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Her mothers keeper, p.8
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.8

           Nora Roberts
 
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  brilliant, and he never does anything foolish. He has an image to maintain. It’s just that I was beginning to feel as if I were being molded into his conception of a proper attorney’s wife.”

  “He asked you to marry him?” Luke asked, as he poured wine into both glasses.

  “He was sure that I would. He was furious when I didn’t jump at the offer.” Gwen sighed and made a restless movement with her shoulders. “I kept seeing a long, narrow tunnel, very straight, no curves, no detours, no surprises. I guess I developed claustrophobia.” She made a frustrated sound, wrinkling her nose. “There, you’ve done it again.”

  “I have?” He smiled as he leaned back in his seat. Moonlight spilled over her hair.

  “I’m telling you things . . . things I’ve barely told myself. You always manage to find out what’s in a person’s mind, but you keep your own thoughts all tidy and tucked away.”

  “I put them in print,” he corrected. “For anyone who cares to read them.”

  “Yes,” she said slowly. “But how does one know if they’re your real thoughts? Your books are interesting, but how do I know who you really are?”

  “Do you want to?” There was a soft challenge in his voice.

  Gwen hesitated, but the answer was already moving to her lips. “Yes, I do.”

  “But you’re not quite sure.” He rose, then held out his hand to her. “The wine’s made you sleepy,” he said, looking down into her heavy eyes. “Shall I take you home?”

  “No.” Gwen shook her head. “No, not yet.” She slipped her hand back into his.

  ***

  Luke drove down the magnolia-lined lane. The scent of the night was delicate, mixing with the fragrance of the woman who slept on his shoulder. After stopping the car, he turned his head and looked down at her. Gwen’s mouth was soft and vulnerable in sleep. There was a moment’s hesitation before he lifted her chin and drew away from her.

  “Gwen.” He moved his thumb gently over her lips. She gave a soft, pleased sigh. “Gwen,” he said again with more firmness. Her lashes fluttered and opened. “We’re home.” He massaged her shoulders lightly, and she stretched under his hands.

  “Did I fall asleep?” Her eyes were huge and dark as she smiled at him. “I didn’t mean to.”

  “It’s late.”

  “I know.” She smiled sleepily. “I had fun. Thank you.” On impulse, she bent forward and brushed her lips over his. His fingers tightened on her shoulders as he pulled away from her sharply. Gwen blinked in confusion. “Luke?”

  “I have my limits,” he said tersely. He made a quick, impatient sound as her face registered consternation. “I told you once, women are very soft and warm when they’ve been sleeping. I have a weakness for soft, warm women.”

  “I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” she murmured as his hand slipped around to cradle the back of her neck. Her head felt light, her limbs heavy.

  A cloud drifted over the moon. The light shifted, dimmed and glowed again. He was watching her, studying each feature with absorption. She could feel his fingers on the base of her neck. They were hard and long, their strength obvious even in the gentle touch. She whispered, “What do you want?”

  In answer, he bent slowly toward her. His mouth was easy, teasing the corners of hers, drifting to her closed lids, exploring the hollows of her cheeks. Passion lay simmering beneath the surface as he began to caress her body with slow, patient hands. He traced her parted lips with the tip of his tongue. “Beautiful,” he murmured, moving his mouth to her ear. She shivered with pleasure as his thumb lingered on the point of her breast. “When I touch you, I feel your body melt under my hands.” He met her mouth with a long, tender kiss. “What do I want?” he answered as he tasted the heated skin of her throat. “What I want more than anything at this moment is to make love with you. I want to take you slowly, until I know all of you.”

  She felt her body growing fluid, and her will flowed with it. “Will you make love with me?” She heard herself ask, heard the tone that was request rather than question. Luke’s mouth paused on her skin. Slowly he tightened his grip on her hair, then drew her head back until their eyes met. For a moment, they hung suspended in silence with only the echo of her voice between them.

  “No.” His answer was cool and quick as a slap. Gwen jerked away from it and him and fumbled with the handle of the door. She stumbled out of the car, but before she could escape into the house, Luke captured her arms in a firm grip. “Wait a minute.”

  Shaking her head, Gwen pushed against him. “No, I want to go in. I didn’t know what I was saying. It was crazy.”

  “You knew exactly what you were saying,” Luke corrected, tightening his grasp.

  Gwen wanted to deny it, but found it impossible. She had wanted him, she knew she still wanted him. “All right, I knew what I was saying. Now will you let me go?”

  “I won’t apologize for touching you,” he said.

  “I’m not asking for apologies, Luke,” she told him evenly. “I’m simply asking for my freedom.” She realized uncomfortably that it was not freedom from his arms that she meant, but freedom from the power he held over her. The struggle inside her was reflected briefly in her face. Luke’s frown deepened before he released her arms. “Thank you,” she said.

  She walked quickly inside the house before he could say another word.

  Chapter 8

  A yellow butterfly fluttered delicately over a pot of white impatiens. From the veranda, Gwen watched its dance until it skimmed away, light as the air. Sitting in the white porch rocker, dressed in a yellow sundress, Anabelle looked as fragile as the butterfly. Gwen studied her mother’s soft pink cheeks and gentle blue eyes. Anabelle’s small hands were busy with the domestic task of shelling peas, but her eyes were, as always, dreamy. Watching her, Gwen was swamped with waves of love and helplessness.

  Who am I? she demanded of herself. Who am I to advise anyone on men? For a moment, Gwen wished desperately that she could seek from Anabelle advice for herself. Her own emotions were chaotic. She was terrified that her own feelings for Luke were approaching a dangerous level. Falling in love with a man like Luke was courting disaster. And yet, Gwen wondered unhappily, is it really possible for the mind to control the heart? In this case it must . . . there’s no choice. I have to forget about last night. The sigh escaped before she could stop it. Priorities, she reminded herself. Gwen watched a bumblebee dive into a cluster of wisteria, then took a deep breath and turned to Anabelle. “Mama.” Anabelle went on shelling peas, a misty smile on her lips. “Mama,” Gwen repeated more sharply, placing a hand over her mother’s.

  “Oh, yes, dear?” Anabelle looked up with the open, expectant look of a child. “Did you say something?”

  For an instant, Gwen teetered on the brink, then plunged. “Mama, don’t you think twelve years is a terribly big gap?”

  Gravely, Anabelle considered. “Why, I suppose it could be, Gwenivere, but then, as you grow older, twelve years is hardly any time at all.” Her momentary seriousness vanished with a fresh smile. “Why, it seems like yesterday that you were twelve years old. I remember quite clearly when you fell out of that old cypress in the backyard and broke your arm. Such a brave child . . .” She began shelling peas again. “Never shed a tear. I cried enough for both of us, though.”

  “But, Mama.” Valiantly Gwen tried to keep Anabelle’s thoughts from straying. “Twelve years, when you’re speaking of a man and a woman. . . .” Anabelle failed to respond to the prompting, only nodding to indicate she was listening. “The age difference, Mama,” Gwen blurted out. “Isn’t twelve years a terribly wide age gap?”

  “Sally Deumont’s girls are nearly twelve years apart,” Anabelle stated with another series of nods. “I suppose having children that far apart has its drawbacks.”

  “No, Mama.” Gwen ran both hands through her hair.

  “And its advantages, certainly,” Anabelle said soothingly, not wanting to be critical of an old friend.

  “No, M
ama, I don’t mean that at all. I’m speaking of men and women . . . of relationships. Romantic relationships.”

  “Oh!” Anabelle blinked in surprise and smiled. “That’s a different matter altogether, isn’t it?” Gwen resisted grinding her teeth as her mother continued to shell peas for a moment in silence. “I’m surprised,” Anabelle said at length, giving Gwen a look of gentle curiosity. “I’m surprised you would think that age and love had anything to do with each other. I’ve always thought of the heart as ageless.”

  The words caused Gwen to falter a moment. Slowly she leaned forward and took both her mother’s hands in hers. “Mama, don’t you think, sometimes, that love can blind people to what’s right for them? Don’t people often put themselves into a position where getting hurt is the only possible outcome?”

  “Yes, of course.” Anabelle shook her head, as if startled by the question. “That’s part of life. If you never open yourself for pain, you never open yourself for joy. How empty life would be then. This Michael of yours,” Anabelle continued with a light of concern in her eyes, “did he hurt you terribly?”

  “No.” Gwen released her mother’s hands and rose to walk the length of the veranda. “No, basically only my pride.”

  “That can happen by a fall off a horse,” Anabelle stated. Abandoning her peas, she moved to join Gwen. “Darling, how young you are.” She turned to face her, studying her with rare total concentration. “I sometimes forget that, because you’re so much more practical and organized than I am. I suppose I always let you take care of me, much more than I took care of you.”

  “Oh, no, Mama,” Gwen protested, but Anabelle placed a finger on her lips.

  “It’s true. I never like to look at the unpleasant side of things. I’m afraid I’ve always let you do that for me. In some ways you matured so quickly, but in others . . .” Anabelle sighed and slipped an arm around Gwen’s waist. “Perhaps at last we’ve found something I can help you with.”

  “But, Mama, it’s not me . . .” Gwen began, only to be ignored.

  “Did you know I was only eighteen when I first saw your father? I fell instantly, wildly in love.” The soft look in Anabelle’s eyes halted Gwen’s interruption. “Who would have thought his life would be so short? He never even got to see you. I always thought that the greatest tragedy. He would have been so proud to see himself in you.” She sighed, then smiled at Gwen. “Ours was a first love, a desperate love, and often I’ve wondered if it would have withstood all the tests of time. I’ll never know.” Gwen remained silent, fascinated by a side of her mother she was seeing for the first time. “I learned so many things from that short, crowded marriage. I learned you must always accept love when it’s offered, always give it when it’s needed. There might not be a second chance. And I know, too, that until your heart’s been broken, you never know the full beauty of love.”

  Gwen watched a squirrel dart across the lawn and scurry up a tree. It was an odd feeling, hearing her mother speak of being in love. She wondered if their relationship had blinded her from seeing Anabelle as a woman with needs and desires. Looking down, Gwen saw the smooth, untroubled skin of a woman at the peak of her beauty. There was still a youthful sweetness in shape of the mouth, an impossible air of innocence in the eyes. Impulsively, Gwen asked the question that had lurked in her mind for years.

  “Mama, why haven’t you ever gotten married again?”

  “I haven’t wanted to,” Anabelle answered instantly. She moved away with a swish of her skirts. “At first, I was too much in love with your father’s memory, and later I was having too much fun raising you.” She plucked a withered fuchsia bloom from a hanging basket and dropped it over the railing of the veranda. “I’m quite good with babies, you know. Later you became more and more independent, so I moved on to the next stage. I’ve had some admirers.” She smiled, pleased with the thought. “I’ve simply never had the urge to settle down with any of them.” In silence, Gwen watched Anabelle move from flower to flower. It occurred to her for the first time that her mother had probably enjoyed love affairs over the past twenty years. She had not been exclusively Gwen’s dreamy, gentle mother but Anabelle Lacrosse, a lovely, desirable woman. For one brief moment, Gwen felt ridiculously like an orphan.

  I’m being a fool, Gwen told herself, resting her head against the rail post. She’s still the same person—I’m the one who’s changing. I grew up, but I’ve kept her locked in a childhood image. It’s time I let her out. But I can’t bear to see her hurt, and I’m so afraid Luke will leave her wounded. He can’t love her, not when he can kiss me the way he does. No . . . She closed her eyes. He wants me, but it has nothing to do with his heart. He wants me, but he turned away from me. Why else would he have done that, if not for her? A bright flash of jealousy both stunned and shamed her. With a shuddering sigh, she turned to find Anabelle studying her.

  “You’re not happy,” her mother said simply.

  “No.” Gwen shook her head with the word.

  “Confused?”

  “Yes.” Quickly she swallowed the tears that threatened to come.

  “Men do that to us so easily.” Anabelle smiled as if the prospect was not altogether unappealing. “Try a rare piece of advice from your mother, darling. Do nothing.” With a little laugh, she tossed back a stray wisp of golden hair. “I know how difficult that is for you, but do try. Just let the pieces fall into place around you for a time. Sometimes doing nothing is doing everything.”

  “Mama.” Gwen was forced to smile. “How can something so silly make so much sense?”

  “Luke says I’ve an intuitive understanding,” Anabelle replied with a glow of pride.

  “He has a way with words,” Gwen muttered.

  “Tools of the trade.” Luke spoke as the screen door swung shut behind him. His eyes met Gwen’s. There was something intimate in the glance, something possessive. Even as the stirring began inside her, she lifted her chin in defense. A smile teased his mouth. “Guns primed, Gwenivere?”

  “I’m a dead shot,” she returned evenly.

  “Oh dear.” Anabelle moved lightly across the veranda and began to gather her peas. “You didn’t tell me you were going hunting. I hope Tillie packed you a lunch.”

  Luke grinned over her head with such easy boyish charm, Gwen was helpless to resist. Her eyes warmed and her mouth softened as they shared the intimacy of a joke.

  “Actually, I had fishing in mind,” Luke countered, keeping his eyes on Gwen’s. “I thought I’d walk down to Malon’s cabin.”

  “That’s nice.” Anabelle straightened and smiled. “Malon still brings up fresh fish,” she told Gwen. “You run along, too, darling. You know he would be hurt if you didn’t visit.”

  “Oh, well, I . . .” Seeing the amusement on Luke’s face, Gwen continued smoothly, “I’ll visit him, Mama, another time. I told Tillie I’d help her do some canning.”

  “Nonsense.” Anabelle flitted to the screen door, beaming at Luke as he held it open for her. “Thank you, darling,” she said before giving Gwen a look over her shoulder. “You’re on vacation. That’s no time to be standing in a hot kitchen over boiling tomatoes. Run along and have fun. She’s always loved to fish,” she added to Luke before she stepped inside. “Tell Malon I’d adore some fresh shrimp.” The door closed behind her. Gwen had the odd feeling that she had just been pushed gently out of the way. Luke gave her slim blue jeans and plain white T-shirt a cursory glance.

  “Looks like you’re dressed for fishing,” he said with a nod. “Let’s go.”

  “I have no intention of going anywhere with you.” Gwen dusted her hands on her hips and started to move by him. She was brought up short by his hand on her arm. They stood side by side. Gwen let her eyes rest on his imprisoning hand and then slid them slowly to meet his. It was her most disdainful stare. “I beg your pardon?” she said icily. To her dismay, Luke burst out laughing. The warm, deep tones of it caused a bird to dart from the lawn to the shelter of a tree. “Let me go, you . . . you . .
.”

  “Wasn’t it ‘beast’ before?” he asked as he began to assist her down the stairs.

  “You are the most outrageous man.” She continued to struggle as she trotted to keep pace.

  “Thanks.”

  Gwen dug in her heels and managed to persuade Luke to stop. Staring up at him, she took a long, deep breath. “You are the most arrogant, officious, egotistical, thick-skinned man I have ever met.”

  “You forgot unreasonable, tyrannical and incredibly attractive. Really, Gwen, you surprise me. I thought you had more imagination. Are those your best insults?”

  “Off the cuff, yes.” She sniffed and tried not to respond to the humor in his eyes. “If you’ll give me a little time, I can be more articulate.”

  “Don’t trouble, I got the idea.” He released her arm, held up one hand in the air, and the other out to her. “Truce?”

  Gwen’s guard relaxed before she realized it. Her hand moved to meet his.

  “Truce,” she agreed, with only a token trace of reluctance.

  “Until . . . ?” he asked as he rubbed his thumb lightly across the back of her hand.

  “Until I decide to be annoyed with you again.” Gwen smiled, tossing back her curls as she enjoyed his laugh. It was, she decided, the most pleasing, infectious laugh she had ever heard.

  “Well, will you fish with me?” he asked.

  “Perhaps I will.” For a moment she pursed her lips in thought. When she smiled again, it was the smile of challenge. “Ten bucks says I catch a bigger fish than you.”

  “Done.” Casually, Luke laced his fingers through hers. This time Gwen made no objection.

  ***

  Gwen knew every twist of the river and every turn of the paths in the bayou. Automatically, she moved north toward Malon’s cabin. They walked under cascading moss and filtered sunlight.

  “Do you really know how to can tomatoes, Gwenivere?” Luke asked
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