Authors: Cara Colter
But Luke was not the kind of guy who could be trusted with a woman who got hurt easily.Let her go,his voice of reason cautioned.
“Hey, Maggie,” said his other voice.
She spun, startled, and stared at him. Why hadn't he just let her leave?
That's what I told you to do,the voice of reason reminded him.
Maggie was trying very hard not to smile. But then it flickered across her lips, disappeared and then reappeared, like the sun peeping out of rain clouds.
The sun won and changed everything. Maggie's smile was wide and infectious. In the blink of an eye it transformed her from an old schoolmarm to a woman who looked young and carefreeâ¦and astoundingly beautiful.
How was it possible he'd been in such proximity to her earlier and hadn't noticed how kissable her mouth was?
Miss Maggie had lips that could be declared dangerous weapons. And he was determined to see them put to good use.CARA COLTER
lives on an acreage in British Columbia with her partner, Rob, and eleven horses. She has three grown children and a grandson. She is a recent recipient of anRT Book ReviewsCareer Achievement Award in the Love and Laughter category. Cara loves to hear from readers. You can contact her or learn more about her through her website, www.cara-colter.com.CARACOLTERTHE GREATEST RISK
Be a part of
Because birthright has its privileges and family ties run deep.
Two mismatched people meet and discover an unquenchable passion. Can love be far behind?
Luke August:Whether it's scaling a tall building or making daredevil jumps on his motorcycle, Luke loved taking risks. But nothing prepared him for Maggie Sullivan and the adventure she offeredâ¦.
Maggie Sullivan:A dedicated social worker who loved dealing with children and parents, Maggie wanted a family of her own someday. She had no intention of dating a thrill-seeker, but Luke was in a league of his own when it came to excitement.
The Good Doctor?
Dr. Richie had mysteriously charmed the Portland community with his weight-loss oil. Could this elixir be responsible for the sudden surge of amorous behavior among his followers?
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Use as directed.
Some side effects may occur.
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Because birthright has its privileges and family ties run deep.
AVAILABLE JUNE 20101.)To Love and Protectby Susan Mallery2.)Secrets & Seductionsby Pamela Toth3.)Royal Affairby Laurie Paige4.)For Love and Familyby Victoria Pade
AVAILABLE JULY 20105.)The Bachelorby Marie Ferrarella6.)A Precious Giftby Karen Rose Smith7.)Child of Her Heartby Cheryl St. John8.)Intimate Surrenderby RaeAnne Thayne
AVAILABLE AUGUST 20109.)The Secret Heirby Gina Wilkins10.)The Newlywedsby Elizabeth Bevarly11.)Right by Her Sideby Christie Ridgway12.)The Homecomingby Anne Marie Winston
AVAILABLE SEPTEMBER 201013.)The Greatest Riskby Cara Colter14.)What a Man Needsby Patricia Thayer15.)Undercover Passionby Raye Morgan16.)Royal Seductionby Donna Clayton
To Jane Leyh,an inspiration,with a heart of purest gold,and the fighting spirit of a tigerContents
They loved him.
Dr. Richard Strong stood on the front steps ofhisnew clinic and looked out at the sea of upraised faces. All his life he had waited for this moment, and he stood in the glory of it, drank it in through his skin, felt as wholly and fully alive as he had ever felt.
Take that, Dr. Beachball,he silently addressed his TV nemesis, Dr. Terry Browell, a tubby psychologist with sparse red hair whose runaway success with the TV program “Live Airy with Dr. Terry” both baffled and frustrated Dr. Strong.
Richard knew he himself looked excellent for his forty-two years. He was trim and appealing. He ran a hand through his own thick silver-streaked dark hair. It was a gesture that he knew endeared him to audiences,making him look boyish and humble, as if he didn't quite know what to do next.
But of course he knew exactly what to do next.
“Under my leadership,” he said, his voice strong and sure, “Portland General Hospital's new Healthy Living Clinic will be on the cutting edge of health and wellness. But we are not just about health.” He paused dramatically. “We are about hope!”
The applause was thunderous, and he tilted his head and smiled, then turned slightly so that the TV news cameras caught his best profile. Maybe, one day soon, he would have his own television series! He was so much more suited for celebrity than dumpy Dr. Terry Eatwell.
The applause began to die, and Richard could feel it waning, as if it was stealing energy from him, so he stepped forward and cut the yellow ribbon. The renewed applause lifted him above his past mistakes, his self-doubts.
He studied some of the faces before him, and felt as though all that was less than perfect about him was being erased by the adoration he saw in these eyes.
He recognized Ella Crown, the aging florist from the hospital. Everyone secretly called her the dragon lady, but he had charmed her by buying her one of her own flowers, tucking it in the pure white of her hair. He doubted Dr. Terry would have been up to the task!
And there, standing close to Ella, was that plain social workerâMaggie, he thought her name wasâfrom Children's Connection. The poor girl had never looked anything but tired and distracted to him, but now as she gazed up at him, he could see the hope he had just promised shining in her eyes.
Her beautiful redheaded friend stood beside her and she, too, was smiling approvingly. But instead of being taken by her beauty, Dr. Richard Strong remembered, a trifle uneasily, all the beautiful women who had been abandoned on his path to standing right here.
The applause was dying again. He could not allow the sudden intrusion of his past to steal this moment from him. Not when he had waited so long and worked so hard!
He looked behind him at the dignitaries and prominent hospital staff seated on the raised dais. How unfortunate that his eyes should meet those of Faye Lassen, possibly the only person he had not won over. She coveted the Chief of Staff position, he knew.Hisposition. And she was eminently qualified, too, with a Ph.D. in nutrition and psychology.
But she had no presence.Really, Faye,he said to himself,those glasses.Hideous.Still, something in the deep, penetrating blue of those eyes was making his uneasiness grow.
He looked quickly away from Faye to public relations genius, Abby Edwards. Abby's lovely golden-brown eyes held nothing but admiration for him.
It was quiet now as the audience waited. Dr. Strong wanted the love back. The silence was an empty void he was compelled to fill with his voice.
“I have a special surprise for all of you today,” he announced. “To coincide with the opening of this leading-edge clinic, I am unveiling an amazing new product.”
He liked the little murmur of anticipation. They thought he was just a motivational speaker, the latest health and fitness guru, but Richard's days of being underestimated were over. He was a scientist, an inventor,a miracle worker.
Really, he knew he should hold on a bit longer before releasing NoWait. The science on his new product was not quite as solid as it could have been. But he knew it worked! And he knew unveiling it would forever cement the admiration and adoration he felt from this crowd.
He'd already sent out several secret letters about the product to celebrities. Famous actress Cynthia Reynolds had answered him personally. Her interest promised him access to the world of fame and riches, promised him that finally he was going to matter.
He reached into his inside pocket, touched Cynthia's letter affectionately, and then pulled out the slim, gold box that had been nestled beside it. On it was a picture of him. The box was beautiful, a marketing marvel. But then he, Richard Strong, of all people, knew that packaging was everything. Packaging and the pitch.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I present to you NoWait, a pure homeopathic oil that guarantees weight loss.” He paused and repeated, softly, “Guarantees.”
He had their attention now. Dr. Richard Strong lowered his voice, felt the audience leaning toward him. “Unwanted pounds can vanish within hours.”
He savored the gasp of the audience. “With the amazing NoWait oil, a woman can go from a size sixteen to a size six within one month.”
The silence ended abruptly. Voices rose and fell in incredulous excitement. He held up his hand.
“NoWait,” he repeated the name. “A little rub on the skin, and in no time you're thin.” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter. He knew it was time to pull back.
“Please join me inside,” Richard invited, “for a tour of the new facility.”
The press was calling out questions. People were pushing forward. Flushed with the intoxicating power of success, Dr. Richard Strong passed out NoWait samples, accepted congratulations, gave thoughtful, intelligent answers to the press. Only he knew how often in his mind he had fielded those very questions.
They loved him. He could see it. He could feel it. He needed it.
Dr. Richard Strong would have been quite dismayed to learn there were two people in his audience not the least taken with him.
One, a curvy, attractive, middle-aged woman with shoulder-length blond hair had to hug herself against the chill she felt as she saw the crowds pushing toward the man she had once been married to, the father of her son.
“I know who you really are, Richard Strokudnowski,” she whispered.
The other person who was not totally enamored with Dr. Richard Strong had happened by the ribbon-cutting ceremony by pure chance. He had been on his way to the main hospital building to see his ailing grandmother, and his way had been blocked by the crowd.
Resigning himself to the delay, he had listened with customary skepticism. But it was with growing alarm that he took in the looks on the faces in the crowd.
They were buying this nonsense. Well, why wouldn't they? The man was the new Chief of Staff of a branch of a medical institution with an impeccable reputation.
Narrowing his eyes on the man at the center of thecrush of attention, Detective Daniel O'Callahan folded his arms over the broadness of his chest.
“I know a snake-oil salesman when I see one,” he muttered out loud.
The observation earned him dirty looks from several of the pudgy people around him. Still, Daniel made a quick mental note that the good doctor needed to be watched.
Which would take time, the commodity Daniel had the least of. He sighed and put Dr. Richard Strong on a back burner. But he knew he wasn't about to forget him.
“Excuse me,” Maggie Sullivan said, trying to get by the couple who were blocking the main staircase into Portland General Hospital.
Sheesh,she thought to herself,weren't they just a little old for that?She glanced at them from behind a silky curtain of blond hair. She could feel herself blushing.
The woman was perhaps forty, coiffed, bejeweled and dignified in every wayâexcept that she had her tongue tangled with that of a silver-haired man who was pressed so tightly against her that a piece of paper couldn't have been inserted between them.
To make matters worse, Maggie was sure she recognized the woman from the seminar that she and her best friend, Kristen, were taking at the recently openedHealthy Living Clinic. The New You: Bold and Beautiful was being given by Dr. Richard Strong himself, which made it twice as appealing.
Maggie did not think the performance she was reluctantly witnessing was what Dr. Strong meant when he'd finished the seminar by giving them a homework assignment. He'd said, “Be bold. Do something totally out of character this week.”
For Maggie that had meant eyeing up the bold and flirty red summer dress in the front window of Classy Lass, a haute couture shop way out of her price range.
“Excuse me,” she said again, a trifle more forcefully.
The couple moved marginally, without unfastening their lips. Maggie slid by them, giving them a look of firm disapproval that she was pretty sure neither one of them saw.
Maggie, she told herself, don't be so judgmental. She did not know the story behind the obvious passion of that kiss. Maybe one of them was being admitted for a life-threatening illness or a complicated surgery. It would be okay to kiss like that if you thought you were saying goodbye forever. Wouldn't it?
At the top of the stairs, she paused and looked back on the situation, prepared to reevaluate it in this softer light.
The pins had fallen out of the woman's hair, and her silk jacket was halfway off her shoulder. She was running her knee up the man's thigh.
Maggie turned away from the scene so fast she bumped into the door. Dazed, she held her bruised nose, opened the door and hurried through it. Her face felt as if it was on fire. And, in truth, it wasn't just becauseshe'd embarrassed herself by slamming full-force into a glass door. Nor was it entirely because of seeing the couple behaving so brazenly in public.
There was a tingle in the pit of her stomach that felt like hunger, only more intense. She felt as if she needed something, but with a type of need that was frightening, the kind of need she imagined a junkie must feel, or a gambling addict, or a person with the shakes reaching for a drink.
And she, Maggie Sullivan, was just not that kind of girl. In fact, she prided herself on the amount of control she had, on how responsible she was, how reliable.
But the truth was, this feeling had been enveloping her at odd moments for days. It had nearly overwhelmed her when she saw a young couple holding hands, when she overheard a whispered “I love you” in the hospital cafeteria, when she saw a man and a woman pushing a stroller. On those occasions, Maggie would feel an emptiness so vast, a yearning so strong, she felt as though the emotions could overtake her entire well-ordered life.
“I'm twenty-seven,” she murmured. “Biological clock.”
Unfortunately not a single soul had warned her that the ticking of a biological clock could seem much more like the ticking of a time bombâas if it could explode without warning, leaving nothing but wreckage where a neat and tidy little life had once been.
Maybe biological clocks were something she needed to talk to Dr. Strong about at the next meeting of the B&B Club, as she and Kristen had dubbed the Bold and Beautiful series. B&B was the first in a full schedule of wellness seminars that Dr. Strong would be personally hosting.
Since she was still rubbing her nose from her last moment of inattention, Maggie really should have known better than to crane her neck for just one little last glance back. The couple was still on the steps. The man was gnawing on the woman's neck, and she was bent backward over his arm as if they were executing a very complicated dance maneuver. Maggie's head spun, as if she would die to feel that way, so enamored with another person that she could forget all the rules, enter a world of just two and never mind who was watching.
Maggie whirled. Her mouth opened in shocked surprise, but no sound came out. A wheelchair was careening toward her at full tilt. A man was in it, his powerful shoulders drawn forward, his arm muscles gloriously knotted from the effort of propelling himself forward at such an atrocious speed.
She was aware of imagesâastonishing green eyes narrowed in ferocious concentration, thick dark-brown hair flying back, coppery unblemished skin beaded with sweatâand then Maggie awakened to the reality that she was about to be run down. She threw herself to one side to avoid being flattened.
Unfortunately the wheelchair veered crazily at exactly the same moment and in exactly the same direction. Maggie was lifted off her feet, the blow cushioned somewhat by bands of steel wrapping around her and pulling her hard into the wall of an extraordinary chest.
For a suspended moment it seemed as if a fall might be averted, but the wheelchair tilted, lolled, tried to right itself, listed crazily again and then capsized, dumpingMaggie on the floor and the wheelchair's inhabitant right on top of her.
The bands of steelâwhich she recognized were a deliciously masculine set of armsâremained wrapped protectively around her. She was remarkably unhurt, pinned below a strange man.
He was big and he was gorgeous. From her position, sprawled below the muscle-hardened length of his body, Maggie stared up at him, amazed. She ordered herself to sputter indignantly, but no sound came from her mouth.
Instead, she studied his eyes and decided she had never seen eyes that shade before, the exact color of those mysterious Mount Hood National Forest lakes that gleamed in smoky jade. The man's eyes were lit with equal parts of mischief and pure seduction, and fringed with a sinful and sooty abundance of black lashes.
Maggie used being stunned as a result of the collision to continue to stare at him. Her gaze drifted hazily down his features, ticking them offâthick, dark hair, arched eyebrows, beautiful nose except for a savage scar across the bridge, high cheekbones, strong chin. The cheeks and chin were darkly whisker-roughened. It was the face of a man who would have been far better suited to guide a pirate ship than a wheelchair.
But pity never entered her mind because his lips, full and firm, suddenly formed themselves into a sardonic grin that revealed teeth so brilliant and white and sexy that she felt the breath was being drawn from her body. This close she could even see the smile was not perfectâa chip was missing from the right front toothâbut it did not detract from the powerful male potency of that smile even one little bit.
Slowly, her awareness of the pure and roguish appeal of his face was diluted by another awareness. Their bodies were pressed as closely together as were those of that couple she had just judged on the front steps. And she was just as reluctant to pull away.
He was all hard edges and formidable masculinity, and Maggie could feel herself melting into him. She could feel the steel-band strength of the muscled arms that had tightened around her, protecting her from the worst of the fall. To her dazed mind, he felt good, heated and strong, the exact drug that unnamed yearning in her had craved. His scent enveloped her, tangy and tantalizing, the scent of wild, high places, forests and mountains, and all things untamed.
“Sorry,” he said, but the lazy grin said he wasn't the least bit sorry, that he was quite content to be lying on the shiny tile floor of the main foyer of Portland General Hospital pressed intimately into the curves of a complete stranger.
“Oh!” Maggie said, coming to her senses abruptly. She could feel her skirtâmarginally too tight, despite her faithful use of Dr. Strong's miracle NoWait ointmentâbinding the top of her thighs. She tugged frantically at it, not unaware that the lazy amusement burning in his eyes deepened as she wriggled beneath him.
She was, however unintentionally, putting on a better show than the couple outside. At least that couple probably knew each other.
“Anything I can help you with, ma'am?” he drawled.
“Oh!” Maggie said. “How impertinent!”
She rolled out from under him and onto her knees. The skirt was indeed stuck. She should have never taken Dr. Strong's advice to use only half doses of NoWait oil.
“You are already nearly the perfect size, my dear,” he had explained to her, his sincere brown eyes making her feel as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world. “Apply a half dose of the oil behind your ears for its nutritional value.”
If she'd taken the full dose, her skirt wouldn't be bunched up around her hips and refusing to move.
Her attacker's grin had evolved into a deep chuckle. If he wasn't wheelchair-bound, she would probably hit him for that chuckle, and for the frank and insolent way he was evaluating parts of her legs that, to date, had only been shown at the beach.
“Impertinent,” he repeated slowly, as if he was trying on a new label to see if he liked it. She suspected he did.
She frowned disapprovingly at him.
“Are you okay?” he asked, propping himself up on one elbow. His eyebrows arched wickedly as if he had taken a front-row seat at the peep show.
“No, I am not okay,” she said through clenched teeth. “I am exposing myself to half the hospital!”
He suddenly seemed to get it that she was not finding this situation nearly as amusing as he was. He shoved himself upward and then leaped lightly to his feet. He held an arm down to her.
She stared at him, astonished, as if he was a biblical character who had folded up his cot and walked.
“You aren't handicapped!” She ignored his arm and rocked back from her kneeling position to sitting, hoping that changing position would help her untangle the skirt where it bound her legs. The skirt, however, was determined to thwart her. When she got home tonight, she was rubbing a whole bottle of NoWait behind her ears!
He folded arms over a chest she now saw was massive. He had on a blue hospital gown that bound the muscles of his arms as surely as her skirt was binding her thighs, his result being far more attractive than hers. Underneath the gown, thank God, he had on a faded pair of blue jeans. He watched her undignified struggles with infuriating male interest.
“It's against the law to pretend to be handicapped,” she told him, though she had no idea if it was or not.
“Handicapped?” He followed her glance to the overturned wheelchair. “Oh, that.”
He watched her for a moment longer, then, apparently unable to stand it, moved quickly behind her and without her permission put his hands under her armpits and set her on her feet.
For some ridiculous reason an underarm deodorant jingle went through her head. She hoped, furiously, ridiculously, she wasn't damp under her arms.
“You were driving like a maniac,” she said, yanking herself away from him to hide her discomfort at how it had felt to be lifted by him, so easily, as if she were a feather, as if the NoWait could gather dust in her bathroom cabinet forever.
“And you weren't watching where you were going,” he said, coming back around to face her, looking down at her, smiling with an easy confidence and charm that might have made her swoon if he wasn't so damned aggravating.
She glared at him. She bet that smile had been opening doorsâand other thingsâfor him his entire life.
How dare he be so incredibly sexy, and so darned sure of it?
“Are you saying this was my fault?” she demanded.
“Fifty-fifty?” he suggested with aggravating calm.
He turned toward the voice. Maggie turned, too. Hillary Wagner, a nurse Maggie knew slightly from her own work as a social worker at Children's Connection, an adoption agency and fertility clinic that was affiliated with this hospital, was coming toward them, looking very much like a battleship under full steam.
Apparently here was a woman who was immune to the considerable charm radiating off Mr. August. “What on earth have you been up to now?”
“Remember the nurse fromOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?” he asked Maggie in an undertone.
Maggie sent him a look. Was he an escapee from the psych ward, then?
Hillary took in the upturned wheelchair, and her tiny gray eyes swept Maggie's disheveled appearance.
“Mr. August, you've been racing the wheelchairs again!” she deduced, her tone ripe with righteous anger. “And this time you've managed to cause an accident, haven't you?”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said, and hung his head boyishly, but not before giving Maggie a sideways wink.
“Mr. August, really! You cannot be racing wheelchairs down the hallways. Who were you racing with? Don't tell me it was Billy Harmon.”
“Okay. You won't hear it from me.”
“Don't be flip, Mr. August. He's a very ill boy. Which way did he go?”
“I think I caught a glimpse of him wheeling off that way in a big hurry when I had my, er, collision. Frankly,he looked better than I've ever seen him look, not the least ill.”
“You are not a doctor, despite that horrible prank you pulled, visiting all the poor ladies in maternity.”
“Isn't impersonating a doctor illegal?” Maggie asked.
“It certainly is!” Hillary concurred.
But he ignored Hillary and turned to Maggie, not the least chastened. “What are youâa lawyer? I wasn't impersonating a doctor. I found a discarded lab jacket and a clipboard. People jumped to their own conclusions.”
“You are a hazard,” Hillary bit out.
“Why, thank you.”
“It wasn't a compliment! Billy is sick, Mr. August, and even if he wasn't, wheelchair racing is not allowed. Do you understand?”
“Aye, aye, mon capatain, strictly forboden.”He managed to murder both the French and German languages.
Maggie wanted to be appalled by him. She wanted to look at him with the very same ferocious and completely uncharmed stare that Hillary was leveling at him.
Unfortunately, he made her want to laugh. But it felt to Maggie as if her very lifeâor at least her professional oneâdepended on hiding that fact.
Hillary drew herself to her full height. “I could have you discharged,” she said shrilly.
“Make my day,” he said, unperturbed by her anger. “I've been trying to get out of this place for a week.”
“Oh!” she said. She turned to Maggie. “Are you all right? Maggie, isn't it? From Children's Connection? Oh dear, your skirt isâ”
“Very attractive,” Mr. August said.
The skirt continued to be bound up in some horrible way that was defying Maggie's every attempt to get it back where it belonged.
Strong hands suddenly settled around her hips, and Maggie let out a startled little shriek.
The hands twisted, and the skirt rustled and then fell into place.
Maggie glared at the man, agreed inwardly he was a hazard, and then patted her now perfectly respectable skirt. “I don't know whether to thank you or smack you,” she admitted tersely.
“Smack him!” Hillary crowed, like a wrestling fan at a match, without a modicum of her normal dignity.
“There's Billy,” the hazard said.
Maggie turned to see a young man, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, his head covered in a baseball cap, doing wheelchair wheelies past the nurses' station. Giving Mr. August one more killing look, Hillary turned and dashed after Billy.
“Maggie, I'm Luke August.”
Maggie found her hand enveloped in one that was large and strong and warm. She looked up into eyes that were glinting with the devil.
She snatched her hand away from his, recognizing the clear and present danger of his touch.
“You were racing wheelchairs?” she asked, brushing at an imaginary speck on her hopelessly creased skirt. “With a sick child?”
“He's not really a child. Seventeen, I think.”
“And the sick part?”
“Careful, when you purse your lips like that you look just like Nurse Nightmare over there.”
“I happen to be an advocate for children,” she said primly.
“You would have approved, then. The kid's sick. He's not dead. He needs people to quit acting like he is. Besides, I was bored.”
She stared at him and knew that he would be one of those men who was easily bored, full of restless energy, always looking for the adrenaline rush. He was the type of man who jumped out of airplanes and rode pitching bulls, in short, the kind of man who would worry his woman to death.
“What brings you to Portland General, Mr. August?” she asked, seeking confirmation of what she already knew.
“Luke. Motorcycle incident. Broke my back. Not as serious as it sounds. Lower vertebrae.”
“Not the first time you've been a guest here?” she guessed.
He smiled. “Nope. They have my own personal box of plaster of paris put away for me in the E.R. I've broken my right leg twice, and my wrist. Of course, then there are the injuries they don't castâa concussion, a separation and a dislocation. And the cuts that required stitches. That's what happened to my nose.”
She suspected he knew exactly how darn sexy that ragged scar across his nose was, so she tried not to look. And failed.
He smiled at her failure, and that smile was devastating, warm and sexy. Of course, he was exactly the kind of man who knew it, and whom a woman with an ounce of sense walked away from. No, ran away from. He had mentioned seven injuries in the span of seven seconds!
Besides, he was exactly the kind of man who could have you breaking all the rulesâkissing on the front steps of a public place and loving itâbefore you even knew what had hit you.
“Look, Maggie, it was nice running into you.”
A different person might have known how to play with that, but she just looked at him with consternation.
“I'm trying to say I'm sorry I ran you down. Let me know if there's anything I can do to make it up to you,” he said. He was dismissing her.
It was a carelessly tossed-out offer. He didn't mean it, and of course there wasn't anything he could do to erase the fact that she had been wagging her upper thighs at everyone who had come in the main entrance in the last few minutes.
But for some reason, looking into the jewel-like sparkle of those green eyes, feeling the wattage of that devilish grin, Dr. Strong's homework assignment came to mind.
Be bold. Do something totally out of character.
It would be absolute insanity for Maggie to actually say the words that formed in her brain. She thought of that couple kissing on the steps and was filled with a sudden, heady warmth.
“You could go out with me,” she said, and then at the look of stunned surprise on his face, she stammered, “You know, to make it up to me.”
His eyes widened, and then narrowed. He was looking at her in a brand-new way, and she suddenly had the awful feeling she was coming up short.
She was not the kind of woman a man like this dated. He dated women who had waterfalls of wild hair, whowore skimpy clothing molded proudly to voluptuous curves. He dated women who wore bright-red lipstick and had a matching color for their fingernails.
Fingernails that would be long and tapered, not short and neatly filed. Maggie hid her fingers behind her back, but it didn't help.
Maggie Sullivan was not Luke August's kind of woman and they both knew it. Still, why did her heart feel as if it was going to fly right out of her chest while she waited for his answer?
You could go out with me.
Luke eyed the woman in front of him with surprise. She did not look like the type of woman who surprised a man.
She was presentable enough, in that kind of understated way that he associated with schoolteachers, librarians and dental hygienists, though her eyes prevented her from being ordinary. They were a shade of hazel that danced between blue and green. She had beautiful blond hair, untainted by the color streaks that were so fashionable. Her features, her nose and cheekbones and chin were passably cute, but not spectacularly attractive.
And she had a nice body under that prim gray straight-line suit with the uncooperative skirt, and he knew quite a bit more about her body than he should, since it had been flattened under him for fifteen or twenty most delectable seconds.
But Luke had already guessed quite a lot about her from their short acquaintance. She would be the predictable sort. If she said she'd meet you at two, she was the type who would be there five minutes before. The problem with the predictable sort was they always had an expectation that you were going to share their predictability.
He also guessed she would prefer reading a novel to experiencing real adventure. Her idea of a perfect Friday night was probably to be curled up on her couch with a book, a cup of tea and a cat. The problem with that type was that they generally held old-fashioned values of home and family in high esteem, a view that, given his own childhood home life, he was not inclined to share.
He was willing to bet she was the type who could be counted on to bake cookies and bring them into the office, and even though Luke liked homemade cookies as much as the next man, he was wary of what they representedâa longing for domesticity.
If the woman in front of him was all that she appeared, she was sweet, wholesome and predictable.
In fact, not his type at all. Least likely ever to wreck a wheelchair while racing down a hospital corridor.
Also least likely to ask a strange man out.Were there more surprises lurking behind that mask of respectability? Damn. He did like the unexpected.
Still, when he'd asked if there was anything he could do for her, what he'd meant was that he'd pick up her dry-cleaning bill. He should have been more clear about that.
He was going home to his ideal woman in a few more days. Her name was Amber. She had long, wild, red-tinted hair, red lips and eyes that were so black they smoked. A lacy white bra, filled to overflowing, peeped out from under her black leather jacket.
Amber had appeared in his lifeâunexpectedlyâinApril of 2002. In fact, she had appeared at the flick of his wrist. He'd been changing the calendar from March, and there she was, April 2002 on his Motorcycle Maidens calendar.
At least he was faithful to her. He had never turned the page to May. New calendars were a dime a dozen, after all, but a woman like Amber? He'd been searching for her since then. When he found her, then and only then, would he consider giving up the bachelor lifestyle. Meanwhile, he could tell his mother who, after seeking counseling several years back, had started showing unexpected and not entirely welcome interest in him, that he was “seeing” someone.
Amber was not the type who baked cookies, or was content with a cup of tea on a Friday night. She probably didn't like cats or small children. But the way she unbuttoned her jacket and leaned over the handlebars of that Harleyâthe exact same make, year and model that he himself rodeâwho cared?
Meanwhile, it was true, he'd gone through a number of Amber look-alikes. Big-busted redheads, with steamy smiles and promising eyes, some of whom even shared his addiction to all things fast and furious. But somehow it always dead-ended, always disappointed, never even got close to fillingthat place.
Luke did not like thinking aboutthat place. The restless place. The empty space. He was thirty-four years old and facing up to the fact that the older he got, the harder it was to fill. Speed didn't do it anymore, not the way it used to. And the broken bones took longer to mend than they used to.
“What do you mean, go out?” he asked, leaning towardher, playing the game he knew how to play. Even though she was not his type, the man-woman thing was an effective form of outrunningthat place,at least temporarily.
She actually was blushing a charming shade of crimson, something Amber did not do, and would not do when he finally found her.
“Never mind,” she said, and tossed her hair. “That was a silly thing to say. I don't know what got into me.”
It was the wrong kind of hair for him. Since Amber, he liked redheads, and not necessarily real redheads, either. But that self-conscious toss had drawn his eye. Miss Priss's hair was an intriguing shade somewhere between corn silk and ripening wheat.
Considering it wasn't the type of hair he went for, at all, he found it odd that he suddenly wanted to touch it. “We could,” he said, “go out.”
Her green-blue eyes got very big. Amber would have licked her lips and let her eyes travel suggestively down his hospital gown, but hers didn't.
“Maggie, wasn't it? Isn't that what Nurse Nightmare called you?” He was helping her along, giving her an opportunity to flirt, but she was obviously terrible at this. She was looking everywhere but at him.
“Maggie Sullivan,” she confirmed reluctantly. “But really, never mind.”
“Go out?” he prodded her. “Like for a drink or something?”
“Oh. No. I mean I don't drink.”
Hell's bells, this was getting worse by the moment. Amber would drink. Get on the tables and sway her hips and lick her lips when she'd had a few too many.
And he'd be the one who got to bring her home.
“So, what did you mean, then, go out?”
“I thought maybe a movieâ¦or something,” she said lamely.
Worse than he thought. A movie, which meant the big debate. Do you hold her hand? Put your arm over her shoulder? When was the last time going out had meant that to him?
He thought he'd been twelve.
“Did you have a particular movie in mind?” Mind. Had he lost his? Maggie Sullivan was not his kind.
On the other hand, his search for Amber was proving futile. Why not entertain himself until she came along? Maggie was the kind of girl who had always snubbed him in high school, the kind of girl lost behind too many books in her arms, not amused by being tripped by his big foot sticking out in the hall.
Miss Goody Two Shoes and the Wild Boy.
Life had been getting a little dull. Why not play a bit? She'd asked, not him. She'd started it. If she wanted to play with fire, why not accommodate her?
“I had heardLilacs in Springwas good, butâ”
Lilacs in Spring.He was willing to bet it was all about sappy stuff, no motorcycles or pool tables in the script. Kissing. Romance. Eye-gazing. Hand-holding. Fields full of flowers. Mushy music. In other words, the big yuck.
The type of movie he and Amber would not go to, ever.
“Meet me right here, at say, eight?” he said. “We could catch the late show.”
“Aren't you in the hospital?”
“Did you ever see the movieEscape from Alcatraz?”
That figures.“Everything's way more fun when you're not supposed to do it,” he explained, attempting to be patient with her. “I loved playing hooky as a kid. There are things a man misses about being a kid.”
He could tell she just wanted to turn and run. She had never gone out with the kind of guy who liked playing hooky, not in her entire life. Instead she yanked her skirt down one more time, lifted her chin and said, “Eight o'clock it is.”
She scurried away and he watched her, amused. “I bet I'll never see her again,” he said out loud. Just the same, he knew he would be waiting here at eight o'clock just in case Miss Maggie Sullivan decided to surprise him one more time.
Something hit him hard in the knees and he turned around. Billy Harmon grinned at him from his wheelchair. His bald head was covered with the baseball cap Luke had given him yesterday.
The kid just tugged at his heartstrings, a surprise to Luke, since he liked to deny the existence of a heart.
“Hey, Billy, you escaped Nurse Nightmare. Good man!”
“Luke, I got two rolls of toilet paper. You want to do something with me?” Billy leaned forward, his eyes alight with glee as he laid out his plan for laying a toilet-paper trail all the way from Nurse Nightmare's private bathroom facilities to the men's locked ward.
Luke scanned the boy's face, looking for signs of weariness, but there were none. That nurse had been right, he wasn't a doctor. But he knew mischief could be a tonic, especially for a kid who knew way too much about the hard side of life. In Luke's evaluation, Billyneeded his mind taken off the bleak realities he faced everyday, and that wasn't going to happen if he was lying in bed staring at the ceiling.
“I'm in,” Luke said, picking his wheelchair up off the floor. He inspected it for damage, found none and settled himself in the seat. He followed Billy's example and hooked the toilet paper roll on the back push grip where it began to unroll merrily behind him.
But the whole time he laid his toilet paper trail down the hall, Luke August was uneasily aware that he was thinking of eyes that were an astonishing shade of blue and green, not the least little bit like Amber's.
He tried to imagine if those eyes would be laughing or disapproving if she was watching him right now.
Who cares?he asked himself roughly.
He realized he did. And that maybe he was the one who needed to be thinking long and hard before he showed up in that hospital foyer at eight tonight.Two
Luke caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of the hospital front doors, and felt satisfied with what he had accomplished. He was wearing the green overalls and the white-bill cap of a hospital custodian.
“Evenin', Doc,” he greeted his own doctor as she hurried by him out of the building. She was an Amazon of a woman, in her mid-fifties, but they were on a first-name basis, and she hadthatgleam in her eye whenever she saw him. What could he say? It was a gift.
But tonight she barely glanced his way. “Good night,” she said politely.
It wasn't just that she hadn't recognized him. It was as if he was invisible. People leaving the hospital as the end of visiting hours approached bustled by him in the main foyer with nary a glance, returning his casual greetings without really seeing him.
Invisible. Exactly the effect he had been attempting when he had raided the maintenance closet on his floor. Luke swabbed the floor with his mop and congratulated himself on his ease with the art of disguise. He liked trying on other personas and slipped into them easily.
He would have made an excellent spy or undercover cop, he thought. He realized he probably would have excelled in a career in acting. In fact, he had entertained the idea of becoming an actor after one successful role in a high school production. A girlfriend had talked him into playing Hook inPeter Panand he had gotten a great deal of mileage out of telling his upscale and very conservative parents he planned to hit Hollywood upon graduation. He could not find a single other career choice that his parents disapproved of as heartily as that one, which was guaranteed to get a rise out of them both.
His eventual choice, a career in construction, had certainly proven to be a close enough second in the disapproval rating. Nevertheless, he hadn't looked back.
“Manly, too,” he muttered to himself of his career choice. Now, though, he enjoyed being in character, an eccentric floor cleaner who muttered and swabbed. No one watching would be even remotely aware that Luke kept a surreptitious eye on the front door.
“Visiting hours are now over,” the tinny voice over the public address system announced officiously.
Luke glanced at the clock, confirming what he had just heard. Eight o'clock, on the dot.
“Big surprise,” Luke said to his washtub, giving the mop a vigorous wring. “Miss Maggie Sullivan, an on-the-dot kind of gal if there ever was one, is not coming.”
After his weak moment this afternoon, when he hadcaught himself actuallycaringwhat Miss Maggie would think of a grown man unraveling toilet paper down a hospital corridor, Luke had arrived at the conclusion that he was not going out with her. There was something dangerous brewing under the surface of that pristine exterior.
Still, as the hands of the clock had ticked closer and closer to eight, curiosity, that worst of male vices, had gotten the better of him.
He'd found everything he needed in the maintenance closet on his floor, including a name tag that said Fred. It was really the best of both worldsâhe got to see if she showed up without being the least bit vulnerable himself.
Really, Luke told himself, it was as if he was studying human nature, nothing more. He wanted to see how accurately he had judged her character, and now he congratulated himself on his astuteness.
He'd surmised Miss Maggie had never asked a man out before in her life. He had predicted she would get cold feet.
Okay, he might have also been just a tiny bit curious what she would have worn had he happened to be wrong.
But he wasn't. He looked at the clock again. Three minutes after eight. If she was coming, he would have bet his last fifty cents she would have been here at precisely five minutes to eight. She was not the kind of woman who would be late. He knew these things. He should have let Billy in on it. They could have bet five bucks, though it would have been a shame to take Billy's money.
Just underneath the hearty round of congratulationshe was giving himself as he wrung out the mop one final time and prepared to go back to his room, Luke became aware of something besides self-congratulation stirring in his breast.
He realized he was wringing the mop just a little too vigorously, the handle bending dangerously under the pressure he was applying. He paused and analyzed the unwanted feeling that hovered at the edges of his consciousness. Could it be?
No! He would never be disappointed because a little mouse like that had stood him up! Or if he was, it was only because he had gone to a great deal of trouble to be able to have a front-row seat to her reaction to being stood up by him.
He felt the cool draft of the front door opening, and out of the corner of his eye caught a flutter of movement. He turned his head marginally, froze, then ducked his head and began mopping again. He slid another glance out of the corner of his eye.
He waltzed the bucket around so he was facing her, but kept the bill of his cap down. He peered at her from under it and digested the fact the little mouse, Miss Maggie, had managed to surprise him again.
She had not been five minutes early. And she was not a no-show, either.
Maggie Sullivan stood, a trifle uncertainly, scanning the foyer. The outfit was worth waiting for. It was evident she had worked very hard at choosing it, and had arrived at a look that was not in the least overstated, and that was certainly not designed to impress anyone. Still,there was no denying the way those plain black trousers, flared faintly from knee to ankle, hugged the lovely feminine swell of hip that had caused her so much trouble earlier in the day. She had on a light-brown suede jacket over a black T-shirt that promised to be formfitting if he ever had an opportunity to get a better look at it.
He remembered the soft press of that form just a little too well.
“Brilliant,” he muttered at the murky water in his bucket. The girl was obviously brilliant. She had chosen an outfit designed to make it look as though she was not trying to impress anyone, least of all not him, and that had succeeded in intriguing, nonetheless.
It was not an Amber-approved outfit. No cleavage or glimpses of underwear were to be seen, but it was a long way from the Miss Priss he had knocked right off her feet this afternoon. Her blond hair was free and cascaded down over her shoulders in a shiny wave. He felt that same rebel need to touch it that he had felt this afternoon.
He tried to read her features, but the little tilt of her delicate nose, the furrow at her brow and the quick glance at her watch were not all that readable.
Was she disappointed that he hadn't showed? He was amazed that he couldn't tell. She glanced at her watch, took another look around, then spun on her heel. He thought maybe he had caught a quick glimpse of something on her face before she had turned away. Relief?
That Luke appeared not to have shown up? That seemed unlikely, especially since she herself had gone to the trouble of getting here.
Still, she was leaving. Would she give up thatquickly? He had been at his station, a patient patient, for a full half hour.
Wait. Her shoulders slumped marginally as she pushed at the door. In that one small gesture he read a heartrending weariness at the ways of the world, and at the callousness of his sex.
He was not the kind of guy who could be trusted with a girl who got hurt easily, and he was the least likely guy to save his sex from a reputation of being callous. In fact, he had probably personally helped his gender gain that reputation!
Nope, Luke August knew himself inside out. He was superficial and insensitive, and for the most part, damned proud of it.
Let her go,his voice of reason cautioned him.
“Hey, Maggie.” It was his other voice.
She spun, startled, and scanned the room again. Her eyes rested on him briefly, studied the empty foyer, and then returned to him, understanding dawning in them.
He rested his hands on the top of the mop, pushed the bill of his cap up with the handle and grinned.
She stared at him, her hand still on the door. It occurred to him that she was considering bolting, and that he would be sorry if she did. But then she let go of her grip on the door, turned, folded her arms over her chest and tapped her foot.
In that pose, she reminded him of a teacher he'd had in the sixth grade. A formidable woman whom he had not liked one little bit. Why hadn't he just let her leave?
That's what I told you to do,the voice of reason reminded him churlishly.
It occurred to him that underneath that stern expression, Maggie was trying not to smile. But the smile flickered across her lips, disappeared and then reappeared again, the sun peeping in and out of rain clouds.
The sun won, and that smile changed everything.
Cameron Diaz, eat your heart out,Luke thought. Maggie Sullivan's smile was wide and infectious. She had glossed her lips some kind of soft, shimmery shade of peach, and he saw the kissable plumpness of her lower one. In the blink of an eye that smile transformed her from an old-maid schoolmarm to a woman who looked young and carefree and quite astoundingly beautiful.
Not beautiful in the Amber way, all painted and promising seduction. Beautiful in quite a different way, natural and graceful, like a doe pausing in a meadow.
He noticed the smile lit her eyes to a shade that was electric, and she had little crinkles at the edges of them that told him her smile was one hundred percent the real thing.
His eyes were drawn to the plumpness of her bottom lip again. How was it possible he had been in such close proximity to her this afternoon and not noticed how kissable her mouth was? It must be the gloss, because now it seemed he couldn't focus on anything else as she came across his nicely cleaned floor toward him.
“You're full of surprises,” she said, stopping, looking up at him through a tangle of thick lashes.
Whoo boy.He was full of surprises? She was the one who was late. And here. And beautiful in some spectacular, understated way he had not appreciated in a woman before. And the biggest surprise of all? Miss Maggie had lips that could be declared dangerous weapons.
“You, too,” he said.
“Me?” She laughed with disbelief and self-consciousness. “Oh, no, I don't think I'm a surprising kind of person.”
“You're here,” he pointed out. “That's a surprise.”
“You didn't think I'd come?” The smile faded, and with it went the spell of great beauty it had cast. Not that she wasn't cute enough, if you had the librarian fantasy.
Which he didn't. Amber in black leather was all the fantasy he needed.
“No, I didn't think you'd come.”
He noticed how awkward she was, just plain bad at the man-woman interchanges. It was a quality he should not find the least endearing.
But he did, not that it changed anything. Luke August did not date awkward girls. Or ones that were easily hurt. And yet her eyes wouldn't let him go, beckoned to him, a lighthouse to a ship lost at sea.
“So, er, why did you come? If you thought I wasn't coming?” she asked.
He lifted a shoulder. “Floor needed mopping?”
“Well, that explains the outfit.”
He suddenly didn't want her thinking about his outfit for too long. He didn't want her arriving at the real reason he'd worn the disguiseâto spy on her, and then to slip away, unscathed by her smile. It was too late for plan A.
Luke decided to formulate plan B as he went along. “It's part of my escape plan,” he confided in her. “Nurse Nightmare takes a dim view of her patients ducking out to catch the late show.”
“The late show,” Maggie repeated, as if she had only just remembered why she was here. She looked arounduncomfortably, took a deep breath and began talking, the fast chatter of someone who was nervous, or trying very hard to sell a product they didn't actually believe in.
“Actually, Luke,” she said, “I asked you to go to the movie with me on an impulse.”
“You don't say?” he said dryly.
She hurried on. “I had decided not to come. But then it seemed so unfair to leave you waiting with no explanation. So I just came to tell you, it's off. No date.”
He regarded her silently. Well, well, well. Another surprise from Maggie Sullivan. She was brushing him off? It was actually much worse than just plain being stood up. He was not entirely accustomed to this turn of events. He found himself reluctantly intrigued by it, so he folded his hands more firmly over the mop, leaned his chin on the tops of his hands and let her flounder.
“You wouldn't have liked it, anyway. The movie,” she added hastily as if, left to his own devices, he would have assumeditwas something incredibly, indescribably naughty.
“Why the change of heart?” he asked, enjoying the little flood of crimson that was staining her cheeks. She had quite amazing cheekbones, when they were highlighted like that.
The voice of reason tried to interject in his inspection.Luke,it asked him,when was the last time you were with a girl who blushed?
“I just don't want to,” she stammered, and then added, apparently for emphasis, “Really.”
Twelve. Same age that I last took a girl to a movie.
“Really,” he repeated, not quite sure if he was amusedor aggravated. “Women rarely say they don't want to. To me.”
“I'm sure that's quite true, Mr. August,” she said formally. Her eyes skittered away from his, looking for an escape. “I mean, it's obvious you're a very charming man. And attractive.”
Her blush deepened as if telling him he was attractive was something she would now have to confess to the neighborhood priest on Saturday night.
“I have to go,” she said frantically.
Not so fast, little Miss Maggie.“What part don't you want to?” he asked. He deliberately lowered his voice. He took one hand off the mop handle, tried to fight the renegade urge one more time and failed. He picked up a strand of her hair, felt the tantalizing silk of it between his thumb and finger, and then let it fall.
She gasped as if he had asked her to have sex on the foyer floor, and tucked the offended strand of hair behind her ear. “The movie part,” she squeaked.
She was not in his league at all. That was evident. His league was women who knew how to play the gameâwho breezily returned the repartee loaded with sexual innuendo, who blinked their lashes and tossed their hair, who leaned a little closer to let him have a peek down shirts that were unbuttoned one button too low.
Luke could not have guessed it would be so much fun playing a different game, toying with Maggie. The thing was, he couldn't predict what was going to happen next with her. And that lack of predictability was just a tiny bit refreshing.
“What's so scary about a movie?” he asked, knowing darn well it wasn't the movie she was scared of.
Unless he was mistaken, little Miss Maggie found him wildly attractive. One touch of his lips on her lips, or on her neck, one little nibble on her ear, and she would probably lose control of herself.
The thought of Maggie Sullivan losing control of herself flared, white-hot, in his poor male-hormone-driven brain.
Down, Fred,he ordered himself.
“Who's Fred?” she asked, bewildered.
He realized he had spoken out loud, recovered and pointed to the name tag on the hospital-issue coveralls.
“Oh.” She was very flustered.
“You were explaining about the movie,” he reminded her silkily.
She looked down at her suede jacket and picked an imaginary fleck off of it. “Okay,” she said, looking back at him suddenly and jutting out her chin, the determined look of a woman about to come clean, “it's about the popcorn.”
“Popcorn?” he echoed. He had expected anything but that. Popcorn? Was she serious?
She nodded, deadly serious. “Do I get popcorn?”
He wondered if it was a trick question. There it was again. Every single time he thought he was sort of figuring her out, she tossed a curve at him.
“Do you want popcorn?” he asked cautiously. He was not accustomed to being with women who were complicated, hard to read, easy to offend.
“Of course! What's a movie without popcorn?”
She sighed. “But if I get popcorn, then I have to decide about butter.”
“That hardly seems earthshaking,” he said, but he could tell she thought it was.
She sighed again, then blurted out, “Do I get my popcorn with butter the way I like it or without so that you'll think I at least try to be skinny?”
He slid his eyes over the lushness of her curves. What a shameskinnywould be on her.
When he looked back at her face she looked earnest and indignant, and Luke found he had to put a hand up to his mouth and bite on his knuckle so he wouldn't laugh. It would be a mistake to laugh in the face of her earnestness.
“And then,” she continued, “if I say to hell with what you think since you've already seen my skirt stuck around my hipsâ”
She didn't look like the kind of girl who used even mild curse words likehellvery often. Dare he hope he was already being an evil influence on her?
“âand get the butter, maybe even double butter, then my fingers are covered in grease and if you try to hold my hand, not saying that you would, butâ”
He held up his hand to stop the flow of words, choked down the laughter that was trying to get out and gazed down at her, trying to discern if she was attempting to amuse him or if it just came naturally to her.
It occurred to him that it had been a very long time since he'd been anything but bored with any woman, with the notable exception of Amber.
Having tamed the twitching of his lips, he finally said, “Has anybody ever suggested you might take life a tad too seriously?”
She nodded, sadly.
“I mean that is just way too much effort put into thinking about popcorn.”
“I know. I'm twenty-seven years old, and I have more self-doubt than I had as a teenager. It's pathetic.”
Uh-oh. If he was not mistaken, he heard a past heartbreak in there. What else took a beautiful woman's confidence from her so thoroughly? Geez. Somebody should teach this girl how to have a little fun. Not him, of course, but someone.
His voice of reason told him to wish her a polite good night and a nice life and get the hell back to his room. It told him heartbreak made women fragile. It told him he was the man least likely to be entrusted with anything fragile even for a few hours.
His voice of reason pointed out to him that she was worried about whether they were going to hold hands, for heaven's sake, and his mind was already conquering her lips and beyond.
Of course, if he was any damned good at listening to his voice of reason, he wouldn't be in the hospital for the seventh time in five years.
“What do you say we downgrade?” he suggested after a moment's thought.
“You know, from a date. We'll just grab a cup of coffee somewhere.”
She wanted to say yes. He could tell. But she didn't.
“I don't think it's a very good idea,” she said uncertainly.
It was really beginning to bug him that she found him so infinitely irresistible that she was resisting with all her might.
“Well, it's just the popcorn question with a different backdrop. Maybe worse. We'd have to talk. I mean just stare across the table and look at each other and think of clever things to say.”
Clever? Was she kidding? You told a few blond jokes, you talked about your job and your motorcycle, you found out she'd been a cheerleader in high school and owned a poodle. Maggie expected clever? It was his turn to worry.
His voice of reason told him to bid her adieu, go back to his room and start a gratitude journal.
Entry number one could be how grateful he was to have avoided any kind of involvement with a woman who didn't know anything about flirting, dating or making small talk with the opposite sex. And also one who was so obviously a fresh survivor of a heartbreak.
“So, how do you usually get to know people?” his other voice asked. “Meaningmenpeople?”
“Oh, you know. Shared interests. Work. Church.”
Shared interests? Would that be the poodle or the motorbike? Work? He couldn't even picture Amber on a construction site! And the worst one of allâchurch?
Whoo boy, church girls were not on his list of potential dates. In his limited experience they lived by rules that all began with Thou Shalt Not. Church girls loved commitment. Made vows. Mooned over babies. Babies!
Run!His voice of reason screamed. But he wasn't running. So, he'd show little Miss Maggie Mouse, church girl, an evening of fun. Maybe he'd get himself a few points in the heaven department if he didn't encourage her to curse any more. Everybody could use a few points in the heaven department, right?
Wrong,his voice of reason said stubbornly.
It was dumb to ignore that reason-voice. Luke knew from experience you almost always ended up going off a ramp on a dirt bike at eighty miles an hour, filled with the sudden knowledge that you would have had to be going ninety to make the ramp on the far side of the ravine.
He ignored the voice of reason. This was a challenge after all. He had a weakness. He had never been able to say no to a challenge.
And he had all the scars to prove it.
“Okay, the movie is out. Coffee is out. How about if we just go down to Morgan's Pub, play a game of pool and call it a night?”
There. He'd risen to the challenge and gotten himself off the hook in one smooth move. No girl who got to know people from the church was going to say yes to going to a pub and playing pool with a virtual stranger, a renegade dressed in a custodian's outfit.
She hesitated for only a moment, filled herself up with air as if she was building up the nerve to step off a cliff into a pool of ice-cold water, and then said, “Okay. I guess that would be all right.”
Maggie could not believe she had just said that. It would most definitelynotbe all right to go play a game of pool with Luke August. She didn't even know how to play pool, though that would be the least of her problems.
It was his eyes, she decided. They were green and smoky and they danced with amusement and mischief and seduction.
Seduction,she repeated to herself with a gulp.
She had come here to Portland General to tell himpolitely she had come to her senses and that she was not going to a movie with a stranger, with a man she knew nothing about except that he raced wheelchairs. Badly. She could just have not come at all, but it had seemed as if it would be too rude to leave him standing there in the foyer, waiting for her.
Of course, if she was going to be honest with herself, the truth was she could have used the phone and left a message for him at the nursing station.
But then she wouldn't have known if he had come. Somehow she had thought maybe he wouldn't. What had she felt when she had first walked in and the hospital foyer had appeared empty?
Much too much.
Her resolve to break the date had intensified when Luke had touched her hair. What had she felt then? Again, much too much. As if she wanted to lean toward him, place her fingertips on his chest, feel the hard wall of muscle and man beneath her hands, as she had felt it this afternoon.
Everything in her mind was screaming at her to run. Every sinew of her body was keeping her rooted to the spot.
In the end his eyes had proved irresistible, the laughter in them beckoning to her, promising her something outside the predictability and the monotony of her own narrow world.
Look at it as homework, she persuaded herself when she heard her voice saying with deceptive calm that she would go play pool with him.
Homework assignment:Be bold. Do something totally out of character this week.So, she'd asked a man out. It hardly counted if she then refused to go out with him!
“My lady,” Luke said, picking up the bucket and resting the dripping mop over his shoulder, “follow me.”
By then she was helpless to do anything but obey. Following him allowed her to study the broadness of his back, the narrowness of his hips, the firm line of his rear end, the length of his leg.
She realized, even in those custodian's overalls, too short for his six-foot-something frame, that he walked like a man who owned the earth, his stride long and loose, powerful and confident.
“Evenin',” he said cheerfully to a nurse coming toward them.
The woman gave him a quick glance, squinted at his chest. “Evening, Fred,” she replied distractedly.
Maggie stifled a giggle.
“Fred” turned and winked at her. He led her through a maze of hallways and up and down elevators until they came to an exit she suspected no one knew existed.
While she watched, he reached for the zipper on the coveralls.
“Want to take bets what I have on underneath?” His eyes were very dark in the murky light of the hall, dark and watchful.
She wished she was one of those girls who knew what to say in moments like this, but Maggie only gulped and shook her head. But she didn't look away, and he had known she would not look away.
Aware her eyes were riveted on that zipper, he lowered it very slowly, winked at her when she spotted the shirt underneath, and then he shimmied out of the coveralls, as if he undressed in front of women everyday.
Which he probably did, she reminded herself. The man was as close to irresistible as men came, and he knew it.
Underneath the coveralls, Luke had on a white denim shirt, sleeves rolled up to just below the elbow, revealing the power of his lower forearms. Faded jeans clung to the large muscles of his thighs.
“How did you know this was here?” she asked a trifle breathlessly, trying to think about anything but the way he was made.
“This exit? I explore.”
“For what reason?”
“You never know when you might have to get ten old people in wheelchairs out because of a fire.”
He could have said anything. That he got bored. That he was restless. And those things probably would have been true. But what he said also had sounded true. It would almost be too much to handle if he looked the way he didâso handsome, powerful, self-assuredâand also had heroic qualities.
He opened the door for her and bowed. “The only one in the building that's not alarmed,” he told her.
“How many alarms did you set off finding that out?” she asked, stepping by him, trying desperately to keep it light, to banter, not to give in to the shivering awareness she felt when she glimpsed the squareness of his wrist, caught the scent of him, noticed how the darkness made his faintly whisker-roughened face look like that of a pirate.
“Lots. Ask Nurse Nightmare.”
“I intend to.” She looked around. There was no light over the door, and it was pitch-black out here. She didn'thave the foggiest notion where they were. Behind one of the hospital wings, she assumed.
He leaned over and stuck a rock in the door, holding it ajar ever so slightly. “So I can get back in.”
“Why do you go to all the trouble?” she asked. “I think we could have just walked out the front door. You're a patient, not a prisoner.”
“Ha. You don't know the first thing about Nurse Nightmare, do you?”
“I know her name is not Nurse Nightmare! It's Hillary Wagner.”
He leaned close to her. She could feel his breath on the soft hollow of her neck. It occurred to her she was in a very dark and deserted place with a man she knew absolutely nothing about.
“I like to live dangerously,” he said softly.
So, now she knew that. And yet she did not feel the least afraid, or at least not for her physical safety. When she looked into Luke August's eyes she saw a man who planned escape routes for ten people in wheelchairs and who loved to play.
And she saw something else.
Her own need. She leaned toward him, her eyes closing, her lips parting. He was leaning toward her, too, so close she could smell the tangy scent of him, feel the faint heat rising off his body. She gave in to the temptation to touch. Her fingertips grazed his shirt, and she shut her eyes against the pulsating power contained behind the thin and flimsy wall of fabric.
He pulled back, away from her touch, and she straightened and stared at him.
“Ah, Miss Maggie Mouse,” he said softly, “you aren't that kind of girl.”
She was grateful for the darkness because she could feel the blush leap onto her cheeks. It was true. She was not that kind of girl.
But she sure wanted to be.
“Miss Maggie Mouse?” she asked, faintly chagrined, but slightly charmed, despite herself. Boys in high school had always given the girls they liked teasing nicknames. She had never been one of those girls chosen.
“That's right,” he said, his eyes warm in the darkness. “Miss Maggie Mouse.”
She held her breath. She could tell he wanted to kiss Miss Maggie Mouse very badly, or at the very least, touch her hair again.
But he did neither.
He held out his hand to her, and there was no mistaking the brotherliness of the offer. She took it. His grip was strong and warm and protective. Unfortunately, he had just protected her from himself, a gesture that was completely unwanted.
“Let's go play that game of pool,” he said, his voice thick.
She had a sudden, wild yearning to show him she was no mouse, to show him the mouse was only a disguise.
But for what? She wanted to be a tigress, but that was a bit of a stretch. She was a twenty-seven-year-old social worker whose one serious romance had ended like a bad Hollywood comedy.
She decided that trying to tempt Luke August might be a mistake, and yet even the notion of taking his lips captive until he was helpless with yearning filled herwith a lovely, drugging warmth that was not typical of her. Even entertaining such an idea made her feel vaguely guilty.
Unaware of the war within her, Luke led them through the darkness with catlike confidence, bringing them out on a side street just to the west of the hospital.
“Morgan's is just around the corner. Have you ever been there?” he asked.
“On occasion. They have a great lunch special. Have you been there?”
He snorted. “It's where everybody knows my name.”
Great, Maggie thought. He was restless and reckless. He loved to live dangerously. He was comfortable shedding his clothes in front of a woman. He was totally at home in a bar. What was she doing here?
Having the time of your life,a little voice, one she did not recognize at all, answered back to her, not without glee.Three
Morgan's Pub was crowded. And loud. The cheerful Irish bar was a popular place in downtown Portland, and Maggie usually enjoyed the atmosphere, noise and decor, but tonight, after walking hand in hand with Luke, and after a near miss in the kissing department, it felt way too public.
Not that anyone noticed! A couple in one of the oak booths by the windows didn't seem to be even remotely aware of either the noise or the crowd. They were tangled around each other like tree roots.
Were these performances becoming more common? Or was Maggie just noticing them more?
“Sheesh,” Luke muttered. “Get a room.”
So, he had noticed, too. Maggie glanced once more at the couple and frowned. Wasn't that a man she had seen on several occasions at the Healthy Living Clinic?
“Hey, Luke, haven't seen you for a while.”
Maggie's attention was diverted from the couple. The waitress was cute, one of those perky outgoing types that Maggie always somehow envied, even though they always seemed to end up working in places like this.
Blond and decidedly voluptuous, the girl had on a white tank top that showed off a pierced belly button. It was exactly the type of clothing that Maggie would never be able to wear. The young waitress was looking at Luke with something that seemed frighteningly close to adoration.
Maggie realized it should come as no surprise to her that Luke was the kind of man accustomed to being adored by the kind of girls who could get away with wearing skimpy white tank tops and piercing their belly buttons!
She sneaked a look at him and felt a renewed ripple of pleasure at the sheer masculine presence of the man, the dark crispness of his hair, the roguishness of his features, the rippling strength evident in every inch of his powerful frame.
A quick glance around proved his entrance had not gone unnoticed by many of the women in the establishment. A table of four attractive mid-twenties women were all looking at him with unveiled appreciation. When they caught Maggie's eye, they turned quickly away, chattering animatedly to each other over the table. Maggie suspected they were asking the very same question she herself was asking.
What was she, plain, ordinary Maggie Sullivan, doing here with this man? The movie would have been a better choice after all. She could have sat in the dark, chewed popcorn and worried about butter, never having a clue of what she was up against in terms of his massive appeal to all members of the opposite sex.
Up against? Good grief, that made it sound as if she had designs on Luke August! Maggie reminded herself she was doing her homework, being bold, not making lifetime plans. Still, she watched the interchange between Luke and the waitress with pained interest.
Luke gave the girl a light tap on the shoulder with a loose fist. “Hey, little sister,” he said, and with that single phrase, seemingly tossed out casually, he defused Maggie's anxiety. The phrase recognized the girl's youth without snubbing her. He acknowledged her, but didn't encourage her interest.
Was there more to Luke than met the eye?
“Where have you been?” the waitress asked, coquettishly blinking mascara-dripping lashes at him. She slipped her tray onto her hip, apparently planning a long chat that ignored Maggie. “It's been a couple of weeks, hasn't it?”
“I've been laid up,” he said. “Is there a table back in the pool room? Great. Hey, Rhonda, can you bring us a couple of burgers? Heavy on the fries. Don't stint on the gravy, either.”
Maggie suspected anyone else would have been told that that wasn't her section, but Rhonda didn't seem to realize she had been gently brushed off and was still eager to please. “To drink? Your regular?”
“And your lady friend?”
“Just a cola, thanks,” Maggie said.
“Two regulars,” Rhonda said, rolling her eyes.
Maggie and Luke pushed their way through thecrowd in the front of the bar, to the pool room at the back. There was one table to sit at, and lots of greetings to Luke. He helped her take off her jacket, the old-world courtesy completely wiped out by the wicked way he raised his eyebrows at what was underneath.
The black T-shirt was way too tight. She had known it when she put it on, but of course at that time her crystal ball had failed her. She hadn't known the evening was going to hold more than a polite refusal to see him. She had thought the jacket was staying on!
“You look great in that,” he said gruffly.
The comment flustered her. Did she really? Or did he just know how to make women feel sexy?
Thankfully, they had no sooner settled at the table than he was swarmed. He fielded questions about his long absence from this favorite watering hole.
He was obviously popular and well-liked by both men and women. Though she desperately would have liked to find fault with him, Maggie found herself reluctantly liking how he interacted with people. He was a man who had been given many gifts, the kind of man who could easily have become stuck on himself.
But Luke seemed genuinely interested in other people. He knew and remembered small details. He asked one woman about her cat, and even remembered the pet's name. When he inquired about details of their lives, he appeared to care about the answers. He introduced Maggie to everyone who visited the table and made sure she was included in the conversations. He exchanged banter with some beautiful women, but never once to the point where Maggie felt he would rather bewith them, or that he was asking the question she was certain everyone else was asking.
What ishedoing withher?
Still, for all his comfort with the patrons of Morgan's, after a while Maggie noticed something she found a tiny bit sad, though the wordsadseemed like the last word you would have thought of, looking at the dynamic Mr. August holding court.
“Doesn't anybody know you're in the hospital?” she finally asked when they once again had the table to themselves.
He shrugged it off. “I didn't exactly send out announcement cards.”
But Maggie was a social worker. She was trained to look deeper, and her intuition was finely honed. She suspected Luke August deliberately chose relationships that were superficial, that required very little of him.
What did that say about him? Not much. It added to his already less-than-stellar rÃ©sumÃ©: that he was restless and reckless, loved to live dangerously and was quite comfortable shedding his clothes in front of women. And that was before she even began to factor in his ease at assuming roles from doctor to janitor, and his apparent love of flaunting rules.
But a more sympathetic thought was already crowding out all the unsympathetic facts. How lonely could he be that he chose relationships that asked so very little of him? That gave him nothing?
Ha! A man who looked less lonely she had rarely seen.
Besides, could it be any lonelier than her life, where she managed to bury her own heartaches in an almost crippling workload? Was escaping a life of real commitment and intimacy through overwork any different than escaping through riding motorcycles too fast or cultivating friendships in a bar?
“Hey,” he said, reaching over and pressing his thumb against her forehead. “You're getting too serious, again. Tell me you are not thinking about butter.”
She laughed. “No.”
“Well, whatever you're thinking about, stop. You're going to get a wrinkle right here.”
The small gesture, his finger briefly touching her forehead, coupled with the mischief in those green eyes, was strangely intoxicating.
Besides, he was right. The whole point of this exercise was to have fun, to let go, to be different than she normally was. Bold. She gave herself permission to do that, ordered herself to quit the analyzing that came as second nature to her, a skill that made her a great social worker but probably not such a great date.
“Is your regular drink really soda?” she asked him when their drinks arrived. “I'm surprised.” Again.
“Iamin the hospital. It's probably not a great idea to return inebriated.” She realized he didn't want to discuss his less-than-macho choice of drink because he quickly changed the subject. “I can't wait for that burger. Maybe I'll have two. Hospital food is, well, horrible.”
“She said it was your regular,” Maggie said of his drink choice, not prepared to let him wiggle out of it.
“So, unless you've been slipping out on these little field trips every nightâ¦” She already knew he hadn't, at least not to Morgan's.
“Great idea, but no. This is the first time I've had a night out.Thishospitalization, anyway.”
“Thishospitalization?” she asked. “So you play hooky every time you're hospitalized?”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
“Are you a reporter?” he teased, but did she hear a faint warning?Don't ask too much. Don't get too personal.
“No, I'm curious.”
“You know what that did to the cat.” He hesitated, then answered. “In the last five years, I've been in the hospital seven times. I get bored.”
She was startled, but something in his look made her back off. She reminded herself she was supposed to be having fun. She wasn't conducting a parenting suitability interview.
“Well, here's to brown and bubbly,” she said, lifting her glass to him.
“Did you have me pegged for a beer-swilling swine, little Maggie Mouse?” he teased. He liked it light. Well, that was fine. She was planning one night of being out of character. It really had nothing to do with him, except that he was a different kind of choice than she had ever made before. And how.
She ordered herself to lighten up and managed to laugh at herself. “I could picture you with a beer, yes.”
“I spend too much time on motorcycles to drink much. I can't be off, even by a little bit. I don't ride with any alcohol in my system. Besides, I seem to have no problem having wrecks, even without being impaired.”
So, despite the image he was trying to uphold of being a barfly, he didn't drink?
“So,” she said, determined to keep it light, not to follow the tantalizing thread of all the things he didn't want her to know, like why he hung out in a bar when he didn't drink, “to you motorcycles areâ”
“My life,” he finished the sentence easily. “I have three. A 1994 Harley Fatboy, which is my road trip bike. Then I have an off-road bike, a Honda CRF 450, which I race. And then I have a street bike, that's kind of in pieces after, er, my last ride on it.”
“It's a speed bike. Sometimes irreverently called a crotch rocket. I was going a little too fast into a turn. The road was wet.” He held up his glass. “Here's to leather and helmets.”
He was dismissing the accident as nothing, and she reminded herself it was her night not to care, not to probe, not to try and understand, just to go with the flow, to enjoy him, to have fun.
So, a large part of his life was about motorcycles.
“I'm pretty sure I've never seen a motorcycle called a crotch rocket,” she admitted. Or a Fatboy, or a CRF 450, but why admit total ignorance?
“I'll point one out to you next time we're together.”
Next time they were together? She warned herself he had thrown it out casually. What were the chances there was going to be a next time?
And so, despite her vow to keep it light, Maggie wanted to know everything she could this time.
“Do you do something for a living?” she asked.
“Oh, sure. I'm in construction. All brawn, no brains.”He said that with a certain challenge, as if he expected her to disapprove.
But she could already tell there was plenty of brain there. And she had already figured out Luke did something physical. There would be no other explanation for the fine form of the man, unless he went to a gym, and somehow she couldn't envision him admiring himself in mirrors and pumping iron.
“Do you like your work?” she asked, probing the challenge she had heard in his voice.
“Love it. I was the kid who could never sit still in the classroom. Now I get paid for the fact I'm high-energy.”
Should she ask him why he sounded a tiny bit defensive? No! That would be the social worker in her speaking. And tonight she was trying to be bold, different.
Instead, she said, “Not to mention the added perk that girls love muscles?”
Clearly it wasn't what he'd expected, and he tried to hide the fact she'd surprised him by saying, “Do you like muscles, Miss Maggie?”
Though she ordered them not to, her eyes immediately moved to that big, broad muscle of his exposed forearm. He flexed it.
He laughed and then moved easily away from her discomfort. “And how about you? What do you do for a living?”
She told him about her work at Children's Connection. Somehow she expected the same kind of disapproval that he had expected of her, or at least boredom. He did not look like the kind of guy who would list a social worker as a person of interest to him.
She could see him with a model. Spy. Airline hostess. Actress. And yet for all that, he listened to her intently, asked questions, drew her out.
It occurred to her Luke August wasgreatat this. At making a woman feel special and as if she was the only one in the world. It also occurred to her it would be a mistake to take it personally, to read too much into it.
The food arrived. The hamburgers were thick and juicy, the fries homemade, the gravy sumptuous. Maggie wondered if food had ever tasted so good.
Maybe that was what being with such an intriguing man did, heightened all your senses. Wasn't that probably the point of Dr. Richie's homework assignment? Leave the comfort zone, so you couldfeelthings more fully, more completely?
Before she really even knew it, she had eaten every bite of food off her plate, including a monstrous mound of French fries and every last dollop of gravy.
Luke looked at her empty plate approvingly. “You eat like a man,” he said. “None of this dainty whining about getting fat.”
Maggie was not at all sure that was a compliment! Didn't he remember the popcorn? She did worry about getting fat! She looked at her empty plate in horror. Oh no! Her hips had been giving her a message earlier today, and she had ignored it. Her shirt had been too tight, and she had ignored that, too!
Plus, in her frenzy over having asked Luke to go out with her, and the ensuing chaos where she had tried on everything she owned to go and tell him shewasn'tgoing out with him, Maggie had completely forgotten to apply her daily dose of NoWait oil.
She shuffled through her handbag, and her hand closed over the precious little vial.
She excused herself and went to the washroom. She couldn't help but notice how many women were sneaking looks at Luke. Some weren't even sneaking, eyeing him up as boldly as if he were a side of prime beef and they were the supermarket meat buyer.
Despite what had seemed like very genuine interest as they had exchanged information about their jobs, he wasn't going to see anything in her. Maggie just knew it. The washroom, unfortunately, had a series of wall-to-floor mirrors and she studied herself.
Plain, she decided. And despite what Dr. Richie had said, she was not perfect. Her hips were way too wide. Her curves were just too curvy.
Reaching into her bag, she took out the NoWait. Half the recommended dose?
“Forget that, Dr. Richie,” she muttered to herself.
Maggie rubbed the full dose behind her ears, and then just for good measure added another little dab.
“Goodbye, burger,” she said.
She reentered the pool room, stood in the archway, and watched Luke for a moment. He was so sure of himself. The fact that he was still alone surprised herâand didn't seem to bother him one little bit. Looking at him, she felt as if he was taking her breath away.
Maggie was not sure she had ever had such a physical awareness of a man as she had of Luke. Was it because of their first encounter? Because she had felt the solidness of him against her, felt his warmth and his fire on much too intimate terms?
Was it because he had, however unintentionally, introduced her to her own yearning? For a moment, she thought of bolting for the door. Dealing with this unfamiliar territory felt the same as navigating a minefield.
But then Luke noticed her and, grinning as though he was thrilled to see her, waved her back over to him.
“So, are you ready for some pool? I got us one of the tables.”
“Sure,” she said doubtfully.
But half an hour later Maggie was giggling helplessly as she leaned over the table trying to hit the white ball into one of the solid ones.
“No, no, no,” he said sternly. “You have to get down farther. You have to be looking right down the shaft of the cue.”
He came up behind her and fitted his body around hers, adjusting her over the cue. He took her arm.
“Relax. Your elbow has to be loose. Loose! You feel like you have your arm in a splint from elbow to wrist. Geez, you smell good.”
That was the contradiction. Relax? With the most gorgeous, sexy man in the universe draped around her? All the places where his body touched hers were tingling. She wanted to drop the pool cue and flip over, so that he had her bent over the pool table and she could feel the hard length of him, just the way she had on the foyer floor this morning.
She reminded herself she had condemned that man and woman on the hospital's front steps for their public display of affectionâ¦.
“I'm losing my mind,” she muttered.
Sure. The question was on what? He had said she smelled good. That was the NoWait with its pleasant citrus fragrance, underlaid ever so subtly with a hint of musk.
But his smell was intoxicating, and she was pretty sure he wasn't wearing any scent except the one that came off his skin, clean, faintly tangy and perturbingly masculine.
“Okay,” he said, his breath stirring the hair on the nape of her neck. “Bring your arm back.” Lightly he guided her arm back, his fingers on her elbow.
“You're tickling me!”
“For God's sake, woman, concentrate. Loose elbow. Tap the cue ball. Ticklish, hmm? I'm filing that away for future reference.”
There he was mentioning the future again!
Maggie hit the cue ball with all the pent-up frustration that had built within her breast, and it responded by promptly jumping over the ball she was aiming at. It flew off the table and rolled across the floor underneath the neighboring table.
Luke undraped his body from around hers, folded his arms over his chest and gave her a stern look. “What does the wordtapmean to you?”
She straightened from where she had been bent over the table, and turned to face him.
Gazing up into the unblinking green of his sparkling eyes, she noticed how thick his lashes were, as if they had been dipped in India ink. Her mind went completely blank. “Tap? Water faucet?”
“I've never been athletic, Luke. It's hopeless.” That was exactly how she felt. Hopeless. Hopelessly, helplessly, impossibly attracted to him.
“Athletic? You have to be an athlete to play baseball. To ski. To run foot races. Playing pool does not require athleticism.”
“If it requires hand-to-eye coordination, it's hopeless,” she told him. Gosh, he looked cute, bristling with that kind of mock irritation, his eyes narrowed on her. His beard had darkened with the late hour. It looked as if it would scratch in the most delightful way.
It occurred to her she wanted to kiss him. Madly. Wildly. And that she didn't care who was watching.
The thought was so uncharacteristic that she glanced at her drink. It was just cola, wasn't it?
“It's math, pure and simple,” he informed her. “You figure the angle. You apply the correct amount of pressure. You have to know the difference between a tap and a slam. It's that easy.”
The surge of passion that was affecting her was apparently having no effect on him at all. If it was, he wouldn't be talking so casually about taps and slams.
Not that either of those words had ever had an erotic meaning to her before. She looked at his lips, the gorgeous green of his eyes, the pulse that beat steady and strong in the hollow of his throat and felt almost dizzy.
My God,she thought,I'm swooning.
Maggie knew it was impossible. She was not the type of girl who swooned, of all things. She was reliable. She was pragmatic. She was responsible. Passion, and all the recklessness it implied, was for other people.
“Are you okay?”
He was suddenly right in front of her, looking down, his eyes surveying her face with concern. He took her shoulders firmly between his hands. “Maggie!”
“I'm sorry. Iâ” She gave up and leaned into him.
“Fresh air,” he said. He bustled her through the crowd, putting people none-too-gently out of his way.
Moments later, they were standing outside the front doors of Morgan's, the laughter and noise now muted in the background. Maggie took in several deep gulps of the cool, night-scented air. His arm stayed around her shoulder, protective, surprisingly tender.
“I'm sorry,” she said, truly embarrassed. “I don't know what came over me.”
“You looked like you were going to faint,” he said, studying her carefully. “The color is starting to come back into your cheeks now.”
“I've never fainted in my whole life,” she protested, but weakly. The night air was just what she needed. She could feel herself coming to her senses. His scent did not seem quite so overpowering. She avoided looking at him and moved away from under the weight of his arm, though it took a great deal of effort to get her feet to obey her command to move away from him.
“I should get back to the hospital, anyway,” he said, consulting his watch. “I'll just go back and settle the bill and grab your jacket. Two seconds. Don't move. And breathe.”
When he returned, he helped her into her jacket. He was going to take her hand, but she quickly inserted both hands into her coat pockets. He noticed the deliberate action with a quizzical raise of his eyebrows, but she pretended she didn't care.
The truth was she was frightened. Maggie Sullivan did not lose control.
She could not subject herself to any more temptationtonight. Not when she felt so uncertain about how she would react to it.
They walked back to the hospital in silence. He whistled under his breath, a happy little song that only served to remind her that the strength of what she had just experienced at the pool table in Morgan's had been completely one-sided.
“I'll walk you to your car,” he said when they came to the hospital lot, “and then I'll slip in the side door where we came out. I don't want you over there by yourself at this time of night.”
It wasn't until he said that, that Maggie realized she had been anticipating going back to that spot, cloaked in darkness and utter privacy.
“Thank you,” she said, hearing the stiffness in her own voice, and ducked from the query in his eyes. She fished through her bag for her keys when they arrived at her car, a new gold Volkswagen Beetle.
“Cute,” he said. “Just about what I would have figured.”
“I like to do that. Figure out what people drive. It tells me about them.”
“What does my car tell you?”
“Cute,” he repeated.
“I have to go,” she said hastily. “It was fun, Luke, really it was.”
His hand on her upper arm stopped her from flinging herself into the car and making her escape.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
Oh, Luke. Don't do this. Don't be sensitive, on top of being gorgeous and charming and a man I can't have.
“Something changed back there in the pool room. Did I say something? Did I hurt you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Because I can do that. Without meaning to. Beak off and not even realize I'm stepping on people's feelings.”
“You didn't step on my feelings.”
And then the self-control she had been trying so hard to exercise snapped. She turned full to him, let go of her grip on the car's door handle. She twined her arms around the strong, beautiful column of his neck, and she stood on tiptoe.
And she kissed him. It wasn't the kiss of Little Miss Mouse, either. No, the tigress was unleashed.
At first, he went very still. And then he pressed himself hard against her, and his hands went to the small of her back and pulled her even closer into him, so close she could feel his heat, and it fueled the fire that was raging within her.
Out of control.
Miss Maggie Mouse was totally out of control. And loving it. His hands moved from the small of her back to tangle in her hair, to bring her lips in fuller contact with his.
Flashpoint. Maggie was on fire. Heat, glorious and sizzling, enveloped her entire being. She could feel her bones melting, her skin, as her body met the hard line of his.
His lips, which had looked so firm, were deliciously soft under hers, and yet no less commanding.
He was hungry for more than a break from hospital food. That became evident very, very quickly. He plundered her mouth, his kiss hot and destructive and glorious, like slowly rolling lava. When she felt he would ignite her, as if the fire of his kiss would consume her and leave nothing behind but smoldering ash, he lifted his lips from hers. He spread small kisses from her neck to her earlobes, hot spots of delight so intense it was painful. He tormented her eyelids, and her cheeks, and the tip of her nose. She had been right about his whiskers. The scrape of them across the soft flesh of her cheek was heady. Then his lips returned to her mouth again.
She was totally unaware of anything but him, lost in the passion of the moment, swimming in the fire, headily and completely consumed by it, her senses blocking out everything but him. The way he tasted and smelled and felt.
The way he tasted and smelled and felt affected her, making her feel alive.
She had been unaware that she was dead, but now she was like a sleeping princess brought to life by the touch of his lips.
He yanked away from her.
“Someone's coming,” he said in an undertone.
How had he noticed that? She had noticed nothing. No better than that woman on the steps of the hospital earlier today, or that man at the booth in Morgan's.
She peered past Luke, saw the white jacket of a doctor coming off duty. It was someone she'd worked with occasionally in conjunction with her cases at Children's Connection.
He saw her, recognized her, and his eyebrows shot up.
Furious embarrassment rushed through her body, heated and ugly.
Maggie broke away from Luke. She grasped for her car door again. “I don't know what came over me,” she said. “Sorry.”
“Sorry?” Luke said. “Are you crazy?”
“Apparently.” She slid into her car, using all the discipline she could muster. She couldn't look at him again.
But she did.
He stood there under the dim light of the parking lot streetlamp. He was big and self-assured, all barely contained masculine grace and power. In a nutshell Luke August was way more man than she would ever be able to handle.
Never again did she want to unleash whatever had been unleashed inside her tonight. It was too strong a drug.
She ordered herself to drive away. She even started the engine. But Luke still stood there, his hands in his pockets, looking at her.
What was that expression?
He was stunned, obviously. By her performance. By how out of control she had been. Well, that made two of them.
But there was something more there in his expression that she could not read.
She could not explain to him what had happened just now. She could not say,I am not that kind of woman,when she had just been exactly that kind of woman. Instead, she rolled down her window, just a crack.
“It would be best if we didn't see each other again,” she said.
He looked at her steadily, then nodded. “I think you're right,” he agreed.
She drove away quickly, before he had a chance to see how much his quick agreement had hurt her.
Luke folded his arms over his chest and watched Maggie leave the parking lot. Somehow he had not figured her for the kind of gal who would squeal her tires.
But then what had he figured right about her so far?
The answer was nothing. He just was not reading her right. That kiss! He was still smoking from the heat of it.
And trembling slightly, if he was going to be totally honest about it.
The truth was that was the way he had always imagined Amber would kissâwith a kind of no-holds-barred intensity that left a man feeling as though the world was disappearing, crumbling beneath his feet.
As if there was nothing that remained but sweet, soft lips, and hot, lush curves pressed into his chest.
Wait! If he looked the world over he would never find a woman less like Amber than little Miss Maggie Mouse.
Amber would drive a vintage fire-engine-red Barracuda convertible. Amber would wear short leather skirts and sashay her hips. She would hustle pool, not flub balls onto the floor. She would drink whiskey not soda.
All in all Amber was not the kind of girl a boy took home to Mama.
Which was the whole idea. Luke August had decided a long, long time ago he was never taking a girl home to Mama.
Or at least not one Mama would approve of.
And he had a feeling his mother would approve of Maggie. Maggie with her soft eyes, and her obvious intelligence and decency. Maggie who helped little children as her life's work, and didn't have a clue how sexy she was.
He would have had never to see her again for that reason alone, even if she had not suggested it first.
Though, going back to his room he had to admit that he was just a tiny bit frosted that Maggie had mentioned it first.
She must have been a whole lot less shaken by that kiss than he had been.
In the maintenance closet, he carefully returned Fred's stuff to where it had been. He stuck five bucks in the pocket so Fred could have a coffee on him in exchange for the loan he didn't know he had made.
Luke donned his gown over his jeans and sidled down the hall.
“Mr. August! Where have you been? Evening meds were over an hour ago.”
He turned to look at the night nurse. “Oh, just down in the TV room.”
“I looked there for you.”
“I went to the TV lounge on the next floor. They were tuned into something a little too tender on this one. One of those bachelorette things where she gives some poor sucker a rose. You know. Gigantic yuck.”
The nurse was older and had on sensible shoes and her uniform was pressed with military precision, but her face was kind and she was not at all like Nurse Nightmare.
“You don't believe me?” he asked, all innocence and wonder.
She leaned close to him.
“You have lipstick on your neck. Glossy. Peach-colored.”
“Oh.” Damn her observation skills. Luke had not wanted to think about glossy peach-colored lips again tonight. Or ever.
“Get to your room before I report you.”
“Did you have fun?” she asked as he headed down the hall.
“I'm still trying to figure that out,” he muttered, as much to himself as to her.Four
Luke woke up in a nasty mood. That rarely happened to him. He nearly always woke up full of plans for his day, with a song in his heartâusually “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?”âwhich he happily and loudly shared with anybody within earshot.
But this morning he gloomily contemplated the pure white of his hospital-room ceiling. He felt crabby and out of sorts. It had, he decided firmly, nothing at all to do with Maggie Mouse telling him she never wanted to see him again.
Not that the name Maggie Mouse was going to do now that he knew the stunning truth. The girl kissed like a house on fire.
He'd have to come up with a new name for her. If he was ever going to see her again, which he wasn't.
“So, no problem,” he said out loud. The real problem was this place. It was time to get out of here. He had way too much time on his hands, way too much time to think.
But when the doctor came on rounds, she did not look impressed to see him in his street clothes, his bag packed.
“No,” she said sternly, when he announced his plans for the day. “If I let you out of here, you would go straight back to work, the same as you did last time.”
“What if I promise?” he asked.
“You promised last time!”
“But last time I had my fingers crossed.” He held out his hands in front of him, a gesture of sincerity and honesty that she was not the least taken in by.
“Your body needs more time to repair itself.” She carefully explained to him what the most recent injuries to his back would do if he stressed them too soon. She mentioned words likepermanent disabilityandwheelchair,which of course he knew to be baloney.
He was as strong as a team of oxen.
“I don't think I can stay, Doc. I'm going out of my mind. The food stinks, and there's nothing to do.” What he didn't say was that he did not need time to think about Maggie Sullivan or that kiss or how much fun he'd had playing pool with her or the way that black T-shirt had molded around her luscious curves.
Or her final words to him.
But even though he didn't elaborate, the good doc seemed to get it, that with or without her approval he was on short time now.
“All right,” she agreed with a sigh, “I'll read the report from your physiotherapy session today, and if it's good, we'll talk about this some more tomorrow.”
“I'm leaving tomorrow,” he said.
“Your insurance won't cover any of this unless I sign for your discharge.”
He gave her his high-voltage smile. She tried to look stern, but he could tell she couldn't resist that smile. “Which you will, right?”
“I said we'd talk about it tomorrow.”
But he knew it was settled. There. He was getting some control back over his life. He felt a little glimmer of his normal cheerfulness. By the time he'd ordered breakfast from the fast-food joint around the corner, enough for the whole ward, and had it delivered to the hospital, he was in a pretty good mood, passing out hash browns and egg sandwiches while serenading the other patients with “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?”
He had stopped to chat with a young nurse between rooms and deliveries, and he turned to see Nurse Nightmare bearing down on him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the young nurse disappear.
He braced himself.
“Have you seen Billy yet this morning?”
“No, ma'am. I was going to bring him breakfast, though.”
She glanced at the brown paper bag, and he waited for the disapproving lecture. But it didn't come.
“He's not himself,” she said in a low voice. “I was hoping you might cheer him up. Without wheelchair racing, of course.”
“He's sick?” Luke asked, and felt the fist of fear close around his heart. He'd been right. It was time to get out of here. There were too many sick people around. You didn't want to go getting attached to sick people.
She shook her head. “Not any sicker than usual. He's sad, Mr. August.”
Sad. Sheesh. A sad seventeen-year-old boy with cancer. What Luke wanted to do was run the other way. He had nothing to offer in a situation like this. Nothing. He was rough and gruff, an unpolished construction crew boss.
“I wouldn't know what to do for him,” he said. “I'm not great in the sensitivity department.”
“Look, you self-centered lunkhead,” the nurse said. “Require more of yourself!”
She marched away, leaving him to stare after her, oddly hurt, though working in his field he'd been called worse and told off better many, many times.
“Self-centered lunkhead,” he repeated to himself. He was delivering breakfast to the other inmates. Didn't that count?
No longer singing, he finished his deliveries, annoyed that Nurse Nightmare had managed to get under his skin. So, if he did require more of himself, what would he do for Billy to cheer him up? Order a cake that a girl jumped out of? Pretend to be Patch Adams?
The truth was, he didn't have a clue, and the more he thought about Billy being sad, the more he wished he could be the one to help, to change it, to fix it. Maybe he didn't have a clue what to do, but he knew someone who did. He thought of the softness of her big hazeleyes. He reminded himself they weren't going to see each other again.
But this was an emergency!
He looked at the clock, then went down to the phone at the end of the hall and looked up the Children's Connection phone number.
His heart seemed to be beating way too fast as he waited to be put through.
She certainly sounded chipper this morning! Why had he assumed she would be as gloomy as he was?
“Maggie Sullivan,” she said again.
There was a long silence, and then she said his name.
He was not sure his name had ever sounded like that before. A breath, a whisper, a prayer.
He wanted to ask her how she felt. How she had slept. If she had thought of him the first thing when she woke up.
But it would be like signing a confession saying how he felt, how he had slept, what he had thought of first thing upon waking.
“Um, Maggie, I have this little problem. I was hoping you could help me with it.” As he explained the situation, he tried to think when the last time was that he had ever asked anyone for help with a problem. It had been a long, long time ago.
He realized, suddenly, and not with good grace, that something had lived within him, ignored and unidentified until this very moment.
“So,” she repeated back to him what he had just toldher, “Billy's feeling sad this morning, and Hillary thought you could help?”
“That's right. But I can't, Maggie. I don't know what to say. I'm good at joking around. Small talk.” He decided not to tell her his idea about the girl jumping out of the cake. “Can you help me?”
“Do you want me to come?”
The question was posed softly, and yet he felt as if he was a man who had been trapped in the chilly depths of an icy crevasse, who had resigned himself to his fate, and then was suddenly thrown a rope.
He marveled that last night she had told him so firmly she could not see him again, and yet she put that aside instantly when the welfare of a child she didn't even know was at risk.
“Yeah,” he said after a moment. “I want you to come.”
“I'll be there in fifteen minutes. I'll meet you at the nurses' station.”
He hung up the phone and stared at it. He had just called a woman he barely knew and asked her to help him. A woman who had said in no uncertain terms she never wanted to see him again. He should not feel good about that at all.
But he felt okay. He hummed his favorite ditty.
She arrived in ten minutes, five minutes early, precisely the kind of woman he had pegged her for before their “date” last night.
She looked like who she really was today, too. Her lustrous hair was coiled in a neat bun, she had on a slack suit in an uninspiring color that reminded him of porridge. She even had a little pair of granny glasses perched on her nose.
And underneath that was a secret they shared. A kiss that made that outfit such a lie.
He tried to keep that kiss out of his mind as he strolled toward her. He suspected she did, too.
“Thanks for coming.” He felt as if he was looking beyond the glasses to the richness of her eyes. He could imagine the hair spinning down over her shoulders, wondered what kind of underwear she had on.
It occurred to him it might have been a mistake to call her.
But that feeling didn't last. In a few moments, he knew she had been exactly the right person to call.
They went together into Billy's room. He was lying with his back to the door and them, looking very small and fragile under the blanket.
“Hi, Billy,” he said.
“I don't feel like racing wheelchairs today, Luke.”
“That's okay. I don't either. I brought you some breakfast.”
“Thanks.” But Billy did not turn toward them.
“I wanted to introduce you to a friend of mine,” Luke said.
Billy turned, the whole cocoon of his blanket turning with him.
Maggie went forward and put out her hand, forcing him to emerge from under the blanket to take it.
“I'm Maggie Sullivan.”
She pulled up a chair and sat down, leaning forward, her hand cupped under her chin. “This is a lousy place to spend a gorgeous July day,” she said.
“I have cancer,” Billy said without preamble.
Luke tried to think whether Billy had ever told him he had cancer. He didn't think so. It had been one of the nurses or Billy's parents who had told him.
“What kind?” she asked softly, her voice soothing.
The floodgates opened. Billy told her what kind, and how long he'd been fighting it. Luke was astounded to know this poor kid had been in and out of the hospital since he was twelve years old. He'd lost all his hair. His friends treated him differently. His mom cried all the time.
And Luke had been wheelchair racing with him?
Then the boy was crying. Big racking sobs that Luke could feel inside his own body. He eyed the door, but he could see Maggie being so brave. She took the boy's hand.
He eyed the door once more, heard Nurse Nightmare in his mind telling him to require more of himself, and he went to the other side of the bed. He took Billy's other hand.
“Luke, I don't want you to see me crying,” Billy choked. “Guys like you don't cry, do they?”
He thought of his life. Had he deliberately made it into an emotional wasteland, where there were no tears because there was absolutely nothing worth crying about? “Hey. Everybody cries.”
He felt as close to it at the moment as he had felt for years, so it was no lie when he said, “Yeah.”
Hell.But he suddenly remembered something. “When I was about your age I had a dog. My mom hated her. Said she made our house smell bad, and that there was dog hair on the furniture. One day I came home from school, and no more Stinkbomb.”
“You named your dog Stinkbomb?” Billy asked, and the first wisp of a grin flitted across his face.
This was more like it! “And for obvious reasons,” Luke said. “That dog couldâ” He suddenly remembered Maggie. “Uh, let's just say the dog was an impressive performer in the stink department.”
“So, your Mom was right?” Maggie asked. “The dog made the house smell bad?”
Luke frowned. He had never once in his life considered the possibility that his mother might have been right about anything. Had the dog really made life that uncomfortable for other people?
The problem with a girl like Maggie was she might make you look at your whole life from a different, deeper, more mature perspective. And who wanted to do that?
“You cried when Stinkbomb went missing?” Billy asked.
“Like a baby.” He didn't add that then he'd gone out on a stolen motorbike and had his first extremely impressive wreck. He'd broken his leg in four places.
But the admission that Luke had a softer side seemed to ease something in Billy. He looked at him for a long time, sighed, and then looked away.
“I just feel so scared,” Billy said. “I think I'm going to die.”
Every problem Luke had ever faced suddenly seemed small and insignificant. It seemed like there was nothing meaner in the world than a seventeen-year-old boy facing that kind of fear, a fear no one could help him with, no matter what they said or did.
He wanted to say with false confidence, “Of course you aren't going to die,” but he didn't know if it wastrue, and Maggie caught his eye suddenly, as if she had guessed what he wanted to say. She gave a slight shake of her head.
“Is there something you would do if you were going to die?” she asked softly.
Billy wiped the tears from his face and nodded solemnly. “I'd make a will. When I try to tell my mom what I want, she goes off the deep end. It's just little stuff, like to give my kid brother my goldfish and my baseball glove, and to put my paper route money in my sister's college account.”
“I don't think those are little things,” Maggie said softly. “Not at all.”
Luke didn't, either. The kid was thinking of his own death, and he wasn't thinking of himselfâthe things he had left to do, the places he wanted to seeâhe was thinking of the people who loved him.
Luke had another aching feeling that his own life was a wasteland.
“I'd like them to play âAmazing Grace' on the bagpipes at the funeral.” Billy smiled wryly. “Not a single soul, besides you two, even knows I like the bagpipes.”
Luke decided Maggie was the bravest damn woman in the world, because she didn't flinch from any of that. He was mulling over the discovery that Billy had a brother and sister, and clenching and unclenching his fists behind his back, trying to keep himself from giving in to the emotion that clawed at his throat.
Maggie nodded thoughtfully. “Do you want to write it down and give it to me for safekeeping? Then if the time does come, I'll know and I'll look after it for you.”
Luke felt the depth of her courage, and he saw inBilly's face a truth about Maggie that was worth more than gold. She was a woman a person could trust.
Billy nodded, relief apparent in the lines of his young face. Amazingly, he seemed happier than when they had walked in. “I'll do that today. I'm going to start right away. Thanks, Maggie. See you later, Luke.”
In the hall, Luke gazed down at Maggie, seeing her in a new light. She was rich and deep and any guy who had named his dog Stinkbomb was probably completely unworthy of her. “What you did in there was great. Thanks.”
“I was glad to help out, Luke.”
“How did you know what to say?”
“I didn't, really. I just paid attention to my intuition.”
She looked at her watch, gave a little yelp of dismay and moved away rapidly, waving over her shoulder. “I'm late! Bye, Luke.”
So nothing was changed. She still thought it was best they didn't see each other. Well, maybe she was right. She was the one with the intuition.
Because he had seen things in her eyes in that room that made him understand he was completely unworthy of her. Still, watching her move rapidly away, he wished it could be different.
But then, glancing back at Billy's room, didn't he wish all of life could be different?
Maggie decided it had been a dumb thing to answer Luke's call for help. Not that she regretted helping Billy. In fact, she intended to look in on the boy as often as she could. Catastrophically ill children had special challenges, including feeling guilty about the stress their illness was causing others. So guilty, that they were alone with all their worst fears. She could help Billy with that, and wanted to.
But Lukeâ¦ He was a different question.
She had awoken this morning with his kiss still searing her lips, a strange and wonderful song singing within her.
Despite the fact she had announced she was never going to see him again, she had felt a delicious sense of well-being this morning.
But wasn't that why she was taking the Bold and Beautiful seminar? To unlock her capacity for happiness, to move closer to having a fulfilling life? There was another B&B seminar this afternoon, and maybe that was why she had awakened this morning feeling happy and adventurous. Of course, she doubted that was the true reason, a doubt that had been confirmed when Luke called.
Then those lovely tingling feelings had escalated to something near delirium when she had recognized the sexy growl of his voice on the other end of her phone.
It was really what she had least expected. And what did it mean that he had called her about Billy?
That he trusted her, for one.
Trust was a lovely thing, of course, but a long way from what she was feeling for Luke. She had felt it again as soon as she had seen him strolling down the hospital corridor toward her, looking big and buff and self-assured.
That swooning feeling had come over her again, milder than before, thank heavens. And she had been able to block out his presence, for the most part, when she'd talked to Billy.
But afterward she had felt a familiar sensation of weakness, of wanting, and she had practically run away from him on some feeble excuse.
Now, hours later as she sat in her office, Luke August was still the strongest thing on her mind. Obviously, the decision not to see him again had been the right one, given the effect he had on her. But as the day passed, she became less certain in her conviction that she had done the right thing.
Maybe something she learned at the seminar this afternoon would help her know what to do next.
Her secretary came in and studied her thoughtfully.
“Are you okay today, Maggie?”
“Of course. What makes you ask?”
“You kind of have this goofy look on your face.”
“A little funny half smile, as if you know a secret.”
“Nonsense,” she said, wiping any vestiges of a smile from her face.
“And who is Luke?”
“Pardon?” she said on a gasp.
The secretary, Joy, passed her some papers she had worked on that morning. In each space where she should have written a name on a contract, only the surname was correct.
The first name she had inserted was Luke!
“Isn't that silly?” she muttered, grabbing back the papers. “I'll redo these tomorrow.”
Joy smiled at her. “I shouldn't have said you look goofy. You actually look nice. Kind of radiant. The way my cousin looked for a year or so after she got married. Have you met a guy, then?”
Maggie stammered but Joy gave her no time to reply.
“I hope you have. Nobody in this whole office ever knew what you saw in Mr. Booths, believe me. And just for the record, you didn't deserve what he did to you, but you were darned lucky he did do it to you. Imagine being married tohim.”
She shut the door and left Maggie sitting there with her cheeks burning. No one had ever really discussed her relationship with Darnel Booths.
Or at least not in front of her.
He had been a fellow social worker. A nice guy, devoted to his work, not spectacular in any way. Maggie had been attracted to the fact he was solid and reliable. They had dated and somehow evolved into a couple. When he had asked her to marry him, she had been so excited. Planning the wedding had been so much fun.
He had not shown up at the church.
There she had stood in her long white dress waiting, along with four bridesmaids, a flower girl, a ring bearer, a best man, a hundred and three guests and a minister.
Sometimes she wondered how she had survived the embarrassment, the humiliation. Sometimes she knew she had not survived, not completely.
For a part of her had died. She had chosen Darnel partially because he had seemed like the safest of men. Predictable and ordinary, just like her.
He had called her from Mexico that night, filled with remorse, not sure what had happened. The church had been a left turn, and he had made a right. He'd gone to the airport and used one of their honeymoon tickets, boarded the flight they were supposed to be on together to the Mayan Riviera. It was cold feet with a vengeance.
He was sorry. He could never make it up to her. And no, he did not want her to join him, and no, he wasn't coming back.
From time to time she got postcards from her “predictable and ordinary man” from the snorkeling school he was now employed at in Manzanillo, Mexico. He was sorry. He was happy. He was sorry he was happy.
In retrospect, it had been a blessing. She realized now she had been more excited about planning the weddingâher perfect fairy-tale dayâthan she had ever been about Darnel.
The whole fiasco had been more than three years ago. Time to get over it. But somehow she knew you never quite got over something like that.
And if you couldn't trust a man like Darnel, it begged the question whom you could trust.
Luke August? That seemed unlikely. She was acting like a love-struck teen and she knew it. Doodling his name all over official documents.
Even thinking of him now and trying to fight her thoughts, only seemed to intensify them. She should seek him out, without his knowing, just look at him, study him in the light of what Darnel had done to her. That should help her take away the larger-than-life image she was carrying around.
That was what she'd do. She'd take a casual walk through his ward on her way to the Bold and Beautiful seminar.
Gathering up her purse, she said goodbye to Joy, her heart hammering in her throat as if she was being sent on a spy mission into deepest, darkest Afghanistan.
On his ward she found out through some cloak-and-dagger work that would have done him proud, that Luke was at a physiotherapy session.
It was a perfect setup. The physio room had mirror windows into the hallway. Maggie stood there and watched.
She tried to think of Darnel.
But she could not hold the thought of Luke and another man in her mind at the same time.
Luke was dressed in a muscle shirt and shorts. His skin was absolutely gorgeous, copper silk stretched taut over well-formed muscle.
At the instructions of his therapist he was doing chin lifts on a bar.
“We've got to build the strength in your upper back before we can send you back to work. And you're not going back to work until you can pump out twenty-five of those.” Maggie listened as he was given instructions, her eyes glued on him.
His face was set in fierce lines of concentration.
She counted with him, fascinated by the play of muscle. The first few chin lifts went smoothly, almost effortlessly, not even his facial expression changing.
Then she could tell he was having to dig in, to find a little more. His brow furrowed, a sheen of fine sweat appeared on that glorious skin. His muscles corded and contracted and bunched in an amazingly masculine ballet.
At fifteen, pain entered the picture. She could see him turning inward, trying to find the place within him where a reserve of strength remained.
His eyes were closed now. His limbs were trembling. His mouth was a formidable line of pain anddetermination. He was like an Olympic athlete training for his event.
It was obvious to her he was way past the limits of his strength, that his injury caused him pain, and yet he was not giving up and not letting go.
“That's enough,” the therapist said, at eighteen. “We'll try it again tomorrow.”
Luke's arms were trembling. He couldn't have one more left in him. And yet she could see him gathering himself mentally.
And then he gave a shout, pure and primal and strong. And lifted his chin up over that bar, not once more but seven more times in rapid succession.
He let go of the bar and collapsed, arms braced on his knees, sweat pouring off him, his expression calm and determined and exhausted.
“If I can impress you,” she heard him tell the therapist, “the doctor is letting me out of here.”
“Don't worry. You've impressed me. With your utter stupidity. You're in here to repair those injuries, not to strain them.”
Luke's expression remained calm, the tirade washing over him, but not touching him. He turned his head to grab a towel and wipe his brow on it.
Maggie leaped back into the shadows. Had he seen her?
She suddenly felt embarrassed. She was like a high-school girl spying on the boys' team. Of course, she'd never done that in high school, and she suddenly regretted it.
It was a delicious guilty little pleasure. Worth the risk, she decided. Because Luke liked to play it as if hewas light and lively and just a barrel of laughs. As if he was full of mischief and kisses, and nothing of substance was there.
But this morning in Billy's room she had caught a look at Luke's substance. And now she had seen it again. At the core of the man were strength and depth and determination in breathtaking abundance.
She hurried away before anyone else caught sight of her. It had been fun looking at him without it having to go anywhere. It had been like getting a fix.
But what was she going to do once he left the hospital?
She didn't want to think about it. She hurried off to her seminar.
It wasn't like her to be late, and her friend Kristen gave her a quizzical look when she slipped in the back door and took the seat Kristen had saved for her.
“What on earth have you been doing?” Kristen hissed.
“What do you mean?” she whispered back.
“You look like the cat who stole the cream.”
“I do not.”
“No, you're right. You look more like a woman who has had a wild and very naughty adventure.”
“Give,” Kristen said, eyeing her.
“I was just doing my homework from last time.”
“We had homework?” Kristen whispered.
“Be bold. Do something totally out of character this week.”
The lady in front of them turned and gave them a murderous look for chatting during Dr. Richie's presentation.
“Coffee break. I want the goods,” Kristen said out of the side of her mouth.
Considering how much she had been looking forward to this seminar, Maggie found she was having difficulty concentrating. She looked around. Sure enough, there was the man she'd seen in Morgan's last night, and there was the woman she'd seen on the front steps of the hospital.
Both of them were beaming ridiculously.
Maggie could only assume they were as satisfied with their homework as she was. She focused on Dr. Richie. He was such an appealing man. His speaking style was so warm and enthusiastic. He seemed wise and appealing and as if, for a relatively young man, he understood so much about life.
Still, even feeling as she did about him, her attention wandered.
“I want just to leave you with this preview of your homework before you go to coffee,” he said, and his words penetrated her daydream.
“Go after what you want. Erase self-doubt.”
It felt as though the words were spoken only to her. And Maggie knew exactly what she wanted, and exactly what was holding her back from it.
Self-doubt. How could Dr. Richie have known that?
She thought of that dress she had been eyeing up in Classy Lass. What had stopped her from buying it? Self-doubt.
She doubted that she was the kind of woman who could pull off a sexy dress like that. She doubted that she would have a place to wear it, or a person to wear it for.
But in the last twenty-four hours, all that had changed.
“I have to go,” she told Kristen, getting up and sidling past the knees of all the people still seated.
“Go where?” Kristen asked, flabbergasted.
“I just remembered something I have to do.” She hurried out the doors of the Healthy Living Clinic. What if the dress wasn't there anymore?
“I'll take it as a sign,” she told herself. And then she laughed out loud. “No, I won't. I'll find an even better one.”
Carrie Martin sat at the back of the seminar when they came back in from coffee. She looked around the room, trying to mask her cynicism, trying to mask how appalled she was at the gullibility of these people. Couldn't they see right through “Dr. Richie”?
She was willing to bet he hated being called that. He probably tolerated it because that popular TV doctor, so successful, allowed people to call him by his first name.
She did nothing to draw attention to herself, but she knew he would never recognize her. Everything about her had changed in twenty years.
Her hair color, her eye color. She was fifty pounds lighter than the pudgy girl who had married Richard Strokudnowski right out of high school. They'd been small-town kids from Apopka, Florida. Only, Richard had harbored big-time dreams.
She had wanted the things women of that age had wanted: a little bungalow with a white picket fence, babies, a swing set and a blow-up wading pool. Carrie had dreamed small, lovely dreams.
Richard had dreamed of glory.
Back then hadn't she been just like these people? Richard had a certain charm, there was no denying it. And he'd had years to perfect it. Once, she had looked at him with the same starry-eyed gaze that he was now eliciting from the loyal following here.
“I'd like to hear some NoWait success stories to kick off our second half,” her ex-husband said suavely.
There were many NoWait success stories. Carrie would have loved to caution these folks to be careful. Richard was no chemist, not that that had ever stopped him.
Oh, he had loved “inventing”âa love that had intensified after he'd gotten his degree, as if it gave him license to mix and match all kinds of herbs and chemicals.
The sad truth was, even his attempts to make salad dressingâ“Look at Paul Newman, Carrie”âhad been an unmitigated disaster. He had blown up the toilet in their first humble apartment trying to make a better, not to mention cheaper, cleaning solution.
At the time it had seemed funny and charming and rather exciting.
At the time just about everything had seemed funny and charming and rather exciting. Until the exact point their dreams had ended up on a collision course.
Already pregnant, Carrie had asked him one day when he would be ready to have children.
“Never,” he'd said, and she had heard the truth in his voice, in the way he said that one word. He'd read the stunned expression on her face correctly, because he'd hastily added, “Well, maybe notneverbut certainly not now.”
Sometimes, looking back, she wondered if she had pulled the plug too quickly. Certainly Dr. Terry Browell, that TV doctor who gave out such confident advice, probably would have thought so. Over the years she had wondered so often. Had she done the right thing? Had it really been her decision alone to make?
But in that moment, the wordnevershivering in the air between them, her husband had seemed like such a stranger to her, a man she had no hope of ever knowing, or ever holding.
She had gone on to marry a lovely man, Ralph Martin, now dead, not the least exciting, but never, ever a stranger to her.
And truth be told, Richard still seemed a stranger as she watched him today, performing, playing to his adoring public.
He stopped speaking suddenly and grinned.
Her heart stopped. Because suddenly he was not such a stranger. She had seen that very same grin for nearly twenty years.
In their son, Jason. And whenever Jason had grinned that grin, she had remembered the man who had given it to him.
Not the betrayals. Not the dreams on collision course.
The laughter. The lovemaking. The sheer joy of being together.
“Go after what you want,” he repeated emphatically at the end of the seminar. “Erase self-doubt.”
Carrie did not join the many who wanted to talk to him after the class. She slipped out the door and contemplated his words.
She smiled cynically. He would not have utteredthem nearly so confidently if he knew that what one member of his class wanted to go after was him. Oh, how she would love to expose Dr. Richard Strong for what he really was: a superficial man who had left his pregnant young wife to fend for herself. Who had emptied half the bank account when he had left.
Not, she thought reluctantly, that he had known she was pregnant.
That was the self-doubt part.
Erase it,she ordered herself. But she couldn't.
With Jason in college she had felt so confident that it was time to track down her old husband, to put away the ghosts of her old life for good.
She stood in the late-afternoon sunshine outside the Healthy Living Clinic. The door swung open, and a wave of laughing people, filled with confidence and energy and excitement from what they had just learned from Dr. Richie, spilled out on the sidewalk.
And her self-doubt intensified. She was no longer nearly as certain why she had come here or what she had hoped to accomplish. But a voice inside her, one of those ones that Dr. Richie spoke of but that she was pretty sure he was not on familiar terms with in his own life, told her to wait. When the time is right, you will know exactly what to do.
She walked away, feeling lonely and tense, and very, very separate from all the hopeful, energetic people who had been inspired by a man who was not even close to being what he was saying he was.Five
For all the times she had looked longingly in the window, Maggie had never shopped in Classy Lass before.
The summer dress was still in the window, red and bold, and, taking a deep breath, Maggie went through the wide double oak and glass doors. It was quickly apparent that Classy Lass was not the kind of store she usually shopped in. It was more like walking into a very posh hotel lobby than a store. There were deep comfortable leather sofas, tasteful displays, wonderful little alcoves to explore.
A freckled, friendly girl introduced herself as Tracey and made Maggie feel warmly welcome. Tracey acted as though she had no idea Maggie did not belong in a shop that was not advertising the underwear special in aisle 9 over the PA system.
“Make yourself at home,” she said, “and just ask me if you need anything.”
After looking at the price tag on a leather bag hooked carelessly over the arm of one of the sofas, Maggie wanted to say what she needed was a dose of oxygen. For a moment she considered leaving, but then she took a deep breath and approached Tracey.
“I like the red dress in the window, but I don't see it on display anywhere else. Have you got it?” Maggie gave the woman her size, and crossed her fingers that they'd have it.
Tracey grinned without one little bit of condescension. “Only one perfect little red dress,” she said. “You don't want to see everyone in Portland wearing a dress you paid eight hundred dollars for, do you?”
Maggie felt her jaw dropping. Eight hundred dollars? For a dress that looked as if it barely contained a yard of material? She had known Classy Lass was going to be expensive, but she had not expected it to be quite so far out of her price range.
The girl read her expression, and instead of looking haughty, she took on the look of a conspirator. “It doesn't hurt to try it on,” she said, and before Maggie could protest, she was up in the window retrieving the dress. “It is your size.”
A moment later, Maggie found herself in a huge fitting room with thick carpets and wall-to-wall mirrors. There was room for a leather armchair and a reading table heaped with fashion magazines. There was no sign on the door warning about the dangers of shoplifting, either.
It was madness for Maggie to be here, and yet even so, she found herself skinning out of her clothes eagerly. She had hated the outfit she was wearing ever since shehad seen Luke eye itâand dismiss itâthis morning. Camel had always been one of her favorite colors. Now, lying in a crumpled heap on the thick burgundy rug, her suit looked like leftover porridge.
She didn't even want to know what he might think of her plain cotton briefs and bra. Maggie slid the red dress over her head, and stood there for a minute with her eyes shut, not even wanting to look. The dress felt exquisite where it touched her skin, as light and feathery as a cloud.
Maggie opened her eyes and gasped.
The dress had been designed to show a woman at her very best. It looked deceptively simple, with its narrow spaghetti straps, snug bodice and a short skirt that swirled and lifted around her legs at the slightest movement.
She was not sure how but the dress managed to turn each of her faults into an asset. Her curviest areas, hips and chest, looked amazing, sensuous and full. When she twirled she saw how the flare of the skirt, the lightness of the fabric drew attention to the long, clean line of her leg.
It was the perfect summer dress, light, carefree, perky, flirty. It was a dress that celebrated all the mysteries and marvels and delights of being a woman.
But eight hundred dollars? She'd paid only slightly more than that for her wedding gown!
“Come show me,” Tracey called.
Feeling as shy and as gauche as a farm girl fresh out of her overalls, Maggie emerged from the fitting room.
“Oh my God,” the girl said, and Maggie knew it was no sales pitch.
“It's nice, isn't it?” she asked, twirling experimentally in front of another bank of floor-to-ceiling mirrors.
“Nice? Oh, no. It's not nice. It's naughty as hell, and if you don't buy it, you should have your head examined.”
Maggie laughed. “I can't pay eight hundred dollars for a dress.”
The girl eyed her shrewdly. “Let me guess. Working. Professional something, like a teacher or a nurse. Single.”
“That all shows?” Maggie was going home and dumping the porridge suit in the garbage. She was unexciting and broadcasting it to the whole world!
“So, what do you spend your money on?” Tracey teased gently, “Your cat?”
“I don't have a cat,” Maggie admitted.
“Well, then, you have absolutely no excuse not to treat yourself,” Tracey said. “He won't be able to resist you.”
“Who won't be able to resist me? A homeless cat looking to change his circumstances?” Maggie asked innocently.
“Nobody looks at a dress like that unless there's aheinvolved: human, male, ten-out-of-ten. Believe me. I've been working here a whole four months, and I know.”
Maggie laughed. “I do believe you.” She turned and looked in the mirror again. Well, why not buy the dress? Tracey was right. Maggie spent money on rent and had collected some lovely pieces of furniture. She treated herself to all her favorite romance authors' books, brand-new. She was saving for a down payment on a house. She had a car she adored.
But when did she ever spend money on just making herself feel good, beautiful, one hundred percent a woman? The Bold and Beautiful seminars didn't count!
And neither did the wedding that had not happened, but still had had to be paid for. Maggie realized that hernon-wedding was the last time she had splurged on deliciously decadent things just for her. She had bought underwear and lingerie and sexy sundresses for the honeymoon on the Mexican Riviera that Darnel had gone on by himself. And had never returned from.
And when things had not worked out, she had packed up the items, unworn, most with the tags still on them, and sent them off to the Goodwill store.
What she hadn't realized until twenty-four hours ago, sprawled beneath a strange man's chest, was that she had packed up all that was feminine about herself, too. Her hopes and dreams, her longings and desires had suddenly seemed too fraught with danger to investigate any further. She had locked herself away from a world that held pain, like a princess in a tower. Or a social worker in an office.
“I'm going to take the dress,” Maggie decided firmly. And not for Luke, either. For herself. She could sit out on her balcony at night, look at the waters of the Columbia River, just visible through a maze of other buildings, sip iced coffee and feel splendidly and sexily like a woman.
Okay, she planned to share that feeling of being womanly and sexy with Luke, but it was still for her.
It was time to begin the healing that she had never done.
“Want the bad news?” Tracey asked her.
“Eight hundred dollars isn't bad enough news?”
“I have some Jimmy Choos that are going to look divine with that.”
“I'm scared to ask, but what the heck are Jimmy Choos?” Maggie asked.
A little while later she stood at the front desk withthe Jimmy Choo shoes, a shawl, new underwear and the dress all being packaged up for her.
“Now,” the girl said when she was done folding everything carefully into tissue paper and putting it in boxes and then bags, “have you got the place picked out? To wear it?”
“I hadn't got that far,” Maggie admitted. It occurred to her that if she played pool at Morgan's in this itty-bitty red dress the male heat in the place would probably set off the sprinkler system.
“I have an idea,” Tracey said.
Maggie wondered if this funny freckle-faced girl was some sort of little angel sent to guide her through the pitfalls of trying to heal old wounds, find her inner woman, and just incidentally, get a man interested in her.
“It's just a suggestion, but have you heard of Heavenly Cup? The coffee and dessert bar?”
“I've walked by it a zillion times. I've never gone in.”
“From the street you can't tell that they have this divine outdoor area with potted plants and trees, all lit up with white lights at night. It's right on the banks of the river. Tonight they're having a classical guitar concert on the patio. My boyfriend is playing, so I happen to be selling tickets. Inexpensive, so it balances out the dress. You can go and have coffee and dessert, and listen to the most beautiful music for under twenty bucks a person. And it does look like it's going to be a gorgeous night.”
It did look like that. And Maggie had an absolute weakness for the classical guitar. But Luke at a classical guitar concert?
Well, why not?
She had moved into his arena last night, eating hamburgers and playing pool. Why not invite him to a place where she would feel comfortable?
A dessert bar! An evening of eating desserts was probably not the perfect date for a girl with way too much hip.
On the other hand, this dress did magical things to her hips, and there was always a little extra NoWait!
Maggie took a deep breath and dug back into her wallet. “Two tickets, please.”
Tracey giggled. “I'm going to be there. I always try to watch Kenneth perform. But I can't wait to see you walk in with the guy you think is worth that dress.”
Maggie laughed. This whole little interlude had seemed like the most pleasant and wonderful of adventures.
Is that what happened when you began to live your life more fully? When you went after what you wanted? When you tried to erase self-doubt?
She gathered her packages. “See you there,” she said with breezy confidence that felt so good. But by the time she reached her car, her confidence was flagging.
Well, maybe she wouldn't see Tracey there, after all. She hadn't even asked Luke yet. It dawned on her he had the option of saying no. What if he had other plans?
Maggie, she told herself, the man is in the hospital. What other plans could he have?
He looked as if he might be one of those guys who was fanatical about sports. What if there was an important baseball game on TV? A baseball fan herself, she mentally reviewed the schedule, but couldn't remember a game of any importance. What if he just plain didn't want to go?
I am simply not accepting no for an answer,she thought, climbing into her car and stowing her packages behind the seat. That was part of the self-doubt, thinking she wasn't good enough for him, that somehow he was used to a different kind of woman and she didn't have a chance.
He had phoned her this morning, not the other way around. He was the one who had reopened a closed book. He was the one who had tangled their lives together just a little more deeply.
He still could have other plans, she told herself with a moan.
But as inexperienced as she was around men, Maggie knew one thing. All she had to do was show up at the hospital in that dress. If he had other plans, he'd change them.
It would take a bigger man than Luke August to resist her.
She giggled self-consciously. Good Lord. Maggie Sullivan playing the siren. The truth was she could hardly wait. And so she decided she would not phone and forewarn him; she would just show up in the dress and let it do its magic.
Hours later, she stepped out of her car in front of Portland General. Male heads turned as she sashayed up the walk. A nice man nearly tripped over himself trying to get to the door fast enough to open it for her.
The dress was summer itselfâfun and sultry, playful and promising. It made her feel like a different person, outgoing and bold and carefree.
She discovered Luke in the TV room at the end of his hall, but he was unaware of her. Coming toward him, she could see he had on a plaid housecoat and slippers, and was leaning toward the TV, chin in hands, intently regarding the screen.
Her footsteps slowed as she regarded the picture he made. Aside from the fact that he looked like he could be doing the Christmas layout for GQ, it was a cozy picture of a man at home, relaxed, content with his life. Sunday morning. Newspapers scattered around, an old dog at his feet, a fire crackling in a hearth, the smell of bacon cooking.
But she already knew Luke August to be the man least likely to enjoy a relaxing moment in his housecoat and slippers.
Even so, the picture remained. In the background she almost heard the crackle of the bacon sizzling in the pan and the laughter of children at play.
Children? Oh God, she could not think of children and this man! Though Children's Connection had a fertility department, and Maggie knew there were many ways to make children these days, everyone tried the old-fashioned way first! If she let her mind wander too far down that roadâmaking children the old-fashioned way with Luke Augustâshe'd probably swoon again.
Despite her every effort not to think of Luke and children, in her mind's eye, green-eyed little boys with dark hair and freckles and grins full of mischief and liveliness materialized.
Maggie felt like a fraud. How could she go to Luke in a dress like this, when she harbored a dream like that in the back of her mind? A dream she hadn't even acknowledged she had, a dream of domestic bliss and contentment that Luke August, certified daredevil, would never fit into?
Trying to banish the green-eyed children, and with her heart in her throat, Maggie turned to walk away before he caught sight of her.
Too late. The red dress had worked against her and must have caught his attention. She turned slowly back to him.
He looked at her, shook his head and then looked again. He got to his feet and stared at her. If they were sharing that cozy little scene of her imagination, from the smoldering look in his green eyes, there would be some burned bacon and children sent out to the yard to play.
“Maggie,” he croaked.
She had to get a hold of herself. She could not allow the boundaries of fantasy and reality to melt together.
She was a vision of feminine allure, and she knew it, the dress skimming around her, her hair falling in a rich cascade over a shawl that played peekaboo with the creaminess of her naked shoulders.
She watched it all register in his eyes. She took a deep breath. Run or take the plunge? Her whole problem was she took everything way too seriously.
A date did not a marriage and children make! She was not a starry-eyed sixteen-year-old, and the Cinderella notions of a handsome prince, glass slippers and happily ever after had to go!
Though, forcing her mind to take lighter roads, she doubted the glass slipper had anything on Jimmy Choo, including price.
“I wondered if you'd like to go out with me tonight, Luke,” she said.
He folded his arms over the deepness of his chest androcked back on his heels. A man just had no right to look that sexy in a robe and slippers.
“We weren't going to see each other,” he reminded her. “You said. I thoughtâ”
She moved toward him, put her finger on his lips and looked up at him through lashes darkened with mascara. “Don't think,” she said huskily.
She thought he might start laughing at her imitation of a woman so confident in her own skin, but he didn't. He gulped.
“I'll go get ready.”
“And meet you at the back door?” he asked.
She shook her head and brandished a white piece of paper. “I got you a pass.”
“You can do that? Get passes?”
“If you know the right people.”
“And wear a dress like that,” he muttered. “Give me ten minutes.”
He gave her one more quick, loaded look, and then staggered off like a man who had stood much too close to an exploding bomb.
Luke went into his room, shut the door and leaned on it. He closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself looking straight at Nurse Nightmare. He let out a little yelp.
“I understand you have a pass,” she said to him with deep disapproval, apparently having forgotten how prepared she was to cozy up to him this morning when she had wanted something on Billy's behalf.
“Yeah. I understand that, too.”
“Maggie Sullivan is one of the sweetest girls you could ever meet,” Nurse Nightmare informed him through pursed lips.
He should just open the door and give the nurse a little look at how her sweet little Maggie had turned to spicy in the blink of an eye. Five-alarm spicy, in fact. But he didn't. He just said, “Yes, ma'am. I understand that.”
“Do you?” Her tone was etched with disbelief. She was giving him the insensitive lunkhead look.
He didn't say anything. He wanted her to get out of here so he could throw on some clothes and have another look at Maggie. He moved by her and looked through the wardrobe-style closet at the side of his bed.
“She's been hurt before.”
He'd already guessed, and didn't want to know. But reluctantly, he turned and gave the nurse his full attention.
“There's an expression about being left standing at the altar, though very few people have had to experience that literally. But she did. Arrived at the church in her gorgeous gown and the whole entourage, and all the guests seated, only to find no groom.”
Luke had to turn swiftly back to the wardrobe to hide the expression on his face. He was sure it would scare the nurse, because he felt murderous. He could not believe the white-hot surge of rage that he felt. He could not believe someone could do that to Maggie. Or to anyone.
But mostly to Maggie. He had seen the goodness of her, the purity of her soul, when she had talked to Billy today. What kind of ass could do that to someone like her?
Okay, Luke was no fan of the institution of marriage,but at least he was up front about that from the second things started looking serious.
And here Maggie was, in her red dress, trying to put her life back together again. Her bravery was touching and heart-wrenching and scary as hell.
Why pick on Luke August? Couldn't she see he was the least likely guy to be able to help her ever trust the male half of the human race again? Apparently Nurse Nightmare could see that simple truth!
“Does she have a penchant for insensitive lunkheads or what?” he asked, trying to keep his tone light. He failed. There was a snarl of barely leashed anger in it.
“That's the thing. Darnel worked at Children's Connection. Many of us knew them both, at least professionally. He seemed to be a very nice man.”
Unspoken in the air between them hung the remainder of her thought.Not like you.
Luke thought Darnel was going to be a very nice man with a rearranged face if he ever had the happy opportunity to meet him in a dark alley. No, scratch the dark alley. He'd settle for the opportunity.
“When did it happen?” he asked, trying to keep his tone casual, his teeth clenched together so hard his jaw hurt.
“Two years ago. No, three. The whole hospital talked of nothing else for months.”
He felt angry again at the thought of Maggie trying to hold her head up high with everyone talking about her.
But three years ago? That wasn't nearly as bad as if it had happened last week. Surely she was over the worst of it now. It wasn't as if he was being entrusted with a newly bruised heart, a soul freshly ravaged.
He heard the door open and shut behind him, andknew the nurse, her warning delivered, had left him to mull it over. He picked a pair of dark cords and a sports shirt out of his limited choices and went into the bathroom for a quick shower and a shave.
A woman in a red dress.
Really, a red dress gave about the simplest message in the whole world to a man. There was something primal about it, sexy and seductive.
But on Maggie Sullivan? Absolutely nothing was simple about her. He should just hang a white flag out the door. He should tell her he wasn't going anywhere with her.
But, just like last night, he had this almost irresistible desire to make her laugh, to make her forget some of the secrets and sorrows that made her eyes so somber.
“Wrong man for the job,” he said slapping his freshly shaved face with cologne.
But it occurred to him that was twice today his nemesis, Nurse Nightmare, had trusted him with very delicate assignments.
What had she said this morning? Oh, yeah. Require more of yourself.
And so tonight, that was what he would do. Luke August, who had a gift for impersonation, would impersonate the perfect gentleman. He would escort Maggie wherever she wanted to go, and he would make sure she had fun. He would not mess with her broken heart. That meant no on-fire kiss goodnight.
A better man would not have felt such sharp regret.
Outside the hospital, Maggie handed him the keys to her car.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I've been known to wreckall manner of things with engines. Even my lawn mower can't keep up with me.”
“I'm sure,” she said.
He sighed inwardly. Okay, she was bent on trusting him, and he was determined to be a gentleman about it. He held open her door for her, but seeing that red dress ride up her knee when she sat down weakened his resolve.
And when he got in the other side of her tiny car and smelled that scent that was all hersâcitrus with an underlying shade of muskâhis resolve weakened some more. He knew a great place to go on a night like this. A rocky beach where they could be alone.
“Turn left here,” she directed him.
He could keep going straight, but her voice did not match the dress or her fragrance. Her voice was nervous, like a schoolgirl going to the prom. He wondered what she had in store for him, and reminded himself he was on his best behavior.
Not that his best behavior had ever been that good.
She directed him to a place called the Heavenly Cup. It was a coffee bar in a remodeled sandstone. Once they were inside, they were directed across the room to where wall-to-wall French doors opened onto a yard at the back, full of potted trees and little white lights and wrought-iron tables. They were close to the bank of the river, and he could see its dark waters moving, reflecting the lights of downtown Portland.
“Not my regular kind of place,” he teased her. “Where's the sawdust on the floor? Is the pool table hidden somewhere? Can I get a beer?”
“You don't drink beer,” she reminded him. “Actually, I've never been here before, either.”
Despite that, it was her kind of place, he could tell. The crisp linen tablecloths, the nice lights in the trees, the fresh flowers on the tables, the murmur of the river in the background. The place had an ambience of romance.
“There's a concert here tonight,” she said. “I thought you might like it.”
A freckle-faced girl came over to their table and whispered something in Maggie's ear that made her blush.
“This is Tracey, Luke.”
He took Tracey's hand, and the girl turned and smiled at Maggie. “Off the scale,” she said. “Do you think it was worth it?”
“Worth what?” he asked Maggie.
“Oh,” the girl said before Maggie could answer, “here's Kenneth now.”
A guy came out of the restaurant and sauntered up to them. He had long blond hair in dreadlocks and jeans with a hole in the knee, and the look he gave the freckle-faced girl, and the one she returned to him, reminded Luke, almost painfully, what it was like to be young and brand-new to the world of passion.
He glanced at Maggie. She had seen that look, too, and longing passed, brief and bright, through her eyes before she looked quickly away.
“Kenneth is the musician tonight,” Tracey said proudly. Then she looped her arm through his and escorted him to a small raised podium set back amongst the light-spangled trees.
Given Kenneth's appearance, Luke hoped for some good ol' rock 'n' roll, but that was probably dating himself. The kid probably rapped or did head-banging or something similar.
Though Luke couldn't imagine Maggie would go for either style of music.
With his girlfriend beaming her love from the front table, the kid picked up the guitar that was leaning casually against the stool on the stage. He leaned his fanny on the stool and bent his head over the instrument. Then his fingers began to do a dance over the strings.
“This is for Tracey,” Kenneth said as he cast her a heated look. “It's called âLove on a Summer Night.'”
In a moment the small space shimmered with the beauty of that music.
Maggie's hand crept across the table and Luke took it. No worries about butter tonight, apparently.
He'd expected to be bored. Instead, the most amazing thing happened. His mindâor maybe it was more his soulâopened to the music. He was stunned by the gentle and glowing beauty of it. Who would have thought Luke August could be so taken with a sound? Or that his world had somehow become so narrow that this sound was new to him?
He would have thought no one would ever accuse him of being the kind of man who did not explore his horizons.
He pushed boundaries all the time. Boundaries of speed and strength, muscle and sheer determination pitted against the laws of physics. But that was his world, and somehow he had stopped venturing into worlds beyond it.
He glanced at Maggie. Her expression was rapt, her eyes glowing softly as she let the music wash over her.
He had a feeling that if he let this thing with Maggie go anywhere she would take him to places he had never been before.
Places of the soul.
Places of the heart.
Places of deep longing that would expose the loneliness at his core.
It seemed the guitar was finding that place, the melody haunting, exquisitely tender, making Lukefeelexactly what the title of the song had promised.
Love on a summer night. The boy's fingers plucked and danced and stroked, and coaxed from his guitar not music but love, shimmering with hope and pathos and pain and glory.
Luke had never had any desire to go to such places. Amber would not have brought him to a place like this. No, jukeboxes loaded with old Springsteen tunes would be more her style. Peanut shells on the floor, dancing on the tables as the night grew wilder.
Despite the promise of Maggie's red dress, Luke had a feeling this was as wild as things were getting tonight.
Thank God. He could not stand the contradictions posed by Maggie. The complications. How could she wear a dress like that, and then bring him to a place of his soul instead of his libido?
She obviously had no idea that this was a game men and women played, and that it had rules. He was willing to forgo his vow to show her a fun time. It was replaced with a desire just to get out of here alive.
The dessert tray came. He ordered one of everything on it. Speed wasn't the only way to stuff back uncomfortable feelings of confusion and yearning mixed. Besides, it was the kind of gesture that would have dismayed his well-bred mother.
Maggie seemed to think it was hilarious, and shelaughed. Just as it had done last night, her laughter transformed her and chased some of the seriousness from her. So, he was going to get her laughing after all.
An hour later it occurred to him that eating too many sweets was a dumb plan for trying to get out of this evening intact. He had just eaten a dessert called death by chocolate and he was pretty sure that was going to be his fate.
But better that than death by innocent girl in a red dress. He glanced up at her. She had a little ring of chocolate around her own mouth and looked adorable in her distress when she looked down at all the empty dessert plates.
She excused herself rapidly.
Watching her hurry off, he hoped she wasn't one of those types who had to puke after they ate. No, she had too many delicious round curves to have that particular disorder. All he noticed when she came back was that the subtle fragrance of citrus and musk that seemed to be all hers was stronger.
“Are you ready to go?” she asked.