Wild Lady

Chapter One

The black-haired, black-eyed beauty smiled mockingly in the foot-high photograph on the society page of the Corpus Christi Chat beneath the sensational headline, “Oilman’s Daughter Stranded at Altar.”

With trembling fingers, Kit gripped the paper even more tightly as she studied her own picture for a second time. How had she managed that picture—the radiant smile, the sparkling eyes? The photograph depicted a young girl glowing with expectation at the prospect of marriage. Had she ever really been that girl?

She skimmed the article beneath. “Kit Jackson, daughter of wealthy South Texas oil operator, Howard Jackson, waited in vain last night for her bridegroom, Rodney Starr, to make his appearance...”

Oh! The paper made it sound so tragic. Everyone who read the article would think Rodney had deliberately stood her up. They would think that she was heartbroken. But it wasn’t like that.

“If they only knew how relieved I really am,” she said half-aloud.

Unbidden came the memory of the strange, erotic dream she’d had on the eve of her wedding.

“Relief!” Surely it was the sweetest word in the English language just as it was the sweetest sensation she’d felt for a long time.

She remembered the long months of tension that had preceded the events of last night. Her family and his pressuring them both into their decision. Once she’d agreed to marry him, her mother’s plans for the grand, society wedding had been like an avalanche sweeping Rodney and her along. Neither of them had known how to say no to the lavish parties and gifts.

Occasionally across a crowded ballroom she’d caught an almost desperate look in Rodney’s eyes, and surely he’d seen the same look in hers. She’d wanted to call the wedding off; she’d come close to doing it many times. But once the marriage plans had been set in motion, she’d lacked the courage.

Newspaper articles covering their engagement had made it sound like a fairytale marriage—the handsome heir to the Starr ranching and oil fortune marrying the wealthy Jackson beauty.

She had never loved Rodney in the way a wife should love the man she planned to marry, although she was very fond of him. She had only drifted into a relationship with him on the rebound because he’d been so sweet and understanding when her devastating romance with the one man she’d truly loved had ended.

Black print blurred and the paper fell from her hands to rest beside her untouched breakfast tray. The breeze gusting up from the bay caught its edges and they fluttered. She arose, clutching the wrought-iron railing that laced her balcony overlooking the grounds.

Beneath her billowed nine hundred yards of gaily striped yellow and white canvas, the party tent the caterers had rented from some local outfit her father said had been sold to a “brash young lawyer” who was making a name for himself as a skipper in the racing community.

The new owner had insisted on being paid in advance for his rental, even from the Jacksons. As if the Jacksons were no better or worse than anyone else. She saw the rented tiki torches, the tables, chairs, the unused bandstand— everything set up with such care for the reception that had never been.

Last night came back to her. If she lived to be a hundred, Kit would never be able to forget it.

She’d been swathed from head to toe in designer lace that scratched her flesh everywhere it touched. She’d been imprisoned in that stuffy dressing room at the church with her mother, who mildly nervous at first had become frantic an hour later when there was still no Rodney. Kit, however, had had just the opposite reaction. When she was informed that Rodney was late, she’d felt a curious detachment and then relief. Then when that first hour had passed without his coming, she’d decided that even if he did arrive, she would have to summon her own courage and call the wedding off no matter how she disappointed and humiliated her mother and father before their society friends. She liked Rodney; maybe she even loved him. She just didn’t love him enough.

Two tortuous hours passed before Rodney called. By that time the hum in the sanctuary had grown to a deafening roar. Kit’s mother took the call in the minister’s office and returned with the news she’d delivered with false brightness.

“Don’t worry, mi querida ...” Anitra Jackson had begun, lapsing, because she was nervous, into her native language, Spanish.

“Where’s Rodney? What happened?” Kit blurted.

“There’s been a little accident ... a car wreck . . . Apparently the boys drank too much at the bachelor party.”

“Well, someone should have looked after him better.”

Rodney’s in the hospital . . . nothing serious. Whiplash. He’s disoriented. He’ll stay overnight in the hospital for observation.”

Kit’s first concern had been for Rodney. Disoriented? What did that mean? What if he were really seriously injured? Her mother had at last managed to reassure her that his injuries were only minor. Relief that he was all right and that he wasn’t coming had swamped her in a joyous flood, but she’d managed to conceal her true feelings from her mother.

Dear Mother, she’d been so anxious that the wedding take place. Arabella Starr, Rodney’s mother, was her dearest friend; a wedding linking their two families her fond dream.

“Should I go to him?”

Querida, his parents are leaving now, and you and I do have a problem of our own to face. The church is filled with wedding guests! What do we tell them?”

The high school teacher in Kit had taken over. ‘The truth, Mother. I’ll make the announcements to them now.”

She’d stood before a thousand guests in the hushed sanctuary and somehow with legs weak from relief that she’d thought would buckle and send her sprawling— designer gown and all—but with a clear, sure voice, her school-teacher voice, she’d told the crowd why Rodney hadn’t come.

Whiplash! Disoriented! She’d felt their skepticism, their pity for her. But she’d been too relieved to care.

Let them think he’d deliberately jilted her! She was free! Never again would she allow herself to be swept along by the dictates of others. She’d put too many people to trouble as a result.

She flinched, sagging against the iron railing. She gazed beneath without really seeing the turquoise pool, the glossy red tiles of the cabana roof, the acres of sloping greenery, and beyond that the concrete sea wall and the glistening bay. All she saw was the pool house where she’d dreamed she’d made wild, wanton love with a total stranger and then had realized he hadn’t been a stranger at all.

Suddenly she was shivering in spite of the blazing Texas sun.

Dreams meant nothing.

She moved restlessly inside her room and threw herself across the bed. The three-carat, emerald-cut diamond caught the sunlight and flashed its blue-white fire against the pale wall. She remembered the day Rodney had slipped the ring on her finger and how she’d wished it had been another man doing so. She should have known then, she wasn’t ready to marry anyone.

How could she ever leave this room and face everyone who had worked so hard preparing for this wedding--her parents, the Starrs, their friends. All their time, effort, and money had gone down the drain. Too late she saw that she’d been too eager to put her heartbreak behind her, for hadn’t marrying Rodney been an attempt to prove she was over Ted?

Ted, who’d beenher fantasy lover in her dream the other night.

Quit thinking about the dream.

She swallowed a lump that felt hard and painful as she       remembered how wild she’d been about him in college.

So wild, she’d almost lost her virginity to him. Funny, how she’d never once been tempted to forget her principles in Rodney’s arms.

How could the memory of Ted still have such a grip on her? Such a grip she’d even conjured him as her irresistible fantasy lover on the eve of her wedding?

Five years ago she’d been a vulnerable eighteen, a college freshman in Austin when she’d fallen wildly in love with Ted. Almost ten years her senior, he’d been in his last year of law school on the GI bill.

From the first night they’d met while studying in the library, they’d been inseparable. She’d loved him blindly until the last night she’d spent in his arms. Although she fought not to remember what had happened, the memory of that night was still vividly etched in her mind and heart.

Saxophone music had filled his small apartment with its husky sound, and when Ted had wrapped her closely in his arms, he’d seemed almost a part of herself. He’d drawn her down onto his studio couch. Soon, his kisses had filled her with such fierce longing her body had arched wantonly against his. But she’d been a virgin, so when his hands had gone to the zipper at the back of her dress, she’d arisen, whispering that she loved him but that she had to go.

He hadn’t acknowledged her words, but his kisses had grown more urgent as he’d pulled her back into his arms. Sex was a physical and spiritual commitment she believed then and believed now, a commitment she owed only to her husband.

Pushing him away, she’d run from his apartment, from him, because she’d lacked the strength to stay.

He had not tried to stop her the second time. But when she’d reached the safety of her dorm room, her cell phone that she’d left on her desk was ringing. When she saw his name light up, instead of answering it, she’d gone into her bathroom and had splashed cold water onto her face.

She wanted him so much, she hadn’t been able to trust herself to talk to him. Later that night when she’d recovered herself, she’d realized how foolishly immature her actions must have seemed to him. When she’d tried to call him to explain, he hadn’t been the one who’d answered.

Kit would never forget the velvet-soft purr of Letitia’s voice. “He’s in bed. Are you really sure you want me to disturb him?”

Kit had choked out some reply.

Letitia was the sensual beauty Ted had had a brief affair with before he’d met Kit. Secretly Kit had always been a little jealous of Letitia, partly because she was so beautiful and partly because Ted had continued to do little favors for her. It seemed he was always repairing a pipe at Letitia’s house or moving a couch for her.

Suddenly Kit had wondered if he’d granted those favors because he still wanted her. When she’d run, had he seen Kit as a silly, little girl, a virgin who couldn’t satisfy his needs?

Kit had felt crushed by her fear that he’d turned to Letitia after her own abrupt departure.

Maybe any woman could satisfy his needs. Maybe Kit had never been more than a conquest. These thoughts had made her decide to take a break from their relationship for a few days.

She had refused Ted’s calls and deleted his emails unread. When she’d finally decided she could face him again, she’d driven by his apartment only to find him outside talking to Letitia who was in her car. Kit had hit the gas and driven home.

Then one of Ted’s fraternity brothers confirmed that Ted had never stopped dating Letitia, so she’d turned to Rodney, a dear friend from her childhood, for consolation. Perhaps it was only natural that they’d drifted into a courtship. When they’d both graduated, their families and friends couldn’t understand why they weren’t anxious to marry.

After she’d heard that Ted had married Letitia and that they’d had had a child, Kit had begun to believe what her mother and all their friends told her—that Rodney loved her and would make a good husband. After all they came from the same kind of backgrounds and shared many interests. Not only that, he loved children and respected her desire to save sex until marriage. She’d almost convinced herself that they could achieve a happy family life together.

But his not showing up last night had made her realize she’d been fooling herself. They had had a comfortable friendship—that was all.

Ted, funny . . . even after five years it still hurt to think of him. Rodney had told her that Ted had returned to Corpus and had become successful. Then she’d moved back herself in the fall of the previous year, but their paths hadn’t crossed. Maybe that wasn’t so odd. He was married and had his own family now, and she’d spent many hours on the high school campus where she taught math or with Rodney. When she’d had free time, her wedding plans had consumed her.

But why was she suddenly thinking of him again? Dreaming of him even? He was married; he belonged to the past. She needed to get over him.

Her long, sooty lashes squeezed tightly shut. If only she could banish him out of her mind and heart as easily as she could close her eyes. But she couldn’t. Too well she remembered how he’d looked the last night she’d spent in his arms when she’d nearly given herself to him.

Copper highlights glinted in his dark auburn hair. His blue eyes had been warm with what she’d taken to be love and tender desire for her as he’d bent his face to hers, his mouth claiming hers in a slow, deliberate kiss.

Sighing heavily, she opened her slanting dark eyes again. Wistfully, she brushed her soft, lips with a fingertip. She could still remember how wonderful his mouth had felt. Then she bit her lip in the hope that the pain would make her stop thinking about her fantasy and him. Dreams didn’t matter, and neither did he.

Fortunately, her father yelled her name and began to bang on her bedroom door impatiently.

She smiled. He was so into his own needs that it never took him long to forget he was supposed to be quiet when Mother had a migraine.

“I married the noisiest man in Texas,” her mother was always saying.

Before Kit could get up to answer the door, he let himself in.

He was as distinguished looking as always, dressed in immaculate, stiffly creased white slacks and a navy T-shirt open at the throat.

Yachting attire. The race! She’d forgotten it entirely. But he hadn’t. She smiled as she remembered how often he’d complained that the wedding activities had been keeping him off his beloved boat.

He tucked his silver winged hair beneath a navy colored captain’s hat. His gray eyes were on her—assessing.

When he saw the pages of the newspaper on the thick pile of blue carpet—pages the wind had blown inside, he bent over and tossed them on a low table.

“How’re you feeling today?”

“Okay.”

For a long moment his eyes lingered with a certain pride on her picture. “Guess I shouldn’t have asked that.”

She was thankful there was no trace of sympathy in his voice. At least, she wouldn’t have to pretend with him.

“I’m doing all right. Really.”

His gray eyes sharpened. “Okay. I see that. You know, just between you and me, I never thought Rodney was the right man for you. Oh, I know his father’s an old friend of mine, and Rodney’s nice enough. But what would he be if you took away his ranch, thoroughbreds, those Santa Gertrudis cattle, oil wells, and that fancy car he drives?”

“Daddy, if you thought that, why didn’t you ever say it?”

“It’s not my place to make your decisions anymore, Kitten. You’re old enough to make your own mistakes. Hell, I’ve made enough of my own to know how easy they are to make. Honey, mistakes are the best teachers.”

She thought about her own students. He was so right. Her students learned by doing, by messing up and redoing.

“Oh, Daddy.” She arose and threw her arms around him. “I should have known you’d understand.”

“I guess Rodney’s sudden hospitalization means he won’t crew for me today in the regatta.” As if embarrassed by her show of affection, Howard Jackson spoke in a gruff, matter-of-fact voice as if the race were the really important thing.

“I suppose not.” She smiled ruefully. “Can you imagine anything more unromantic than a bridegroom agreeing to crew for his father-in-law on the first day of his marriage? I should have refused to marry him for that reason alone!”

“If you had, it would have saved us all a great deal of trouble,” he teased.

“Yes, I know,” she said softly, guiltily.

“There, there. I was only kidding. The important thing is that you’re out of it in time.”

“I. . . I caused a disaster. All the money ...”

“Disaster! Hardly! I know it all seems momentous right now, Kitten. And your mother did work herself up into quite a state last night, but life goes on. When you’re as old as I am, you’ll find out sometimes the crisis that seems to spell disaster is really a blessing in disguise.”

Fingering his watch, his mind on the race once more, he arose. “The start’s at ten. I came here to ask you to go with me. Your mother’s down with one of her headaches. Last night was too much for her. Kitten, why don’t you get dressed and come with me?”

“But I haven’t crewed since high school.”

“Time you got back into the sport. Besides, I really need you. That brash young skipper of Wild Lady is going to give me a run for my money on this one. If I don’t beat him today, he’ll be the first in the series.”

“Wild Lady.” The name pulsated in her brain. It had been the nickname Ted had called her five years ago.

Stubbornly she told herself to quit thinking about Ted.

Anxious to be gone, her father was at the door. “You coming?”

“No! I couldn’t possibly face all those people down there today.”

“Kitten, what is it you think you have to live down? So, they gave a few parties for you and had fun doing it. Real friends want what’s best for you. Besides, we can return all the gifts. And if a few people are critical of you—I wouldn’t care too much what they think because they will have proved they’re not genuine friends anyway.”

“I can’t help it. I feel too guilty to have caused everyone so much trouble when I should have known all along I wasn’t doing the right thing.”

He glanced at his watch impatiently. “Suit yourself!” He gave her one last look before he opened the door and slammed it.

“Mother’s headache,” she chided.

Not that he heard. He was already racing down the stairs. A minute or two later she heard the distant purr of his car in the drive.

No sooner was he gone than Kit regretted her decision to stay behind. At least the excitement of the race would have gotten her mind off everything for a while. Still, if she’d gone, she would have had to face everyone. And she wasn’t ready.

She walked over to the doors that opened onto her balcony to the grounds that overlooked the pool and bay. She would go for a swim . . . and have a sunbath. Surely a long languid sunbath would bake away all her miseries.

Quickly, she pulled on a tan bikini that exactly matched the color of her olive skin. She stepped into a floor-length, see-through lace cover-up. Because of her flesh-toned swim suit, it seemed as though she were nude beneath it.

Not that that mattered—nobody was going to see her.

She grabbed a beach towel from her bathroom and as she did, she glanced into the mirror at her face.

She was a little pale, and maybe her thickly fringed dark eyes were more deeply shadowed than usual. Other than that, she looked okay.

Still, she dabbed at her face with a wet washcloth. Then she brushed her raven-black hair until it shone like silk. As she did she heard the buzz of the doorbell downstairs.

Ignoring the buzz—insistent now—she ran the brush through her shoulder-length hair one last time and put on some lipstick.

Again she heard the buzz. She remembered her mother’s headache. It was Sunday, the maid Maria’s day off. Kit decided to answer the door on her way to the pool.

The buzz was a continual blare throughout the house as she descended the spiral stairs and crossed the gleaming stretch of saltillo tile to stop before the ornate black curve of wrought-iron gates that led to the foyer.

“For heaven’s sake!” Because of her mother, she felt unusually irritable when the caller buzzed again as she struggled with the gate. “Whoever’s out there must be leaning on the doorbell!”

At last she managed to open the gate, and her bare feet were sinking into the thick pile of the Oriental throw rug in front of the door. All was silence as she peered through the peep hole. No one was there.

She opened the door and looked out. Still no one. Nothing to greet her but the humid warmth of a blistering, new day, the first day of summer, at least, it was summer in her mind.

Cautiously she stepped out of the house, and in the distance where the drive curved, she saw a yellow van with bold black lettering on it spelling out, “Bradley’s Rental Center.”

Bradley! The name alone was enough to make her heart beat faster. Her mother’s caterer, who used Jones and Smith Rentals had mentioned the establishment had recently been sold, but because Kit was intent on telling off whomever had been ringing the bell, the change of name didn’t quite register.

The doors at the back of the van were open, and she saw beneath them thrust widely apart two darkly tanned, muscled legs. The man who belonged to those legs was rummaging furiously through the van.

She thought of her mother’s headache, and the violent pain noise could cause her. Briskly Kit walked in the direction of the van. She’d tell him a thing or two—about standing on a doorbell at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning.

The man was still hidden from her view by the door of his truck when she began imperiously, “Is there something I can do for you?”

From the depths of the van she heard a deep, masculine voice that sounded vaguely familiar. “I was stopping off on my way down to my boat to check on that tent y’all rented because my store manager called in sick. I want to check the tension on the poles and the tie downs to make sure it’s secure for the day. The weather forecast said the wind’s building.”

She cut him off. “Well, next time when you come to the house you should use the service entrance around back instead of the front door.”

As if in response to her words, something dropped with a resounding clatter inside the van, and the man swore under his breath.

She continued. “My mother’s ill this morning, so I didn’t appreciate the way you kept buzzing.”

A large brown hand gripping the door of the van came slowly into view. And then the man stepped back from the van and out of its shadow—into the brilliant sunlight.

“Hello, to you too, Miss Jackson. And sorry about the noise. But Kit, just so you know—I would never have accepted this order, if I’d owned Jones and Smith Rentals when you’re mother’s caterer placed the order. And as for my being here today—trust me, the last thing I wanted was to catch a glimpse of the—how did the paper put it . . . the stranded bride. But I was forced risk it in order to check on my tent.”

Her mind registered first the sarcasm and then the anger in his voice.

Kit’s fingers—trembling—were at her lips. Her face had probably paled to the color of cream lace at her throat. She took a faltering step backwards. It couldn’t be! It couldn’t be! But it was! It was Ted Bradley! Here! Today—of all days!

          Suddenly she regretted giving up her tiny apartment and moving home before the wedding and her marriage.

This has to be a dream—like the crazy nightmare fantasy I had had the other night.

She blinked once; twice. But he didn’t disappear.

He towered over her—all arrogant six feet, four inches of him. He was older, of course, and a little heavier than he’d been—more muscular, more powerful. There were lines at the corners of his lips and beneath his cobalt blue eyes and between his dark brows that hadn’t been there five years ago. His skin was bronzed, his auburn hair streaked gold from the sun. He was as handsome as always—even more handsome than she remembered.

Just looking at him—and she was aching all over.

It was the dream, making me want things, making me know things, a virgin shouldn’t know.

 Involuntarily she remembered a warm hand sliding up her thigh and the thrill of his molten lips licking her nipples until they peaked.

She shook her head and forced herself to focus on the man before her. He was dressed to sail, but unlike her father he wore cut-off jeans and a blue T-shirt with the name of his boat, Wild Lady, lettered across it in white.

Things her father had said were coming back to her. The rental outfit had been bought by a “brash young lawyer that wouldn’t give an inch.” Her father was tied for first place with the “brash young skipper of Wild Lady.”

She should have known! Why hadn’t she guessed?

Because she’d been wrapped up in denial and confusion about her feelings for Rodney.

Brash! In certain moods the word perfectly fitted the Ted Bradley she remembered. And she thought, “He’s in such a mood now.”

His mouth was curling in contempt as he stared down at her. She’d ordered him to the service entrance. Oh, why had she done that? He’d always had such a complex about money. Her father’s money had intimidated him right from the first. Lines between his eyes deepened as his brows drew together. His eyes were fastened on her face for one long shattering moment, and in that moment it seemed to Kit that time stopped.

Everything—Rodney, the horror of the wedding that hadn’t been, what other people thought—no longer mattered.

She watched Ted draw a deep breath as if he sought to curb whatever emotion was surging through him. He balled his hands into fists and jammed them into the pockets of his cut-offs.

Then his eyes slid from her face down her throat, over her slim body tantalizingly veiled by the lace the wind was swirling around her. Once more he lifted his gaze to hers, and for an instant she thought she saw hurt as well as need in his dark-blue eyes. Then he smiled—insolently.

“So . . . I’m not surprised I’m still not good enough to come to your front door,” he said softly. “You never wanted your family to know you dated me, did you?”

“Ted, I didn’t know, I didn’t mean ...”

“Oh, but you did. Your kind doesn’t have to know or mean. What you said is all part of the lifestyle you take for granted. Your kind walks through front doors while mine walks through . . . service entrances. Maybe I should thank you. You’ve given me the very thing I needed this morning: that extra ounce of determination to beat your dad, to show him this race is one thing his money can’t buy.”

For an instant she felt hurt. Then she was bristling. As usual he’d taken the upper hand, and what had she done really? Nothing but utter an off-hand remark about the back entrance, the service entrance. How could she have known he was in the truck? She bit her lips.

“I see you still haven’t lost your poor-boy chip on the shoulder.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew they were a mistake. He was advancing upon her and seizing her by the wrist, and as always just the touch of him was excitement. She shivered violently as if it  were suddenly cold.

And she’d told herself these past five years she hated him!

She tried to twist out of his grasp, but he was too strong. Easily he pulled her to him as if her strength were nothing. Then he gave her a long, searching look.

“When you walked out on me for Rodney, you taught me once and for all the finer distinctions of class. Rich girls don’t marry poor boys no matter how attracted they are to them. They might enjoy a fling and a little ardent lovemaking with them, but they don’t make it a permanent arrangement.”

His words stung as he’d intended them to. Half-formed thoughts were whirling in her head. A fling . . . a little ardent lovemaking with them ... as if there’d been many men in her life. When there had only been one man and one night. . . one night when she’d nearly gone too far with him. A night when she’d foolishly thought that he’d cared something for her.

She hadn’t run because he was poor but because she’d been old fashioned and had believed such feelings led to marriage. He’d known how she’d felt, but he’d pushed for more that night. He’d been everything to her while she’d probably been just another girl. Hadn’t he hopped into Letitia’s bed the minute she’d fled?

Left him for Rodney? As if she’d wanted to leave him! Rodney had simply been kind enough to help her pick of the pieces of her shattered heart.

The hurt went deep, and angry words rushed to her lips to cover it. But before she could speak, Ted lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her ruthlessly. She struggled wildly, but to no purpose. He released her wrist, and his arms circled her waist. He pressed the softness of her body so that it tightly fitted his—his that was lean and hard and powerful.

Suddenly her anger was draining away, and the old, familiar weakening possessed her. She felt again that old sense of passionate joyful belonging only to him. A strange warmth, an exquisite bliss was filling her.

Then she forgot the old hurt. There was only this moment . . . now. . .

Something deep within her—some inner core of happiness that she hadn’t even remembered was there—was reawakening for the first time in five years. As always the feel of him was delight and vulnerability and turbulent emotion.

She was the girl in the dream; wanting, giving, surrendering.

Ted was back in her life, and when he held her it was as if he’d never gone. It was as if there’d never been the gulf of empty years.

Her fingers were in his hair, parting the thick auburn waves. He had always known exactly how to kiss her and where to kiss her that would most arouse her. His lips traveled a leisurely, searing path from her mouth down her cheek to her earlobe. It seemed to her that her blood became hot waves of liquid fire coursing through her arteries. She felt weak—as if she couldn’t stand without his support, and she clung to him. On a groan, he pressed her even more tightly to him.

She was returning his kisses hungrily. It had been so long. So ... so long since she’d felt like this. Five years. . . . His touch was madness, sweet madness. If only . . . only he would hold her forever.

She felt him stiffen before he pushed her roughly away.

“So?” His mouth curved derisively. “You didn’t forget me!”

“Did too!”

“Right.”

She swore viciously under her breath and wiped at her mouth with the back of her clenched hand, as if to rid herself of his kiss.

He laughed. Then he took a deep, long breath, “And if I’ve still got my poor-boy complex, you haven’t changed much either. You’re still the hot little tease I called Wild Lady.”

“How dare you!”

His eyes were traveling lazily from her face downward, and she grew warm all over. “Yes, I dare! What do you expect? You come out here wearing that lacey thing with nothing under it.”

“For your information,” she said, “I was on my way to the pool, our private pool, when you started ringing the doorbell. I’m wearing a bathing suit under this!”

“Well, you damn sure can’t tell it from here,” he said thickly. His eyes were on her face again, on her lips. He turned abruptly from her and strode back to the van and rummaged through it once more.

She knew that she should go, but for some reason she couldn’t. Ted Bradley was back in her life—if only for this instant, and in spite of or perhaps because of their long separation, her feelings were more powerful for him than they had ever been.

He emerged from the back of the van once more, a tool kit in his left hand. Her eyes riveted to the gold wedding band that gleamed from the ring finger of that hand.

Kit frowned. She’d been so startled it was him that she’d forgotten he was still married to Letitia and had a child.

He’d kissed her behind his wife’s back as if it were nothing to him. He was even worse than she’d imagined. Why did that surprise her? And yet hurt somehow?

“You’re still here?” His quizzical dark brows slanted upward.

“I thought I’d walk with you on my way to the pool . . . through the house,” she said.

“To make sure I don’t steal something? Or am I coming up in the world,” was his sarcastic retort.

“Ted. . . .” She placed her hand on his arm. Her eyes pleaded. “I-I’m sorry for what I said earlier about the service entrance.”

“All right,” he said curtly, pulling his arm away. “Forget it.”

She could not stop herself from thinking that he had been back in her life all of ten minutes and their relationship was exactly as it had been. He had done everything that had caused the harsh feelings between them and had betrayed his wife with that kiss in the bargain, and yet she was apologizing to him.

He was staring deeply into her eyes as if to read her mind and her heart. He looked puzzled suddenly, perplexed. She looked away.

The tool box was clatter on concrete as he set it down and folded her once more into his arms.

“Kit, Kit . . . what is happening to us? It’s almost as if you never left.” His lips were in her hair. “I saw in the paper that you teach high school?”

“I like kids.”

“I thought you were going to be an accountant.”

“Some day. I wanted to try to inspire a few kids first.”

“I’m impressed.”

Even as she felt her body responding to the warmth of his touch and eyes, she reminded herself that he had a wife and a child.

“Aren’t you forgetting . . . your wife?”

Slowly he pushed her from him. “My wife is dead,” he said flatly. “Two years ago she was killed in a car accident. And now I’ll find my own way to the pool . . . through the service entrance ... if you don’t mind.” There was no sarcasm in his voice, only pain.

It was obvious he was not over his wife’s death. In the face of his grief, she could think of nothing to say. Maybe he wasn’t quite as big a jerk as she’d thought.

He swung around on his heels and left her staring open-mouthed after him as he disappeared around the curve in the drive.