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Her mothers keeper, p.9
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.9

           Nora Roberts
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  as he bent under a low-hanging branch.

  “Certainly, and anything else that comes out of a garden. When you’re poor, a garden can mean the difference between eating or not.”

  “I’ve never known poor people who eat with Georgian silver,” Luke commented dryly.

  “Heirlooms.” Gwen gave a sigh and a shrug. “Mama always considered heirlooms a sacred trust. One can’t sell a sacred trust. Nor,” she added with a wry smile, “can one comfortably wear or eat a sacred trust. Mama loves that house, it’s her Camelot. She’s a woman who needs a Camelot.”

  “And Gwenivere doesn’t?” A great egret, startled by their intrusion, unfolded himself from the water and rose into the sky. Gwen felt an old, familiar stir of pleasure as she watched.

  “I suppose I’ve always wanted to find my own. Heirlooms belong to someone else first. I’d nearly forgotten the scent of wild jasmine,” she murmured as the fragrance drifted to her.

  There was a dreamlike stillness around them. Beside them, the stream moved on its lackadaisical journey to the Gulf. Its water mirrored the moss-dripping trees. Gwen tossed a pebble and watched the ripples spread and vanish. “I spent most of my leisure time out here when I was younger,” she said. “I felt more at home here than inside my own house. There was never any real privacy there, with strangers always coming and going. I never wanted to share my kingdom with anyone before. . . .”

  She could feel Luke’s big hand tighten his grasp on hers. He met her eyes with perfect understanding.

  Chapter 9

  Malon’s cabin hung over the water. It was built of split logs with a low, wide A roof and a porch that doubled as a dock for his pirogue. On a small, spare patch of grass beside the cabin, half a dozen chickens clucked and waddled. Somewhere deep in the marsh, a woodpecker drummed. A scratchy recording of music by Saint-Saëns came from the cabin to compete with the drumming and clucking. Stretched lengthwise on a narrow railing above the water, a tabby cat slept.

  “It’s just the same,” Gwen murmured. She was unaware of the relief in her voice or the pleasure that lit her face. She smiled up at Luke and pulled him quickly across the lawn and up the three wooden steps. “Raphael,” she said to the snoozing cat. Lazily he opened one eye, made a disinterested noise and shut it again. “Affectionate as ever,” Gwen remarked. “I was afraid he’d forget me.”

  “Raphael is too old to forget anything.”

  Gwen turned quickly at the sound of the voice. Malon stood in the cabin doorway, a mortar and pestle in his hand. He was a small man, barely taller than Gwen herself, but with powerful arms and shoulders. His middle had not gone to flesh with age, but remained as flat as a boxer’s, as he had indeed once been. His hair was white, thick and curly, his face brown and lined, his eyes were a faded blue under dark brows. His age was a mystery. The bayou had been his home for an unspecified number of years. He took from the stream what he needed and was content. He had both a passionate love and a deep respect for the bayou. These he had passed on to the young girl who had found his cabin more than fifteen years before. Gwen checked the impulse to run into his arms.

  “Hello, Malon. How are you?”

  “Comme ci, comme ça.” He gave a tiny shrug, then set down his mortar and pestle. He nodded a greeting to Luke before concentrating on Gwen. For a full minute she stood silent under his scrutiny. At length he said, “Let me see your hands.” Obediently, Gwen held them out. “Soft,” Malon said with a snort. “Lady’s hands now, hein? Why didn’t you get a lady’s figure in New York, too?”

  “I could only afford the hands. I’m still saving up for the rest. And Tillie’s still pressing your shirts, I see,” Gwen ran an experimental finger over the faded but crisp material of his cotton shirt. “When are you going to marry her?”

  “I’m too young to get married,” he said. “I have not finished sowing wild oats.”

  Gwen laughed and laid her cheek against his. “Oh, I’ve missed you, Malon.” He answered her laugh and gave her one quick, bruising and unexpected hug. From the outset, they had spoken in Cajun French, a dialect that Gwen used again without the slightest thought. She closed her eyes a moment, enjoying the strength in his burly arms, the feel of his leathery cheek against hers, the scent of woodsmoke and herbs that was his personal cologne. She realized suddenly why she had not come to see him earlier. He had been the one constant male figure in her life. She had been afraid she would find him changed.

  “Everything’s the same,” she murmured.

  “But you.” There was a smile in his voice, and she heard it.

  “I should have come sooner.” For the first time since she had known him, Gwen dared kiss his cheek.

  “You are forgiven,” he said.

  Gwen was suddenly conscious of Luke beside her. She flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said to him, “I—I didn’t realize that we were rambling on in French.”

  Luke smiled while absently scratching Raphael’s ears. “You don’t have to apologize—I enjoyed it.”

  Gwen forced her thoughts into order. She would not fall under the charm of that smile again. “Do you speak French?” she asked with casual interest.

  “No. But I still enjoyed it.” She had the uncomfortable feeling he knew precisely how deeply his smile affected her. He turned his clear, calm eyes to Malon. “Anabelle says she’d like some shrimp.”

  “I go shrimping tomorrow,” Malon answered with an agreeable nod. “Your book goes well?”

  “Well enough.”

  “So, you take the day off, hein? You take this one fishing?” A jerk of his thumb in Gwen’s direction accompanied the question.

  “Thought I might,” Luke replied without glancing at her.

  Malon shrugged and sniffed. “Use t’be she knew which end of the pole to hold and which to put in the water, but that was before she went up there.” A snap of his head indicated “up there.” Even a town twenty miles from Lafitte was regarded with suspicion.

  “Perhaps she remembers,” Luke suggested. “She seems reasonably intelligent.”

  “She was raised good,” Malon added, softening a bit. “Her papa was a good boy. She has his face. She don’t favor her mama.”

  Gwen straightened her shoulders and raised her brows ever so slightly. “She remembers everything. My mother can outfish both of you in her sleep.”

  “Poo-yie!” Malon shook his hand and wrist as if he had touched something hot. “This city girl, she scare me out of my shoe. You take her. Me, I’m too old to fight with mean women.”

  “A minute ago you were too young to get married,” Gwen reminded him.

  “Yes, it’s a good age I have.” He smiled contentedly. “Allez, I have medicine to make. Take the poles and the pirogue and bring me a fish for my dinner.” Without another word, he walked into the cabin, letting the screen door slam shut behind him.

  “He hasn’t changed,” Gwen stated, trying to sound indignant.

  “No,” Luke agreed, taking two fishing poles and putting them across his shoulder. “He’s still crazy about you.” After stepping into the pirogue, he held out a hand to her. With the ease of experience, Gwen settled into the canoe. Soundlessly, Raphael leaped from rail to boat and fell instantly back to sleep.

  “He doesn’t want to miss the fun,” Gwen explained.

  Luke poled away from the dock. “Tell me, Gwenivere,” he asked, “how do you come to speak the dialect so fluently? Anabelle can barely read a French menu.” Sunshine dappled their heads as they passed under a canopy of trees.

  “Tillie taught me.” Gwen leaned her head back and let the warm sunlight play on her face. She remembered Malon saying long ago that his pirogue could ride on a film of dew. “I’ve spoken the coastal dialect for as long as I can remember. For the most part, the people here treat outsiders as beneath their notice; it’s a very closed society. But I speak Cajun—therefore, I am Cajun. I’m curious, though, why Malon accepts you. It’s obvious that you’re on easy terms.”

  “I don’t speak Caju
n.” Luke stood in the pirogue and poled down the river as if born to it. “But we speak the same language nonetheless.”

  They cleared the trees and drifted into a ghost forest shadowed by stumps of cypress. The boat moved through floating mats of hyacinths. Tiny baby crawfish clung to the clumped roots, while a fat cottonmouth disappeared into the lavender blooms. The winding river was teeming with life. Gwen watched a marsh raccoon fishing from the sloping bank.

  “How is it,” Gwen mused aloud, “that a Pulitzer Prize winner speaks the same language as a Louisiana traiteur?”

  “Traiteur?” Luke repeated, meeting the frank curiosity in her eyes.

  “Folk doctor. Malon fishes and trades and lumbers sometimes, but primarily he’s the local traiteur. He cures snakebites, illness and spells. Spells are his specialty.”

  “Hmm, Did you ever wonder why he lives here, alone with his cat, his music and his books?” Gwen did not answer, content to watch Luke pole through the scattered stumps. “He’s been to Rome and London and Budapest, but he lives here. He’s driven tanks, broken horses, boxed and flown planes. Now he fishes and cures spells. He knows how to fix a carburetor, how to play classical guitar and how to cure snakebites. He does as he pleases and no more. He’s the most successful man I know.”

  “How did you find out so much about him in such a short time?”

  “I asked,” Luke told her simply.

  “No. No, it’s not as easy as that.” Gwen made a frustrated gesture with her hand. “People tell you things, I don’t know why. I’ve told you things I have no business telling you, and I tell you before I realize it.” She examined his face. “And worse, you don’t always need to be told, you know. You see people much too clearly.”

  He smiled down at her. “Does it make you uncomfortable that I know who you are?”

  The river widened. Gwen’s pout became a frown. “Yes, I think it does. It makes me feel defenseless, the same way I felt when I first saw Bradley’s sketches.”

  “An invasion of privacy?”

  “Privacy’s important to me,” Gwen admitted.

  “I understand,” Luke leaned on the pole. “You grew up having to share your home with strangers, having to share Anabelle. The result is a desire for privacy and independence. I apologize for invading your privacy, but, after all, it’s partly my profession.”

  “Are we all characters to you?” Gwen asked as she baited her hook and cast her line.

  “Some more than others,” he returned dryly, casting his line on the opposite side of the boat from hers.

  Gwen shook her head. “You know,” she began, then settled back, stretching her legs and crossing them, “I’m finding it very hard not to like you.”

  At the other end of the canoe, Luke mirrored her position. “I’m a very charming person.”

  “Unfortunately, that’s true.” With a contented sigh, Gwen closed her eyes. “You’re not at all how I pictured you.”


  “You look more like a woodchopper than a world-renowned writer.”

  Luke grinned. “And how should a world-renowned writer look?”

  “Several different ways, I suppose. Intellectual, with small glasses and narrow shoulders. Or prominent . . .”

  “Heaven forbid.”

  “Or prominent,” Gwen continued, ignoring him. “Wearing a well-cut suit and with just a hint of a paunch. Dashing, maybe, with a faint scar along the jawline. Or Byronic . . .”

  “Oh, good Lord.”

  “With a romantic pallor and tragic eyes.”

  “It’s difficult to maintain a pallor in California.”

  “The trouble is, you’re too physical.” Gwen was enjoying the gentle drift of the boat and the warm fingers of sun. “What’s your new book about?”

  “A man and a woman.”

  “It’s been done before,” Gwen commented as she opened her eyes.

  Luke smiled. His legs made a friendly tangle with hers. “It’s all been done before, child. It’s simply that each person believes his is a fresh experience.”

  Gwen tilted her head, waiting for his explanation.

  Luke obliged. “Endless numbers of symphonies are composed on the same eighty-eight keys.” He closed his eyes, and Gwen took the opportunity to study him.

  “Will you let me read it?” she asked suddenly. “Or are you temperamental and sensitive?”

  “I’m only temperamental when it’s to my advantage,” Luke told her lazily, opening one eye. “How’s your spelling?”

  “Comme ci, comme ça,” Gwen grinned across at him.

  “You can proof my rough draft, my spelling’s only half that good.”

  “That’s generous of you.” Abruptly she let out a cry. “Oh, I’ve got one!” Instantly she was sitting up, giving all her attention to the fish on the end of her line. Her face was animated as she tossed her hair back with an impatient jerk of her head. There was competence in her hands and a gleam of challenge in her eyes. “Eight pounds easy,” she announced as she plopped the defeated fish on deck. “And that was just for practice.” Raphael roused himself to inspect the first catch, then curled up beside Gwen’s hip and went back to sleep.

  The silence lay comfortably between them. There was no need for conversation or small talk. Dragonflies streaked by now and then with a flash of color and a quick buzz. Occasionally birds called to each other. It seemed natural to Gwen to loll drowsily across from Luke under the hazy sun. Her legs crossed over his with absent camaraderie. The shadows lengthened. Still they lingered, drifting among the stumps of once-towering cypress.

  “The sun’ll be gone in a couple of hours,” Luke commented. Gwen made an unintelligible sound of agreement. “We should be heading back.” The boat rocked gently as Luke got to his feet.

  Under the cover of gold-tipped lashes, Gwen watched him. He stretched, and muscles rippled. His eyes were clear and light, an arresting contrast to the burnished tone of his skin. They flicked over her as she lay still, too comfortable to stir herself. She knew that he was aware of her scrutiny.

  “You owe me ten dollars,” she reminded him smiling.

  “A small price to pay for the afternoon.” The water sighed as the boat glided over it. “Did you know you have five pale gold freckles on your nose?”

  Gwen laughed as she stretched her arms luxuriously over her head. “I believe you’re quite mad.”

  He watched her as the lashes shadowed her cheeks and her mouth sweetened with a smile. “I begin to be sure of it,” he murmured.

  It wasn’t until the pirogue bumped noiselessly against its home dock that Gwen stirred again. The thin wisps of clouds were pink now with the setting sun, and there was a coolness in the air.

  “Mmm.” Her sigh was filled with the simple pleasure of the moment. “What a lovely ride.”

  “Next time, you pole,” Luke stated. He watched Raphael stand, stretch and leap nimbly onto the dock and then joined him. After securing the boat, he offered a hand to Gwen.

  “I suppose that’s only fair.” Gwen stood in one fluid movement. As nimbly as Raphael, she leaped onto the dock. She tilted back her head to give Luke a flippant grin, but found her lips captured by his.

  One hand tangled in her hair while his other pressed into the small of her back, demanding she come closer. His mouth was desperate in its need for possession. There was a tension in him, a whisper of power held tightly in check. Gwen’s pulses hammered at the thought of it unleashed. There was no gentleness in the mouth that claimed hers nor in the arms that held her, and she asked for none. There was a wild, restless thing in her that cried for release. She explored the strength of his arms, then the softness of his hair, as she plunged deeper into sensations she could no longer measure. Touching him, she felt there were no limits to the power flooding her. What filled her was more than the quick heat of passion, more than a transient surge of desire. It was an all-consuming need to be his. She wanted to travel where only he could take her and to learn what only he could teach her. T
hen Luke’s hands were on her shoulders, pushing her away.

  “Gwen,” he began in a voice roughened with desire.

  “No, don’t talk,” she murmured, and pulled his mouth back to hers. It was his taste, and his taste only, that could satisfy her growing hunger. She was famished, only now aware that she had fasted all her life. For a soaring, blinding moment, his mouth bruised hers; then he wrenched away. He held her shoulders in a crushing grip, but Gwen felt no pain as his eyes met hers. She could only stare. Her confusion, her need, her willingness, were plain on her face. Luke’s oath was savage and swift as he turned away.

  “You should know better than to look at a man like that.”

  Gwen heard the harsh journey of air in and out of his lungs. Her fingers shook as she ran them nervously through her hair. “I—I don’t know how I looked.”

  “Malleable,” Luke muttered. He stared down at the sluggish river before turning back to her. “Pliant, willing and outrageously innocent. Do you know how difficult it is to resist the untouched, the uncorrupted?”

  Helplessly, Gwen shook her head. “No, I. . . .”

  “Of course you don’t,” Luke cut in sharply. She winced at his
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