Midnight Bayou Page 31

He dragged at the doorknob, his sweat– slicked hands sliding off the icy brass. He could feel his choked gasps wanting to rise into shouts and screams, pleas and prayers. Dizziness drove him down to his knees, where he fumbled frantically with the knob, wrenched and tugged at the door.

When he managed to pull it open, he crawled out on his hands and knees, then lay facedown on the floor with his heart thundering in his chest as the storm thundered over the house.

"Okay, I'm okay. I'm okay, goddamn it, and I'm getting up off the floor and going back to bed.”

He might be losing sleep, Declan thought as he got shakily to his feet, but he'd learned a couple of things.

If what he'd seen inside the nursery was truth and not some self-generated fantasy, Abigail Rouse Manet hadn't left Manet Hall of her own free will.

And he had more than one ghost on his hands.

She was probably making a mistake, Lena thought as she slicked a little black dress down her body. She'd already made several small mistakes where Declan Fitzgerald was concerned. It irritated her, as she rarely made mistakes when it came to men.

If there was one thing she'd learned from her mother, it was how to handle the male species. It was a reverse tutelage. She made a habit of doing exactly the opposite of what Lilibeth did and had done when it came to relationships.

The process had kept Lena heart-whole for nearly thirty years. She had no desire, and no intention, of putting herself into a man's hands. Metaphorically speaking, she thought with a smirk as she painted her lips.

She liked being in the right man's hands well enough, when she was in the mood to be handled.

A woman who didn't enjoy sex, in her opinion, just didn't know how to pick her partners cannily enough. A smart woman culled out men who were willing and able to be shown how that woman wanted to be pleasured. And a woman pleasured tended to give a man a good, strong ride.

Everybody ended up winning.

The problem was, Declan had the talent for putting her in the mood for sex all the damn time. She was not in the habit of being guided by her hormones.

The wisest, safest thing for a woman to do about sex was to be in control of it. To decide the when, the where, the who and how. Men, well, they were just randy by nature. She couldn't blame them for it.

And women who claimed not to try to stir men up were either cold-blooded or liars.

If she'd believed she and Declan were headed toward a simple affair that began and ended with a mutual buzz, she wouldn't have been concerned. But there was more to him than that. Too many layers to him, she thought, and she couldn't seem to get through them all and figure him out.

More, and much more worrying, there was another layer to her reaction to him than simple lust. That, too, was complicated and mysterious.

She liked the look of him, and the Yankee bedrock sound of his voice. And then he'd gone and hit her soft spot with his obvious affection for her grandmama.

Got her blood heated up, too, she admitted. The man had a very skilled pair of lips.

And when he wasn't paying attention, a wounded look in his eyes. She was a sucker for hurting hearts.

Best to take it slow. She arched her neck and ran the crystal wand of her perfume bottle over her skin. Slow and easy. No point in getting to the end of the road unless you'd enjoyed the journey.

She trailed the wand over the tops of her br**sts and imagined his fingers there. His mouth.

It had been a long time since she'd wanted a man quite this … clearly, she realized. And since it was too late for a quick, anonymous roll in the sheets, it would be wise get to know him a little better before she let him think he'd talked her into bed.

"Right on time, aren't you, cher?" she commented aloud at the knock on her door. She gave her reflection a last check, blew herself a kiss, and walked to the front door.

He looked good in a suit. Very classy and GQ, she decided. She reached out, ran the stone-gray lapel between her thumb and fingers. "Mmm. Don't you clean up nice, cher.”

"Sorry, all the blood just drained out of my head so the best I can come up with is, wow.”

She sent him that sassy, under-the-lashes look and turned a slow circle on stiletto heels. "This work okay for you, then?”

The dress clung, dipped and shimmied. His glands were doing a joyful jig. "Oh yeah. It's working just fine.”

She crooked her finger. "Come here a minute.”

She stepped back, then slid a hand through his arm and turned toward an old silver-framed mirror. "Don't we look fine?" she said, and her reflection laughed at his. "Where you taking me, cher?”

"Let's find out." He picked up a wide, red silk scarf, draped it over her shoulders. "Are you going to be warm enough?”

"If I'm not, then this dress isn't working after all." With this she strode out on her little gallery. She started to hold out a hand for his, then just stared down at the white stretch limo at the curb.

She was rarely speechless, but it took her a good ten seconds to find her voice, and her wits. "You buy yourself a new car, darling?”

"It's a rental. This way, I figure we can both have all the champagne we want.”

As first dates went, she thought as he led her down, this one had potential. It only got better when the uniformed driver opened the door and bowed her inside.

There were two silver buckets. One held a bottle of champagne and the other a forest of purple tulips.

"Roses are obvious," he said and pulled a single flower out to offer her. "And you're not.”

She twirled the tulip under her nose. "Is this how you charm the girls in Boston?”

He poured a flute of champagne, held it out to her. "There are no other girls.”

Off balance, she took a sip. "You're dazzling me, Declan.”

"That's the plan." He tapped his glass to hers. "I'm really good at seeing a plan through."

She leaned back, crossed her legs in a slow, deliberate motion she knew would draw his gaze down to them. "You're a dangerous man. You know what makes you really dangerous? It doesn't show unless you take a good look under all the polish.”

"I won't hurt you, Lena.”

"Oh, hell you won't." But she let out a low, delightful laugh. "That's just part of the trip, sugar. Just part of the trip. And so far, I'm enjoying it.”

He went for elegant, Old-World French where the waiters wore black tie, the lighting was muted, and the corner table was designed for intimacy.

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