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Heather Graham (b. 1953) is a bestselling author of more than 150 romance, suspense, and historical novels that have sold seventy-five million copies worldwide. Raised in Florida, Graham went to college for theater arts, and spent several years acting, singing, and bartending before she devoted herself to writing. In 2003 the Romance Writers of America, whose Florida chapter Graham founded, granted her a lifetime achievement award. She lives, writes, and scuba dives in Florida with her husband and five children.
It was the only word to adequately describe the sleek beauty of the tall brunette. Although a multitude of attractive young women frolicked around the poolside, displaying varying amounts of curvaceous flesh, she alone had the power to rivet the eye. She wasn't as voluptuous as some, nor was the teal-blue bikini she wore as bare as many others.
What attracted the eye went further than the perfectly proportioned build and smooth, golden-tanned skin. It was in the grace of her slightest movement, in the fluidity of her composed walk, in the very poise and serenity with which she surveyed the scene she had come upon.
She was as stunning and lithe as a panther, mused one of the men who watched her, and the thought struck him that, like the discreetly moving panther, she was seeking prey with slow, confident deliberation.
He almost laughed aloud at his own thought. With the flick of a finger, this one could draw the male of the species to her without ever needing to seek anything. He could easily imagine half the men around him swarming to her feet on their knees, as if she were a queen bee.
He sat back comfortably in the lounge chair, unaware that he was her male counterpart, and that the majority of the females taking the three-day cruise—from the giggling teenagers to the graying, plump matrons—had already created romantic fantasies in their minds with him in the starring role.
Drake O'Hara was the perfect picture of man at his very best. Black Irish, they would have called him in the land of his forebears, and like the Spaniards of the lost Armada who had been wrecked upon the Emerald Isle, he was dark, his hair a shade deeper than india ink, his eyes a deep, arresting brown. His complexion tanned easily to a golden copper, and when he smiled—an act that could be charming or chilling, depending on his motive—his straight white teeth were almost startling against the backdrop of his skin and the neat black mustache that framed lips that could either be full and sensuous or grim and tight. He had inherited his coloring from the Spaniards, his fiery temper from the Irish. Fortunately, he was also capable of learned control and diplomacy, traits he liked to think he inherited from his American mother.
Drake was giving no thoughts to his own ancestry at the moment. Beneath the shadow of misty glasses, his dark eyes were fixed contemplatively on the brunette. Her poise, he decided, was helped along by her bone structure. Her face was an exquisite oval, the cheekbones high, the hollows classic, the eyes—set beneath slender arched brows—large, thick-lashed, and almost shockingly blue. Her classic nose fit her classic face—small and aquiline. Only her lips offset the marble coolness of her untouchable beauty; they were too full for severity, too sensuously shaped for innocence.
Yet the chin beneath them was determined, and on second speculation, those magnificent blue eyes were hard crystal gems. Hmmm ... hard, but something else. If she didn't seem such a bastion of icy reserve, Drake mused, he would think of that something else as—tragic.
It was with a bit of surprise that Drake realized she was returning his assessing surveillance. Well aware that she knew he watched her, he made no attempt to avert his eyes. Nor did she. He knew too that she studied him with the same thoroughness to which he had subjected her.
What he didn't know was that she watched him with a wrenching pain. Long ago, in a different lifetime, she had loved a man as magnificent as he. A man of indomitable strength, of pride and arrogance that were uniquely gifts of birth. Broad in the shoulders and chest, ruggedly trim in the hips and legs; tightly sinewed, muscle-coiled rather than muscle-bound ...
Long, long, ago, so agonizingly long ago, such a man had been hers by right. Now nothing could be right again.
But she knew the message in his eyes, and although the inadvertent action was imperceptible, she swallowed convulsively. Far from seeking prey as he had whimsically envisioned, she was staunchly set on not becoming prey. She didn't want to form any associations, not even the most innocently casual ones. She didn't even want to be on this three-day cruise. For the briefest second she blinked, and caught the mist of tears that threatened to obscure her vision.
If only ...
God, she wondered fleetingly, why had she seen him? Her resolve had been fixed, her soul could bear no more scars.
But she had seen him, and he was touching her, with his eyes only, as no other man had or could, no, not even Jamie, all those years before....
He lifted a hand to remove his sunglasses. Dimly she noted that hand, shivering within. It was long and broad, and flecked with a smattering of crisp black curls. His fingers were long, the nails short and clipped neatly. She could almost feel the rugged touch of his hands, and a moment of dizziness and fear overwhelmed her. Fear of him, fear of herself. She so desperately longed to just talk to him that she was beginning to rationalize, her mind and senses in a devastating tug of war. She couldn't, she couldn't.... But, dear God, why not? She would never see him again ... this was a ship, and it would dock, and the passengers would go their separate ways. She closed her eyes tightly for the flicker of an instant, waging a fierce battle with the conscience that ruled her. Talk, perhaps share a drink. Was it so very wrong of her, just this once, to envision the simple pleasure of a man's conversation ... his masculine touch?
She couldn't help herself thinking. Her poise, her manner, her appearance ... all these she could control. But dreams swept heedlessly into her mind, there was no blocking them. They could tear down the defenses of the strongest willpower.
His black eyes were piercingly upon her as he rose from the lounge chair. She was tall, but she could see immediately that he would tower above her. His legs—adorned with the same masculine curls as his hands and chest—were very long. Added to the impressive length of his tapered torso, they made him very tall indeed, imposingly tall....
He watched her as he walked, his strides long, assured—natural. The easy walk of a confident man. It was not her he approached, but the crystal water that separated them.
He would never need to impose himself; his invitation was out. Acceptance was up to her.
He plunged into the ship's small saltwater pool in a manner she should have anticipated—a perfect, clear-cut dive.
This was it. The messages they had been sending through eye contact were now being tested. He had taken the first move—a relief to her. But now she had to take the second.
Now or never.
Not a muscle in her face twitched. Intense immersion into the drama of life had given her the composure that went far beyond her years.
But inside, it seemed as if her very blood froze. Yearning tinged by guilt waged a war with fear.
And the guilt was ridiculous. She was trying to fulfill a dying man's plea.
But still it was there, because of the yearning. Because she wanted to feel again ... because she wanted so desperately to know happiness, if only for stolen moments, if only superficially.
The seconds were ticking by....
Drake emerged at the shallow end of the small pool just in time to see her exquisitely sculpted, alabaster-sleek body cut into the water as cleanly as his had. And again he was reminded of the sultry beauty of a feline. But, he wondered, in a quick flight of Gaelic fancy, what was the nature of this cat he counter-stalked. Was she a tigress with claws, or a domesticated, purring Persian?
It didn't really matter. She had completely intrigued him. He had always been fond of and had a way with the fairer sex; he knew their games and played them confidently by the rules. A certain gallantry stayed with him from a bygone age—he only played with those who also knew the rules.
What was her game, he wondered idly. Did she want to be wined and dined and danced? Flattered and cajoled?
There was of course the possibility that she knew who he was and that money or prestige had been the draw. He was self-confident, assured, and, admittedly, arrogant at times, but he had never deluded himself that he had always been sought for his charm alone. Many a fair damsel who had come his way had actually worn the tarnished glitter of gold in her eye ... and a hope that a band of the same color upon her finger would be the reward.
Drake wasn't really a cynic—he was realistic. Nor did motives bother him, as long as they were honest. He was never anything but honest himself, and it would surprise him very much to know that those who filtered through his sometimes aloof existence respected that honesty and also found that it brought a boundless compassion. He liked life; he lived it vigorously and straightforwardly. When aroused, he was a formidable enemy. When dealt with on a level of his own integrity, he was capable of great chivalry, kindness, and generosity.
Her head bobbed up in the water near his, and he smiled with a lazy charisma. With that lustrous mane of shoulder-length chestnut hair wet and slicked back from her face, one thing was obvious: she had no interest in his finances. Her ears were studded with small but flawless emeralds, and as she rose in the waist-high water, he saw that a slender link gold chain held a matching emerald oval in the deep shadowed cleavage of her breasts.
Why she was seeking him, he couldn't imagine. But it would have taken a far more monastic man than he to question such good fortune.
Their eyes met, and for a moment he again sensed that hint of tragedy. But her stare was direct. She wasn't playing cat and mouse,
"Hello," he said, his appreciation unabashed as he watched her at this closer angle. She was perfection. Her skin was lightly golden, as smooth as silk, from the enticing angles of her collarbone to the line of slightly visible ribs to the curve of her hips and tight, concave structure of her waist, navel, and upper abdomen. Someone, he thought idly, some great artist, should paint her image in oil one day, or preserve it forever in the marble she resembled.
"Hello," she returned, and the voice fit the woman. It was low, husky, and melodious, carrying just a hint of well-bred southern culture. Her single word was not aggressive, nor was it coy. That direct stare of hers had not once wavered, and yet he could sense a certain nervousness; he could see it now in the fine pulsation of a light blue vein in the swanlike structure of her neck.
Without his really realizing it, or exactly knowing why, Drake's smile became very gentle, his emotions turned to protection. "My name is Drake O'Hara," he told her, offering her a hand while longing to bring it around her shoulders and cradle her to him with a combination of overwhelming lust and tender care. Strange, that she could affect him so intensely.
She took his hand in her graceful, slender one. "I'm Ronnie."
She didn't offer a last name, and he didn't demand one. His grin broadened. "I think I say I'd like to buy you a drink now."
"I'd like that," she said. A bewitching impishness suddenly replaced that tragic look in her beautiful eyes. "Then I can say I'd like to buy you one."
"I'd like that," he told her huskily, shaken by the violence of the savage desire that ripped through him. He'd barely touched the woman. "I'll hop out and buy my round poolside," he added.
Ronnie couldn't quite manage to look into his face, but she wanted her position clear from the beginning. They could share drinks; he could purchase a round, she could purchase a round. No debts, no commitment. "That's fine," she said softly. "I'll also buy mine poolside."
His well-modulated voice had fallen a notch, and a chilling quiver of apprehension rippled through Ronnie, seeming to come from the coolness of the water. His two-word question had been a curious musing. He wanted to get to know her.
She couldn't get to know him; it was bad enough that she was coveting this experience so far ... losing herself in the sight of him, in the sound of his voice....
"I think I'd like you to buy me a drink before dinner." He raised a hand in amused proclamation of honor as she started to speak. "Just dinner," he said sincerely. "Will you?"
Dinner. Just dinner. "Yes," she said, her voice still soft but firm, with no guile. Her blue eyes raised from the water to meet his, yet they seemed an extension of the water they had left. They were like dazzling prisms, as myriad and brilliant as a star-studded night. It was hard to tell if they were as icy as a blizzard, or as warm and torrid as the blazing sun that crested high over the Atlantic.
Drake's eyes flicked only briefly. He had known from the moment he saw her that she was a cool woman of determined purpose. Still, the cloak she wore was an enigma, as mysterious as her stately beauty.
"What shall I bring you to drink?" he asked, his voice carrying that husky timbre he couldn't quite control.
It wasn't the type of question to cause confusion in such an independent lady, but it did. She frowned. "Oh, ah, I don't know...."
"Piña coladas," he decided quickly, again surprised by the surge of protection that assailed him.
She visibly relaxed making him realize, just how overwrought she had been.
"A piña colada sounds lovely," she told him.
Drake wasn't fond of the rum and coconut drink himself, but to keep her company, he ordered two. It was, after all, a cruise.
The four-hundred-passenger cruise ship left Charleston Harbor Friday afternoon and would return to its berth early the following Monday morning. Three days of relaxation, with the majority of passengers being businessmen or professionals with little time to spare from hectic schedules. Drake had taken the time himself simply to unwind. He had imagined nothing more than a few hours of sun, fine food when the mood took him, and three peaceful nights rest upon the lull of the Atlantic. He hadn't come for companionship, but rather to avoid it.
And now this. But he was already thoroughly enchanted; he could have refused her no more than he could have asked the sun not to shine. They had spoken so little, but he was dimly aware that her soft, husky, southern-cultured voice would later seep into his dreams.
"A piña colada," he said, sitting poolside, his long, tanned legs dangling in the water. She smiled lightly at his return and hopped lithely from the water to join him. Her arm brushed his as she sat alongside him, their naked thighs touching. The contact was jolting, almost shattering, as if a jagged bolt of lightning had struck from a clear sky to sear through them both.
Ronnie inhaled a sharp breath, meeting Drake's dark gaze, perpetuating no pretense at the intensity of the purely physical pleasure she was experiencing. That which had been hidden away so long it had almost been forgotten, rose to the surface with a crippling poignancy. Just to be beside this man was excitement enough to send waves of heat washing through her—a heat that felt so damn good. She was, after all, a mature woman, so long denied. And even though the reason for her denial was a part of her heart, she couldn't fight this intrinsic beauty that had been granted her.
"Thank you," she said, taking the drink he offered her, once more aware of the beauty of the power of masculine hands. "To the cruise," she offered, tipping her glass to his.
"To the cruise," he repeated solemnly, his black eyes smoldering into pits of raven coal. A saint would be shaking on a pedestal with her so near. "And to you, Ronnie."
"Thank you," she murmured again, and he thought he perceived a soft blush. "Drake ..." she said, in afterthought, seeming to twirl his name on her tongue as if she savored it. Averting her eyes for a moment, she took a sip of her drink. "Where are you from, Drake?" she queried.
He could have sworn she was somewhat anxious, which was peculiar, because conversation didn't really seem to interest her.
"The Midwest," he replied, sure that his answer pleased her. "Chicago. How about you?"
She smiled again, and this time the curl of her lips lit a true warmth into her eyes. "That's obvious, isn't it?" Her chuckle was as low and melodious as her voice.
"Yes, it is," he answered, his grin deepening to disclose a cleft in his chin she'd yet to discover. "But from where in the South?"
Excerpted from A Season for Love by Heather Graham. Copyright © 1983 Heather Pozzessere. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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