Midnight Bayou Page 40

"These days. Why don't you come back to the house with me, have some coffee, see what I've been doing with my time since I haven't been able to spend any with you.”

"I've been busy.”

"So you said.”

Her brows knit, forming a long, shallow line of annoyance between them. "I say what I mean.”

"I didn't say different. But I'm making you edgy. I don't mind that, Lena." He reached out to tug on her hair, amused and delighted to see temper darken her face. "But I would mind if you think I'd settle for one night with you.”

"I sleep with you if I want, when I want.”

"And I'd mind," he continued mildly, though the hand that gripped her arm before she could spin away was very firm. "I'd mind a great deal if you think all I want is to get you in the sheets.”

"Men don't touch me unless I tell them they can touch me." She shoved at his hand.

"You've never dealt with me before, have you?" There was steel in his fingers, in his tone. "Just simmer down. Picking a fight isn't going to shake me loose, either. You wanted to keep your distance this week, okay. I'm a patient man, Lena, but I'm not a doormat. Don't think you're going to walk over me on your way out the door.”

Anger, she realized, wasn't the way to handle him. She had no doubt she could scrape away at that control and stir him up into a good shouting match of a fight. It would be interesting, even entertaining. But she had a fifty-fifty chance of losing it.

She didn't care for the odds.

Instead, she stroked a hand over his cheek. "Aw now, cher." Her voice was liquid silk. "What you getting so het up about? You got me irritable, that's all. I'm not at my best so early in the day, and here you being all tough and surly. I don't mean to hurt your feelings.”

She rose on her toes and kissed his cheek.

"What do you mean to do, Angelina?”

There was something about the way he used her whole name that put her back up. A kind of warning. "Now, Declan honey, I like you. I truly do. And the other night, why, you just about swept me off my feet. We had ourselves a real good time, too, didn't we? But you don't want to be making more out of it than it was.”

"What was it?”

She lifted her shoulders. "A very satisfying interlude, for both of us. Why don't we leave it at that and be friends again?”

"We could. Or, we could try it this way.”

He yanked her to him, dragged her up to her toes. And plundered her mouth. No patience this time, no reason, no dreamy mating of lips. It was a branding, and they both knew it.

Rufus gave a warning growl as she struggled. Even when the growl turned to a snarl, Declan ignored it. He fisted a hand in her hair, pulled her head back, and took them both deeper. Temper, hurt and hunger all stormed inside him and flavored the kiss.

She couldn't resist it. Not when the punch of emotions slammed into her system, liberating needs she'd hoped to lock down. On a muffled oath, she wrapped her arms around his neck and met the ferocity of the kiss.

With a whine, Rufus settled down to chew at the ball.

"We're not done with each other." Declan ran proprietary hands down her arms.

"Maybe not.”

"I'll come in tonight, take you home after you close. Wednesday, after things quiet down, I'd like you to come out here. We'll have dinner.”

She managed to smile. "You cooking?”

He grinned, touched his lips to her brow. "I'll surprise you.”

"You usually do," she retorted when he walked away.

She was irritated with herself. Not just for losing a battle, but for cowardice. It was cowardice that had pushed her to start the fight in the first place.

She trudged through the marsh while Rufus raced into the trees, through the thick green undergrowth in hopes of scaring up a rabbit or a squirrel.

She stopped at the curve of what had been known as far back as memory stretched as Bayou Rouse. This mysterious place with its slow-moving, shadowy water, its cypress bones and thick scents, was as much her world as the crooked streets and lively pace of the Quarter.

She'd run in this world as a child, learned the difference between a wren and a sparrow, how to avoid a copperhead nest by its cucumber whiff, how to drop a line and pull up a catfish for supper.

It was the home of her blood, as the Quarter had become the home of her ambition. She didn't come back to it only when her grandmother was feeling blue, but when she herself was.

She caught a glimpse of the knobby snout of an alligator sliding by. It was, she thought, what was under the surface that could take you down, one quick, ugly snap, if you weren't alert and didn't keep your wits about you.

There was a great deal under the surface of Declan Fitzgerald. She'd have preferred if he'd been some spoiled, rich trust-fund baby out on a lark. She could've enjoyed him, and dismissed him when they were both bored.

It was a great deal more difficult to dismiss what you respected. She admired his strength, his purpose, his humor. As a friend, he would give her a great deal of pleasure.

As a lover, he worried the hell out of her.

He wanted too much. She could already feel him sucking her in. And it scared her, scared her that she didn't seem able to stop the process.

Toying with the key around her neck, she started back toward the bayou house. It would run its course, she told herself. Things always did.

She pasted on a smile as she neared the house and saw her grandmother, shaded by an old straw hat, fussing in her kitchen garden.

"I smell bread baking," Lena called out.

"Brown bread. Got a loaf in there you can take home with you.”

Odette straightened, pressed a hand lightly to the small of her back. "Got an extra you could take on by the Hall for that boy. He doesn't eat right.”

"He's healthy enough.”

"Healthy enough to want a bite outta you." She bent back to her work, her sturdy work boots planted firm. "He try to take one this morning? You've got that look about you.”

Lena walked over, dropped down on the step beside the garden patch. "What look is that?”

"The look a woman gets when a man's had his hands on her and didn't finish the job.”

"I know how to finish the job myself, if that's the only problem.”

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