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Her mothers keeper, p.7
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.7

           Nora Roberts
 
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  told her.

  Gwen swung around to face him. “I don’t want to be here with you.”

  Luke lifted a brow, letting his eyes play over her face. “Why not? I can’t imagine more attractive circumstances. This lovely garden . . . A beautiful day . . . Tell me something,” he continued, interrupting whatever retort she might have made. Casually, he tangled the fingers of his other hand in her hair. “What were you thinking of when you hugged your mother and looked at me?”

  “That’s none of your business.” Gwen jerked her head, trying to free her hair from his curious fingers.

  “Really?” He lifted and stroked a straying lock of her hair. Somewhere in the distant west, she heard the first rumbles of thunder. “I had the impression whatever was going through your mind at that moment was very much my business.” He brought his eyes back down to hers and held them steady. “Why do you suppose I did?”

  “I haven’t the faintest idea,” Gwen returned coolly. “Probably an author’s overheated imagination.”

  Luke’s smile moved slowly, touching his eyes seconds before it touched his lips. “I don’t think so, Gwen. I prefer thinking of it as a writer’s intuition.”

  “Or a man’s overinflated ego,” she shot back, lifting her hand to her hair in an attempt to remove his exploring fingers. “Would you stop that!” she demanded, trying to ignore the dancing of nerves at the back of her neck.

  “Or a man’s sensitivity to a woman,” he countered, bringing her hand to his lips. He kissed her fingers one at a time until she regained the presence of mind to try to jerk free. Instead of releasing her, Luke simply laced fingers with hers. They stood, joined as carelessly as schoolchildren, while she frowned at him. The thunder came again, closer. “Sensitive enough to know when a woman who is attracted to me,” he went on lazily, “is not willing to admit it.”

  Her eyes narrowed. “You’re impossibly conceited.”

  “Hopelessly honest,” he corrected. “Shall I prove it to you?”

  Gwen lifted her chin. “There’s nothing to prove.” She knew the hopelessness of attempting to pull her hand from his. Casually, she looked past him to the sky. “The clouds are coming in. I don’t want to get caught in the rain.”

  “We’ve got a minute,” he said, without even glancing at the sky. He smiled. “I believe I make you nervous.”

  “Don’t flatter yourself,” she tossed back, and kept her hands calm in his.

  “The pulse in your throat is hammering.” His eyes dropped and lingered on it, further increasing its pace. “It’s strangely attractive—”

  “It always does when I’m annoyed,” she said, fighting for poise as the sweep of his eyes from her throat to her face threatened to destroy her composure.

  “I like you when you’re annoyed. I like to watch the different expressions on your face and to see your eyes darken . . . but . . .” He trailed off, slipping his hands to her wrists. “At the moment, I believe it’s nerves.”

  “Believe what you like.” It was impossible to prevent her pulse from pounding against his fingers. She tried to calm her rebel blood. “You don’t make me the least bit nervous.”

  “No?” His grin turned wolfish. Gwen braced for a struggle. “A difference of opinion,” he observed. “And one I’m tempted to resolve.” He drew her closer, letting his eyes rest on her mouth. Gwen knew he was baiting her and held her ground. She said nothing, waiting for him to make his move.

  “At the moment, however, I’m starved.” Luke grinned, then gave her a quick, unexpected kiss on the nose. “And I’m too much of a coward to risk Tillie’s bad temper.” He dropped one of her hands, but kept the other companionably linked with his. “Let’s eat,” he suggested, ignoring Gwen’s frown.

  Chapter 7

  Gwen noticed several small changes in Anabelle. There was an air of secrecy about her that Gwen found out of character. She disappears so often, Gwen thought as she seated herself in front of the vintage Steinway in the parlor. She’s here one minute and gone the next. And she spends too much time with Luke Powers. There are too many discussions that stop abruptly when I walk in on them. They make me feel like an intruder. With little interest, she began to pick out a melody. The breeze came softly through the window, barely stirring the curtain. The scent of jasmine was elusive, teasing the senses.

  I’m jealous, Gwen realized with a jolt of surprise. I expected Mama’s undivided attention, and I’m not getting it. With a rueful laugh, Gwen began to play Chopin. Now when have I ever had Mama’s undivided attention? She’s always had her “visitors,” her antiques, her flowers.

  Thinking back over childhood memories, Gwen played with absentminded skill. She had forgotten how soothing the piano was to her. I haven’t given myself enough time for this, she reflected. I should take a step back and look at where my life is going. I need to find out what’s missing. Her fingers stilled on the last note, which floated quietly through the air and then vanished.

  “Lovely,” Luke said. “Really lovely.”

  Gwen suppressed the desire to jump at the sound of his voice. She forced herself to raise her eyes and meet his, struggling to keep the color from tinting her cheeks. It was difficult, after what she had said the evening before, to face him. She felt her defenses were shaky, her privacy invaded. He knew more of her now than she wanted him to.

  “Thank, you,” she said politely. “I am, as Mama always said I would be, grateful for the music lessons she forced me to take.”

  “Forced?” To Gwen’s consternation, Luke sat down on the stool beside her.

  “As only she can.” Gwen relieved a portion of her tension by giving her attention to another melody. “With quiet, unarguable insistence.”

  “Ah.” Luke nodded in agreement. “And you didn’t want to study piano?”

  “No, I wanted to study crawfishing.” She was stunned when he began to play along with her, picking out the melody on the treble keys. “I didn’t know you played.” The utter disbelief in her voice brought on his laugh.

  “Believe it or not, I, too, had a mother.” He gave Gwen his swift, conspiratorial grin. “I wanted to study rock skipping.”

  Totally disarmed, Gwen smiled back at him. Something passed between them. It was as strong and as real as the passion that had flared with their kiss, as gentle and soothing as the music drifting from the keys.

  “Isn’t that sweet.” Anabelle stood in the doorway and beamed at both of them. “Duets are so charming.”

  “Mama.” Gwen was relieved her voice did not tremble. “I looked for you earlier.”

  “Did you?” Anabelle smiled. “I’m sorry, dear, I’ve been busy with . . . this and that,” she finished vaguely. “Aren’t you sitting for Bradley today?”

  “I’ve already given him his two hours this morning,” Gwen answered. “It’s lucky for me he wants the early light, or I’d be sitting all day. I thought perhaps you had something you’d like me to do or someplace you’d like me to take you. It’s such a lovely day.”

  “Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Anabelle agreed. Her eyes drifted momentarily to Luke’s. Abruptly, her cheeks dimpled and her lips curved. “Why, as a matter of fact, darling, there is something you could do for me. Oh—” She paused and shook her head. “But it’s so much trouble.”

  “I don’t mind,” Gwen interrupted, falling into a childhood trap.

  “Well, if it really isn’t a bother,” Anabelle continued, beaming again. “I especially wanted some embroidery thread, very unusual shades, difficult to find, I’m afraid. There’s a little shop in the French Market that carries them.”

  “In New Orleans?” Gwen’s eyes widened.

  “Oh, it is a bother, isn’t it?” Anabelle sighed. “It’s not important, dear. Not important at all,” she added.

  “It’s not a bother, Mama,” Gwen corrected, smiling at the old ruse. “Besides, I’d like to get into New Orleans while I’m home. I can be a tourist now.”

  “What a marvelous idea!” Anabelle enthused. “W
ouldn’t it be fun? Roaming through the Vieux Carré, wandering through the shops, listening to the music in Bourbon Street. Oh, and dinner at some lovely gallery restaurant. Yes.” She clapped her hands together and glowed. “It’s just the thing.”

  “It sounds perfect.” Anabelle’s childlike enthusiasm caused Gwen to smile. Shopping, she remembered, had always been Anabelle’s favorite pastime. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.”

  “Good. It’s settled, then.” She turned to Luke with a pleased smile. “You’ll go with Gwen, won’t you, dear? It wouldn’t do for her to go all alone.”

  “Alone?” Gwen cut in, confused. “But, Mama, aren’t you—?”

  “It’s such a long drive, too,” Anabelle bubbled on. “I’m sure Gwen would love the company.”

  “No, Mama, I—”

  “I’d love to.” Luke easily overruled Gwen’s objections. He gave Gwen an ironic smile. “I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.”

  “Gwen, dear, I’m so glad you thought of it.” The praise was given with a sigh as Anabelle moved over to pat Gwen’s cheek.

  Looking up into the ingenuous eyes, Gwen felt the familiar sensations of affection and frustration. “I’m very clever,” she murmured, moving her lips into a semblance of a smile.

  “Yes, of course you are,” Anabelle agreed, and gave her a quick, loving hug. “I would change, though, darling. It wouldn’t do to go into the city in those faded old jeans. Didn’t I throw those out when you were fifteen? Yes, I’m sure I did. Well, run along and have fun,” she ordered as she began to drift from the room. “I’ve just so much to do, I can’t think of it all.”

  “Mama.” Gwen called after her. Anabelle turned at the door, lifting her brows in acknowledgement. “The thread?”

  “Thread?” Anabelle repeated blankly. “Oh, yes, of course. I’ll write down the colors and the name of the shop.” She shook her head with a self-deprecating smile. “My, my, I’m quite the scatterbrain. I’ll go in right now and tell Tillie you won’t be here for dinner. She gets so annoyed with me when I forget things. Do change those pants, Gwen,” she added as she started down the hall.

  “I’d hide them,” Luke suggested confidentially. “She’s liable to throw them out again.”

  Rising with what she hoped was dignity, Gwen answered, “If you’ll excuse me?”

  “Sure.” Before she could move away, Luke took her hand in a light but possessive grip. “I’ll meet you out front in twenty minutes. We’ll take my car.”

  A dozen retorts trembled on Gwen’s tongue and were dismissed. “Certainly. I’ll try not to keep you waiting.” She walked regally from the room.

  ***

  The weather was perfect for a drive—sunny and cloudless, with a light breeze. Gwen had replaced her jeans with a snowy crepe de chine dress. It had a high, lacy neck and pleated bodice, its skirt flowing from a trim, tucked waist. She wore no jewelry. Her hair lay free on her shoulders. Hands primly folded in her lap, she answered Luke’s easy conversation with polite, distant monosyllables. I’ll get Mama’s thread, she determined, have a token tour of the city and drive back as quickly as possible. I will be perfectly polite the entire time.

  An hour later, Gwen found that maintaining her aloof sophistication was a difficult task. She had forgotten how much she loved the Vieux Carré. It was not just the exquisite iron grillwork balconies, the profusion of flowering plants, the charm of long wooden shutters and buildings that had stood for centuries. It was the subtle magic of the place. The air was soft and seemed freshly washed, its many scents ranging from flowery to spicy to the rich smell of the river.

  “Fabulous, isn’t it?” Luke asked as they stood on the curb of a street too narrow for anything but pedestrian traffic. “It’s the most stable city I know.”

  “Stable?” Gwen repeated, intrigued enough to turn and face him directly.

  “It doesn’t change,” he explained with a gesture of his hand. “It just continues on.” Before she realized his intent, he laced his fingers with hers and began to walk. She tugged and was ignored.

  “There’s no reason to hold my hand,” Gwen told him primly.

  “Sure there is,” he corrected, giving her a friendly smile. “I like to.”

  Gwen subsided into silence. Luke’s palm was hard, the palm of a man used to doing manual labor. She remembered suddenly the feel of it caressing her throat. He sighed, turned and pulled her hard against him, covering her mouth in an unexpected and dizzying kiss. Gwen had no time to protest or respond before she was drawn away again. Along the crowded street, several people applauded.

  ***

  Gwen and Luke walked past the many street artists in Jackson Square. They paused briefly to admire the chalk portraits of tourists, the oils of city scenes and the mysterious studies of the bayous. Gwen was torn between her desire to share her pleasure at returning to the city of her childhood and the feeling that she should ignore the dominating man by her side. She was not here to have a good time, she reminded herself sternly. She was here to do an errand. It was on the tip of her tongue to remind Luke of the purpose of their trip when she saw the magician. He was dressed in black, with spangles and a rakish beret and a flowing moustache.

  “Oh, look!” Gwen pointed. “Isn’t he wonderful?” She moved closer, unconsciously pulling Luke along by tightening her grip on his hand.

  They watched brilliantly colored scarves appear from nowhere, huge bouquets of paper flowers grow from the magician’s palm and coins sprout from the ears of onlookers. Two young clowns in whiteface entertained the stragglers by twisting balloons into giraffe and poodle shapes. Some distance away, guitarists sold their songs to passing tourists. Gwen could just hear their close-knit harmony.

  Forgetting all her stern resolutions, she turned to grin at Luke. He dropped a bill into the cardboard box that served as the portable cash register for the magician. Reaching out, he pinched her chin between his thumb and forefinger. “I knew it wouldn’t last too long.”

  “What wouldn’t?” She brushed the hair from her eyes in a habitual gesture.

  “You enjoy things too much to remain cool for long,” he told her. “No, now don’t do that,” he ordered, running a finger down her nose as she frowned. He smiled, then brushed his lips over her fingertips. “Shall we be friends?”

  Her hand, already warm from his, grew warmer at the kiss. She knew his charm was practiced, his smile a finely tuned weapon. She forced herself to be cautious.

  “I don’t know that I’d go as far as that,” she replied, studying him with eyes that were warily amused.

  “Fellow tourists?” he suggested. His thumb moved gently across her knuckles. “I’ll buy you an ice cream cone.”

  Gwen knew she was losing to the smile and the persuasive voice. “Well . . .” It would do no harm to enjoy the day. No harm in enjoying the city, the magic . . . in enjoying him. “Two scoops,” she demanded, answering his smile with her own.

  They moved at an easy pace through the park, enjoying both shade and sun. All around was the soft, continuous cooing from hundreds of pigeons. They flocked along the ground, scattered when chased by children, sunned atop the statue of Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse. Here and there people sat or slept on curved black benches. A young girl sat in a patch of shade and played softly on a recorder.

  They walked along the levee and looked at the brown waters of the Mississippi. Lazy music from calliopes provided a pleasant background as they talked of everything and of nothing. The bells of Saint Louis Cathedral chimed the hour. They laughed at the toddler who escaped from his mother and splashed in the cool waters of a fountain.

  They walked along Bourbon Street, listening to the tangled, continuous music that poured from open doors. Jazz and country and rock merged into one jumbled, compelling sound. They applauded the old man who danced in the street to the demanding strains of “Tiger Rag.” They listened to the corner saxophone player whose lonely song brought Gwen to tears.

  On
a gallery overlooking a narrow street surging with people, they ate shrimp gumbo and drank cold, dry wine. They lingered over the leisurely meal, watching the sun slowly disappear. Pleasantly weary, Gwen toyed with the remains of her cheesecake and watched the first stars come out. Laughter rose from the street below. When she turned, she found Luke studying her over the rim of his glass.

  “Why do you look at me like that?” Her smile was completely relaxed as she rested her chin on her palm.

  “A remarkably foolish question,” Luke answered as he set down his glass. “Why do you think?”

  “I don’t know.” She took a deep breath. The scent of the city assailed her senses. “No one’s ever looked at me quite the way you do. You can tell too much about people. It’s not fair. You study them and steal their thoughts. It’s not a very comfortable feeling.”

  Luke smiled, and his fingers were light on the back of her hand.

  Gwen lifted an eyebrow, then strategically moved her hand out of reach. “You also have a way of making people say things. Yesterday I . . .” Gwen hesitated and twisted the stem of her glass between her fingers. “I said things to you I shouldn’t have. It’s disturbing to know you’ve revealed your emotions to someone else.” She sipped her wine. “Michael always says I’m too open.”

  “Your emotions are beautiful.” Gwen looked up, surprised at the tenderness in his voice. “Michael is a fool.”

  Quickly she shook her head. “Oh, no, he’s really quite
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