moved farther away and fought to keep up a casual front. “I’ve seen pictures, of course, and movies, but I expect it’s quite different to actually see it. I’m sure it’s a wonderful place to write.”

  “Among other things.” From behind, Luke dropped his hands to her hips as he caught the lobe of her ear between his teeth. For a moment, Gwen could only lean back against him. Abruptly she stiffened, straightened, and put a few precious inches between them.

  “You know,” she began, completely abandoning her plans to seduce him, “I believe we have enough.” As she turned around, her breasts brushed against his chest. She began to back up, stammering. “Tillie won’t want to make more than two—two pies, and there’s plenty here for that.” Her eyes were wide and terrified.

  Luke moved forward. “Then we won’t have to waste any more time picking berries, will we?” The insinuation was clear.

  “No, well . . .” Her eyes clung helplessly to his as she continued to back up. “Well, I’ll just take these in to Tillie. She’ll be waiting.”

  He was still advancing, slowly. Just as Gwen decided to abandon her dignity and run, she stepped backward into empty space. With a sharp cry, she made a desperate grab for Luke’s hand. He plucked the bucket from her as she tumbled into the stream.

  “Wouldn’t want to lose the berries,” he explained as Gwen surfaced, coughing and sputtering. “How’s the water?”

  “Oh!” After beating the surface of the water violently with her fists, Gwen struggled to her feet. “You did that on purpose!” Her hair was plastered to her face, and impatiently she pushed it out of her eyes.

  “Did what?” Luke grinned, appreciating the way her clothes clung to her curves.

  “Pushed me in.” She took two sloshing steps toward the bank.

  “My dear Gwenivere,” Luke said in a reasonable tone. “I never laid a hand on you.”

  “Exactly.” She kicked at the water in fury. “It’s precisely the same thing.”

  “I suppose it might be from your point of view,” he agreed. “But then, you were getting in over your head in any case. Consider the dunking the lesser of two evils. By the way, you have a lily pad on your . . .” His pause for the sake of delicacy was belied by the gleam in his eyes.

  Flushing with embarrassment and fury, Gwen swiped a hand across her bottom. “As I said before, you are no gentleman.”

  Luke roared with laughter. “Why, Miss Gwenivere, ma’am, your opinion devastates me.” His drawl was mocking, his bow low.

  “At least,” she began with a regal sniff, “you could help me out of this mess.”

  “Of course.” With a show of gallantry, Luke set down the bucket and reached for Gwen’s hand. Her wet shoes slid on the slippery bank. To help balance her, he offered his other hand. Just as she reached the top edge, Gwen threw all her weight backward, tumbling them both into the water. This time, Gwen surfaced convulsed with laughter.

  As she stood, she watched him rise from the water and free his eyes of wet hair with a jerk of his head. Laughter blocked her speech. In silence, Luke watched as the sounds of her uninhibited mirth filled the air.

  “How’s the water?” she managed to get out before dissolving into fresh peals of laughter. Though she covered her mouth with both hands, it continued to escape and dance on the air. A quick hoot of laughter emerged as she saw his eyes narrow. He took a step toward her, and she began a strategic retreat. She moved with more speed than grace through the water, kicking it high. Giggles caused her to stumble twice. She scrambled up the slope but before she could rise to her feet, Luke caught her ankle. Pulling himself up onto the grass, he pinned Gwen beneath him.

  Breathless, Gwen could still not stop laughing. Water dripped from Luke’s hair onto her face, and she shook her head as it tickled her skin. A smile lurked in Luke’s eyes as he looked down on her.

  “I should have known better, I suppose,” he commented. “But you have such an innocent face.”

  “You don’t.” Gwen took deep gulps of air in a fruitless effort to control her giggles. “Yours isn’t innocent at all.”

  “Thank you.”

  Abruptly, the heavens opened and rain fell, warm and wild. “Oh!” Gwen began to push against him. “It’s raining.”

  “So it is,” Luke agreed, ignoring her squirms. “We might get wet.”

  The absurdity of his statement struck her suddenly. After staring up at him a moment, Gwen began to laugh again. It was a young sound, appealing and free. Gradually, Luke’s expression sobered. In his eyes appeared a desire so clear, so unmistakable, that Gwen’s breath caught in her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.

  “My God,” he murmured. “You are exquisite.”

  His mouth took hers with a raw, desperate hunger. Her mouth was as avid as his, her blood as urgent. Their wet clothing proved no barrier as their bodies fused together in ageless intimacy. His caress was rough, and she reveled in the exquisite pain. The soft moan might have come from either of them. He savaged the vulnerable curve of her neck, tasting, arousing, demanding. His quick, desperate loving took her beyond the edge of reason and into ecstasy.

  She felt no fear, only excitement. Here was a passion that sought and found her hidden fires and set them leaping. Rain poured over them unfelt, thunder bellowed unheard. His hands were possessive as they moved over her. Through the clinging dampness of her blouse, his mouth found the tip of her breast. She trembled, murmuring his name as he explored the slender smoothness of her thigh. She wanted him as she had never wanted anyone before.

  “Luke?” His name was half question, half invitation.

  Lightning flashed and illuminated the bayou. Just as swiftly they were plunged again into gloom.

  “We’d better get back,” Luke said abruptly, rising. “Your mother will be worried.”

  Gwen shut her eyes on a sudden stab of hurt. Hurriedly, she scrambled to her feet, avoiding Luke’s outstretched hand. She swayed under a dizzying onslaught of emotions. “Gwen,” Luke said, and took a step toward her.

  “No.” Her voice shook with the remnants of passion and the beginning of tears. Her eyes as they clung to his were young and devastated. “I must be losing my mind. You had no right,” she told him shakily, “you had no right.”

  “To what?” he demanded roughly and grasped her shoulders. “To begin to make love with you or to stop?” Anger crackled in his voice.

  “I wish I’d never seen you! I wish you’d never touched me.”

  “Oh, yes.”
Temper whipped through Luke’s voice as he pulled her close to him again. “I can only say I wish precisely the same, but it’s too late now, isn’t it?” She had never seen his eyes so lit with fury. “Neither of us seems pleased with what’s been started, but perhaps we should finish it.” Rain swept around them, slicing through the trees and battering the ground. For a moment, Gwen knew terror. He could take her, she knew, even if she fought him. But worse, she knew he would need no force, no superior strength, after the first touch. Abruptly, he released her and stepped away. “Unless that’s what you want,” he said softly, “you’d best get out of here.”

  This time Gwen took his advice. Sobbing convulsively, she darted away among the moss-draped trees. Her one thought . . . to reach the safety of home.

  Chapter 5

  The rain had awakened the garden. Twenty-four hours later it was still vibrant. Rose petals dried lazily in the sun while dew clung tenaciously to the undersides of leaves. Without enthusiasm, Gwen moved from bush to bush, selecting firm young blooms. Since the day before, she had avoided Luke Powers. With a determination born of desperation, she had clung to her mother’s company, using Anabelle as both a defense and an offense. If, she had decided, she was always with Anabelle, Luke could not be. Nor could he take another opportunity to confuse and humiliate Gwen herself.

  The basket on her arm was half filled with flowers, but she felt no pleasure in their colors and scents. Something was happening to her—she knew it, felt it, but could not define it. More and more often, she caught her thoughts drifting away from whatever task she was performing. It is, she reflected as she snipped a slender, thorny rose stem with Anabelle’s garden shears, as if even my thoughts aren’t wholly mine any longer.

  When she considered her behavior over the past two days, Gwen was astounded. She had come to warn her mother about her relationship with Luke Powers and instead had found herself responding to him as she had never responded to Michael or any
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