The room nearly overflowed with hope, joy, and love, and Roxanne Bloom knew if she didn’t get out of there within the next thirty seconds, the top of her head would blow off.
“Having a swell time?” Bea asked, squeezing her formidable figure between Roxanne and the throng of baby shower revelers.
Busted, Roxie thought to herself with a sigh.
True, her friend Bea Latimer didn’t miss much, but Roxanne was sure she’d been doing a stellar job of faking it, hanging back in the corner of the big living room, smiling and nodding at all the right times. In fact, she’d just cooed with approval moments before, right when everyone else did, and with the appropriate level of enthusiasm. So how did Bea notice that Roxie was about as comfortable as a nun at a Chippendales show?
A new wave of oohs and aahs came and went. Roxie peeked around Bea to see her friends Josie and Ginger sniffing back tears, rubbing their equally ginormous bellies, and shaking their heads over the beauty of their matching baby jogger strollers with racing-stripe awnings and radial tires.
Roxanne checked the time on her cell phone, wondering if it would be rude to leave early. She could always say she wasn’t feeling well, which wouldn’t be a complete lie, because all the cooing, nodding, smiling, and teary-eyed sniffing had given her one mother of a headache.
Bea frowned. “What’s up, Rox? Your face is as white as my ass in January.”
Roxanne shuddered, fighting off the mental image. “I’m good,” she said.
“The hell you are.” Bea took a quick swig from her low-carb beer. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you take five to pull yourself together? Go outside and run around the tennis courts or something. Maybe shoot a few hoops. What’s the point of partying at a wine country estate if you don’t take advantage of all the amenities. Am I right?” Bea leaned closer and lowered her voice. “Whatever you do, make sure it’s an attitude adjuster. You look like you’re at a wake instead of a baby shower and I know you don’t want Ginger and Josie to see you’re not happy for them.”
“But I’m thrilled for them!” Roxanne whispered, horrified that her friends might ever think such a thing.
Bea’s expression softened. She smiled a little. “I know you’re happy for them.”
“I love them. I’m glad their lives are so wonderful.”
“I know.” Bea patted Roxanne’s arm.
“I mean,” Roxanne continued, “just because I don’t believe in true love or marriage or happiness doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a fuckin’ baby shower for those who do!”
One of Bea’s eyebrows shot up high on her forehead, but before she could respond, the front door of the old mansion opened. Everyone stopped their oohing and aahing long enough to see who the late arrival might be.
Roxanne already knew. She knew even before she got a peek at the wide brim of a black felt cowboy hat and before that hat came off and the tussle of dark blond hair was revealed. It was almost as if she sensed him before she could see him. So, before Eli Gallagher could stick his handsome head all the way into the room and unleash one of his modest yet stunning smiles, Roxanne was out of there and halfway through the kitchen, the back door her salvation.
Unfortunately, Bea was right behind her.
“I didn’t know Rick invited him,” Bea said, jogging to catch up.
“He works for Rick, so why not?” Roxanne reached the kitchen door latch. “Anyway, Rick can invite anyone he wants. This is Rick’s home. It’s Rick’s party! For God’s sake—it’s Rick’s baby!” Roxanne caught herself. “Well, only one of them is his baby. The other one’s Lucio’s. But you know what I mean.”
Roxanne cringed at the sound of her own distracted rambling, hoping Bea wouldn’t notice.
She noticed. “Well, well,” Bea said with a snort. “I had no idea Eli Gallagher had gotten under your skin that bad.”
Roxanne spun around. She pointed a finger at Bea. “That man is not under my skin. Never again is a man going to get under my skin, or anything else I’m wearing. I am not that kind of girl anymore. Got it?” She flung open the kitchen door and prepared to stomp off indignantly. She didn’t get far.
A short old lady blocked Roxanne’s exit down the steps. The lady’s eyes were squinted and her hands were on her hips. Her sturdy legs were widespread. Her orthopedic shoes were planted firmly on the worn bricks.
Roxie gasped. “Mrs. Needleman?”
“That would be me,” she said in her usual cheerful warble, her eyes now twinkling with amusement.
Roxanne shot an accusatory look Bea’s way.
“I didn’t know she was out here! I swear!” Bea raised her hands in surrender. “Seriously, Rox. The last time I looked she was sitting in the recliner with a cup of tea. I have no idea how she got out here so fast.”
“You aren’t leaving, are you, dear?” Mrs. Needleman smiled so wide that Roxanne feared the lady’s dentures would lose their berth. Then Mrs. Needleman clapped her hands together and laughed. “It’s such a fun party! There is miraculous power in preparing for a new life, you know. And one can’t help but be touched by the pure joy of it.” She gripped Roxie’s wrist. “And to think—today we are lucky enough to share in the preparation for two new lives. That’s twice the joy! Twice the miraculous power!”
Roxanne pasted a pleasant smile on her face, trying not to show she was now twice as likely to lose her lunch. This Gloria Needleman chick—this goofy, correspondence-course minister and self-proclaimed cosmic matchmaker (whom Josie and Ginger swore had helped them find their true loves)—was the last person on earth she wanted to chat with.
Strike that. Gloria was second-to-last. Eli Gallagher was taking up the rear.
“I was just stepping out for some air,” Roxanne said, gently pushing Mrs. Needleman aside. The old lady wouldn’t budge. “Excuse me, please,” Roxie said, finally dislodging her enough so that she could get down the two steps to the patio. She started to jog off toward the barn.
She turned back, nearly laughing at the sight—Mrs. Needleman looked like a garden gnome compared to Bea, who towered behind her in the kitchen doorway.
“Stop right there,” Roxie said, hoping the old broad would have mercy on her. Really, how blunt did she have to be? After Ginger’s wedding three months ago, right here on this very patio in fact, Roxie had informed Gloria Needleman that under no circumstances was she interested in finding a man, or, as the wrinkled old bat had put it, her beloved. And nothing in the last three months had changed her mind.
“Please, Mrs. Needleman,” she told her now. “Don’t start with the love crap again.”
“I’m afraid it’s already started, my dear,” Mrs. Needleman whispered sweetly, shrugging. “It’s out of anyone’s hands now.”
Roxie nodded curtly. “Great. Gotta run. See ya.”
“How’s your angry little doggie doing? What’s her name again?”
Roxie went still. She let go with a deep sigh of surrender, aware that she’d been suckered in. “My dog’s name is Lilith.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Mrs. Needleman said, nodding. “The mythological demon of the night, the ancient embodiment of man’s fear of everything female.”
Roxie suddenly perked up, impressed by Mrs. Needleman’s grasp of the subject matter. She smiled at her with renewed respect. “Right on, sister.”
“A man-hating succubus.”
Roxanne blinked, becoming suspicious. Was this lady mocking her? “So what’s your point?”
“Oh, I was simply thinking how your dog’s name reflects the whole tenor of your life, Roxanne. Even the little ‘Men Make Me Sick’ gift shop you operate.”
“It’s www.i-vomit-on-all-men.com,” Roxanne corrected her. “It’s hyphenated.”
Mrs. Needleman shrugged, as if the details didn’t matter.
“It’s an online social network,” Roxie pressed on. “I’ve created a community where women all over the world can go to tell their horror stories and find encouragement and support. And yes, I do happen to offer T-shirts and coffee mugs and a few other novelty products, but that doesn’t make it a damn gift shop.”
Mrs. Needleman dismissed the detail with a wave of her wrinkly hand. “Regardless, I’m assuming you’ve not dealt with Lilith’s aggression issues.”
“Why would you assume that? She’s not here today. You don’t even know my dog.” Roxie let go with an offended laugh. “Besides, she’s doing much better, for your information.”
Mrs. Needleman smiled sadly. “Dear girl, there’s no need to bronze the turd with me.”
Roxie looked to Bea with wide eyes, hoping for some clarification. Bea was happy to provide it, even though she nearly doubled over with the giggles in the process. “She means …”—snort—“she means you don’t have to put lipstick on a pig for her, you know, soften the truth.”
Roxanne wasn’t amused. “And the truth would be what, Gloria?”
“The truth is this—if you’d found a way to help your little doggie, you wouldn’t be the angry and uncomfortable young woman I see today, still trying to run away from life.”
Whoa. Roxie felt as if she’d just been punched in the gut. Her legs became wobbly and hot. She flailed her hands around behind her, seeking out one of the sturdy old portico pillars to hold her up.
Bea gently placed her hands on Mrs. Needleman’s shoulders. “How about we go back inside now, Gloria?” she suggested. “I bet we’re missing out on a whole shitload of joy in there.”
Mrs. Needleman laughed, brushing Bea’s hands off her shoulders. “Patience, Beatrice,” she said. “You might learn a thing or two.”
Roxanne leaned fully against the pillar, steeling herself as she watched the Grandma from Hell advance toward her, one rickety step at a time.
“I know you think I’m a crazy old lady.”
Roxanne straightened. This would be where a polite person might say, “Of course not!”
“You’re a fruitcake, Gloria,” was her response.
The old lady giggled, her thin shoulders bouncing up and down in delight.
“Find someone else to harass,” Roxie added.
Mrs. Needleman let go with a long sigh. “I’m getting quite old, you know. I’m eighty-five. Not feeling like myself lately. No time to waste.” Her eyes were suddenly shadowed with sadness.
“Hey, hey! Don’t talk like that!” Bea scurried up behind her and cradled her elbow.
Mrs. Needleman continued addressing Roxanne. “I know you are a thoroughly modern young woman. I can see you have no patience for fools.”
“And I understand that you’re protecting your heart.”
Roxanne laughed, crossing her arms tightly under her breasts. “Damn right I am. If I don’t, who will?”
“I just have one favor to ask of you.”
Roxanne groaned and looked to Bea, whose eyes were large and pleading. Just do it, for God’s sake, Bea mouthed silently from behind Gloria.
“Fine. What—ever,” Roxanne said. “If I agree to your favor, will you leave me alone? I’m not in the mood for one of your love interventions.”
Mrs. Needleman laughed. “Thank you, dear,” she said. “Once you do this one little favor for me, I’ll never bother you again. I won’t need to.”
“Deal,” Roxanne said, hoping she could trust this lady’s word. “What do you want?”
“I want you to leave the door to your heart open just a crack, my dear girl—just an itty-bitty, tiny crack. That’s all I ask.”
Roxanne’s jaw dropped. She had officially reached her limit of civility. “What the hell are you talking about? My door’s already flung wide open!” She was pissed now. This lady hardly knew the first thing about her, her life, her history. “It just so happens that I love my friends and my dog and my job and I get along passably well with my neighbors, even the obsessive-compulsive ones. My mother and I are still on speaking terms, for God’s sake, which is more than I can say for a lot of twenty-nine-year-old women! You make me sound like some kind of cold bitch or something, which couldn’t be further from the truth!”
Mrs. Needleman shook her head sadly. “I never meant to imply that.”
“A man will be at your door very soon now, Roxanne.” Mrs. Needleman’s eyes became intensely focused as she spoke. “And this man will be different. He’ll be strong enough to knock down the wall you’ve built around your heart, and brave enough to love everything he finds behind it.”
Bea rolled her eyes at Roxanne as if to apologize. Then she pulled gently on Mrs. Needleman’s arm. “Come on now, Gloria. You want to see when they open your gifts, don’t you?”
As Roxanne watched Bea help Mrs. Needleman toward the kitchen door, her head got fuzzy. That lady was a whack job, plain and simple. It was like she was on some kind of mission to test the limits of Roxie’s sanity. In fact, Gloria Needleman could qualify as a stalker, a senior citizen stalker! And her prophecy about some man breaking down the door to Roxie’s heart? That door she’d agreed to leave open a crack?
Roxie began a casual jog toward the barn, thinking that any man foolish enough to show up on her doorstep would get a foot up the crack of his ass.
In just seconds, Roxanne found herself at the barn, her lungs burning and her breath coming hard. Apparently, her casual jog had become a full-out sprint and she hadn’t even noticed.
* * *
“Sorry I’m late,” Eli said. He took off his Stetson and held it to his heart as he approached the two guests of honor. The mothers-to-be were perched like fertility-goddess bookends on the oversized leather sofa.
“Come in, Eli!” said Rick’s wife, Josie, her round face lit up with excitement and happiness. “We’re glad you could make it.”
Immediately, the dogs were sniffing his legs. Through his peripheral vision he saw four of them. Three he knew were Rick and Josie’s dogs—Tara, the little terrier mix, Chen, their big hulking mutt, and Genghis, the knuckle-headed Labradoodle. With a quick glance he saw that the fourth was their friend Bea’s Finnish spitz, Martina. Now that was a secure dog. Once the pack was sufficiently calm, Eli knelt down to give them a proper friendly greeting.
Suddenly, a fifth dog appeared, having serpentined her way through the obstacle course of folding chairs and two-legged roadblocks. It was Ginger and Lucio’s little bichon frise. Today she was wearing a flirty pink bow on top of her head. Eli had to laugh. He made sure she got her share of ear rubs, head pats, and belly scratches.
“There he is, the Pied Piper of the puppies!” Lucio Montevez said in his thick Spanish accent. “Come in! Come in!” Ginger’s husband waved broadly, holding up his wineglass.
Eli rose from his crouch and moved farther into the room, certain the dogs would allow him to pass. He made his way to Ginger and Josie, kissing each on the cheek as he set down one gift bag per pile of loot.
“Where might I find Rick?” Eli inquired.
“He and Teeny are carrying some of the presents out to Ginger and Lucio’s car,” Josie said, smiling sheepishly. “It was getting a little crowded in here.”
Eli chuckled, looking around the packed room. He saw many familiar faces from the corporate headquarters of Celestial Pet, where he worked as a canine behavioral consultant, but the rest were strangers to him. He smiled politely to everyone as he took a seat. Lucio handed him a beer.
“Gracias,” he told him.
Not surprisingly, Roxanne Bloom was nowhere to be seen. Eli figured she must have run out the back door.
He’d taken a single sip from his beer when he felt a heavy weight on his right foot. He didn’t bother to look down, and immediately made a sharp shh sound. The weight moved off his foot and settled on the floor next to him. Only then did he reach down and pet the outrageous spiral curls that could only belong to Genghis, his very first San Francisco client.
Eli smiled down at the dog. “How’s it hangin’, my man?” he asked, rubbing the Labradoodle behind his ears.
Eli heard the kitchen door slam and turned his head, everything inside him jumping to attention at the thought that she might be returning. Instead he saw Bea Latimer and the increasingly frail little old lady who’d married Josie and Rick, and later, he’d heard, officiated at the marriage of Lucio and Ginger. He watched Bea help Mrs. Needleman to a comfortable recliner and make her way to an empty folding chair next to him. Martina trotted at her side.
“Hey, Eli,” Bea said, plopping down. Her voice was friendly enough but a little reserved. “How’ve you been?”
“Very well, thank you,” he said. “You?”
“Good. Excellent, really. Since the paper went belly-up I’ve been working on my canine agility trainer certification. I have my exam in six weeks.”
Eli smiled at the tall, older woman. “That’s great, Bea. Congratulations. You have a gift, you know.”
Bea glanced down at Martina lying at her feet, then gave him a self-conscious smile. “Thanks.”
“Martina is a happy and stable dog,” he added.
Bea’s smile widened. “I really appreciate that,” she said, pausing to look at him thoughtfully. “It means a lot coming from you.”
Their conversation ended as a wave of delighted gasps and sighs spread through the room. Eli saw that Ginger and Josie had just unwrapped identical wood-inlay boxes, marveling at their beauty as they ran their fingers over the intricate carving. A handsome white-haired man kissed each of them, then wiped tears from his eyes as he returned to a love seat.
“That’s Lucio’s father. He lives in southern Spain,” Bea told him, leaning in close. “The lady next to him—the one with the boobs-not-found-in-nature? See her?”
“That’s Ginger’s mother.”
“Ah. Thanks for keeping me abreast of the situation.”
Bea let go with a hearty laugh. Then she sighed, her face slowly becoming more serious. “Hey, look, Eli. I like you. A lot. You seem like a real decent guy. But … uh …”
He knew where this awkward exchange was headed, and he appreciated Bea’s courage. “I’m listening,” he said.
“I’m not sure I should be telling you this.”
“Roxie is … uh …”
He decided to make it easier for her. “So where did she run off to?”
Bea studied him, her eyes filled with concern. “The barn.”
“Because of me?”
She laughed. “Oh, yeah.”
Eli stared at the beer bottle in his hand. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“ ’Fraid so.”
He nodded. It wasn’t a simple matter, this thing with the stunning, raven-haired Roxanne Bloom. He’d met her only half a dozen times, usually at social situations like this one, but the energy between them was like nothing he’d ever experienced with a woman. It was dazzling in its intensity. It screamed for his attention. And it was thoroughly, maddeningly unwelcome.
Roxanne had called last fall to ask him to lunch. He’d had to say no. He’d had no choice, though she didn’t even give him a chance to explain. And since then, their dynamic had been real simple: she avoided him and he couldn’t stop thinking about her. It was ridiculous, he knew, and it had to be sorted out—now. Letting this kind of unfinished emotional business fester went against everything he believed in. He would not let it go on another day.
“Roxie is a little on the complicated side,” Bea said under her breath.
He smiled. “So it seems.”
“I love her to death, though.”
Eli sipped his beer.
“She’s a pussycat, really. A pussycat in a porcupine suit.”
Bea stared at him, looking slightly dazed. “Go after her,” she whispered, then swiveled her head around to make sure no one was listening. “She’d kill me if she knew I was doing this, but I think you should go after her. Hurry. Before it’s too late.”
For a long moment, the two stared at each other.
“All right,” Eli said. “Don’t mind if I do.” He grabbed his hat from under the chair and patted Bea on the knee as he stood up. “You know where to find me,” he said, giving her a wink.
Eli headed for the kitchen door, knowing he had a four-legged fan club at his heels. He kept his eyes looking forward, his shoulders level, and didn’t glance down at the pack. As expected, the dogs made way for him to pass through the door, alone.
* * *
“Babies, babies, babies, babies, babies …”
Roxanne felt free to mutter to herself out here at the paddock, because her only witness was a pretty Appaloosa mare who loitered about ten feet away, languidly chomping on alfalfa, her big brown eyes looking sympathetic to her concerns.
Roxie propped a foot on the lowest rail of the fence and draped her elbows over the highest. “How am I supposed to be a cogodmother?” she asked the horse. “I don’t know the first thing about babies. I’m not even sure I like them! Fine, they’re important to the continuation of the species and all that, but there are days I’m not sure the human species deserves a pass, you know what I’m saying?”
The horse snorted and twitched its ears as if to agree.
“I mean, why keep adding extra people to the mix when the ones already here can’t treat each other decently?”
The horse ambled over to the fence, where she nosed Roxie under the crook of her arm. Roxie stroked the mare’s neck. “How did this happen? That’s all I’m asking. A year ago we were all perfectly miserable—manless and about to lose our jobs at the paper. But at least we were a unified front in our misery, you know? We even took a vow to be alone together, just us and our dogs!”
The horse blew air from its nostrils and pawed at the dirt.
“And then, Josie goes out and finds Rick Rousseau, a hunk with a heart bigger than his bank account. And Ginger somehow conjures up Lucio Montevez, a Mediterranean sex god who basically worships her. And suddenly everybody’s in a family way and happier than pigs in you-know-what and I’m still …” Roxie stopped herself, sighing deeply. The horse moved closer, waiting for her to finish her sentence.
“Oh, never mind,” Roxie told her. She let her forehead rest on the broad and smooth plane between the horse’s gentle eyes. “I think I’ve already missed my chance to be a mother. I guess that’s what this is all about. I’m probably a little jealous of my friends.”
The horse whinnied in protest. “Fine,” Roxanne said with annoyance. “I realize Bea isn’t married and pregnant but, come on, like that’s ever going to happen? My point is, she’s following her dream. Becoming an agility trainer is making her as happy as Ginger and Josie, just in her own way.”
Roxie lifted her head and stared off across the miles of rolling vineyard. “What I’m saying is, everyone in our little group has moved on—except me. I’m still right where I started.”
“Animals are good listeners,” a voice said from behind her.
Roxie froze. She knew that voice. It was an irritatingly masculine voice. Annoyingly sexy. She hated the way it flowed, like a slow and deep river sure of its destination. And she really hated the fact that the owner of that voice might have heard even a syllable of her very private musings.
She blew out air, not turning around. So that man had suddenly decided she was worth a little of his time? Ha! And he thought it was acceptable to follow her out here without her permission? What a complete tool this guy was!
“You and I need to talk,” he said, his voice soft and steady. “I promise I’ll be a good listener, too.”
She kept her back to him. He didn’t deserve her full attention.
But he moved closer and … dammit! There it was again, that weird vibration she’d felt the very first time she’d met him, right here at the ranch, the day of Josie and Rick’s wedding. She would never forget the instant she noticed him. He was leaning against the stone wall between the garden and the lawn, one knee bent, the heel of one cowboy boot propped against the wall and the toe of the other tapping in the dirt. He’d pushed that stupid black hat back on his blond curls and bit down on the inside of his mouth, as if he were trying to keep from laughing. He’d focused his intense green eyes right on her.
Oh, damn, he’d been gorgeous. Big and muscular in his suit. Sun-browned skin. Sensual lips. Graceful hands.
Roxanne didn’t want to think about what happened next, but she couldn’t stop herself from remembering. The truth was, Eli Gallagher’s intense gaze had sliced through her flesh, raced through her blood, and landed with a hot thud right between her legs.
The moment had made such an impression because, embarrassingly enough, that had been the only thing that had landed with a hot thud between her legs in a very long while. And that encounter with Eli had taken place more than nine months ago! And there’d certainly been no thudding since. She absolutely refused to do the bigger-picture math.
“I owe you an apology, Roxanne.”
“Nope. You don’t.” She kept her eyes on the vineyards.
“An explanation, then.”
“You don’t owe me anything.” She waited. She strained to hear him let go with an exasperated sigh, or a groan of frustration, or a bitter laugh—anything that would indicate she’d gotten the better of him.
“You are one tough cookie, Ms. Bloom,” is what he said.
For just a second, she shut her eyes. She summoned her strength. She knew exactly what she’d see when she turned around—an extremely handsome man, somewhere in his early thirties, with loose blond curls, dusky green eyes accented by smile lines, a set of full lips, an elegant chin, and a tall and fit body tucked inside a pair of worn jeans.
A man that spectacular could have any woman he wanted. And, as he’d made painfully clear a while back, he didn’t want her.
It was for the best. Roxanne knew she was too much for him to handle. She was too much for any man to handle. That concept was introduced to her in childhood, with her own father. It was a pattern that would repeat itself through high school, college, then after college, and, most recently, with Raymond Sandberg—the one man she’d convinced herself was mature enough to appreciate everything she brought to the table.
Whoops. She’d been wrong on that one, hadn’t she? But it would be the last time she’d ever be wrong about a man, because she understood now. There was no man for her. There never would be. And it didn’t matter if two of her best friends had recently been sucked into the vortex of love. She would have to be okay with that. She would have to find her own peace. She was a strong woman, and if anyone could do it, Roxie could.
She shook her hair back over her shoulder, then slowly turned to face him. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Look, Ian—that is your name, right? Did I remember it correctly?”
He offered her a small smile. There wasn’t even the slightest flicker of hurt in his green eyes. Her insult seemed to bounce right off him.
“Elias Jedidiah Gallagher,” he said. With dramatic flair, he swept up his hand to pluck his big black cowboy hat off his head. He placed it on his heart and bent at the waist. “At your service,” he added.
He was such an ass. Roxanne wanted to grab that ridiculous hat and whack him upside the head with it.
The Appaloosa whinnied loudly in Roxie’s ear.
“But you know that, of course,” he added, his voice teasing and pleasant. “We talked for a long while at Rick and Josie’s wedding, and there was a strong attraction between us. We both felt it. And we discussed how I might help you with your rescue dog’s aggression issues.”
“She’s cured,” Roxie said, smiling. “I no longer need your help.”
“And I distinctly remember giving you my card.”
“I must have thrown it away,” she said.
“Before or after I turned you down for that lunch date?”
Roxie enjoyed a bit of clever banter as much as the next girl. In fact, that was something she could never get enough of with Raymond. They would spar, and their words would heat up and the double entendres would fly, and they’d end up rolling around in bed together, enflamed with desire. Raymond might have been almost thirty years her senior, but the man had been sizzling hot. Whoever said the brain was the primary sexual organ knew what they were talking about.
But, since Roxie had no interest in banter with Eli, clever or otherwise, she decided to put an end to the barnyard ambush. One ambush per day was her limit anyway, and Mrs. Needleman had gotten to her first.
“Unfortunately for you, Ian,” she said, “cowboys don’t do anything for me.” She stifled a yawn. “But I do know a girl with a major cowboy fetish. Want her number?”
“The name’s Eli.”
Eli nodded broadly. “Right. I think I understand now,” he said. “The sheer force of your indifference toward me sent you racing out the kitchen door the moment I arrived. Is that it?”
“You flatter yourself,” she said, her heart now at a full gallop in her chest. She didn’t want any of this. Not the spark. Not the crackling attraction. Not the racing pulse. It had to end. So she delivered what she was sure would be the final blow. “Anyway, you had your chance. You blew it. I don’t give second chances.”
Now that got a flicker out of him. Understanding flashed in his eyes, but disappeared immediately. Eli had no comeback. He returned the hat to his head and tugged at the brim, as if to announce his imminent departure. Good riddance to him, she thought.
Suddenly, Roxanne felt something nudge her butt so hard her feet left the ground. She flew forward. She slammed right up against the front of Eli’s solid body. She screamed. Eli grabbed her by the shoulders and steadied her, her toes just grazing the dirt. She leaned back awkwardly.
“Seems you got goosed,” Eli said, smiling.
Roxie whipped her head around in time to see the traitorous horse lope off to the other side of the paddock. When she returned her gaze to Eli she noticed that his eyelids were heavy and his attention had shifted to her chest, throat, mouth. Then she became agonizingly aware of the touch of his strong fingers on her upper arms. Next she realized their bellies were pressed together. The front of her thighs were smashed right into his hard …
She began to squirm. She squealed in frustration. “Let me go,” she said between clenched teeth.
He didn’t. His grip on her stayed gentle but seemed to deepen somehow. Roxie kicked but her feet barely skimmed across the dust. His gaze returned to hers and locked in. And that’s when the strangest thing happened.
Her body began to flood with a sensation she could only call “ease.” A warm, steady, calming relief that washed through her, softening her and opening her up. Everywhere.
No way was she falling for that shit.
“Settle down, sweet thing.”
The words had been delivered in that deep-river voice. His muted green eyes smiled.
Settle? Down? Sweet thing?
Just four little words and it felt as if the earth had stopped turning. That comment was condescending, domineering, insulting, and, at the same time, strangely arousing. His hands maintained their grip on her as he lowered her feet to the ground. She became a little light-headed. She didn’t know what was happening. The sensations swirling around inside her were confusing. Scary. Intense. Sexual. She resented all of it.
And if she hadn’t despised Eli Gallagher before, she surely did now. How dare he touch her like this? How dare he talk to her with that languid voice? How dare he treat her like a wild stray animal who needed his gentle touch?
And who the hell did he think he was, knocking her off balance like this? If she’d wanted to experience ease and calm she would have gone out and gotten it the normal way—with a prescription!
“Don’t ever put your hands on me again,” Roxie managed.
“I won’t hurt you, Roxanne.”
She felt weak. Way too warm. She wanted to escape his grip but couldn’t seem to muster the energy. It took every bit of strength she possessed to shake her head side to side. “No,” she whispered.
“You’re safe with me.”
And that’s when it happened. Out of nowhere, for no good reason, a sob erupted from her throat. Before she even realized what was happening, the calm had punched a hole in that giant bubble of rage and grief inside her, and it all came flooding out in one long, searing moan. There was no stopping it. She wanted to die from shame.
Eli kissed her. She knew immediately that the kiss wasn’t designed to stop the outburst. Its fierceness only demanded more. The kiss—the heat, the pressure, the need—it wrenched the emotion right of her.
No. This was impossible. This was nuts! She wouldn’t allow it. No man would ever again lull her into being a stupid, hopeful, defenseless, emotional, babbling idiot the way she’d been with Raymond. She would never leave herself vulnerable like that again. It had been a sacred promise she’d made to herself. No man—Eli Gallagher included—was worth the loss of her self-respect.
She shoved so hard that he lost his grip on her, with both his hands and his lips. Roxie gasped for breath and tried to find her bearings, quite aware of how Eli’s eyes had widened with confusion. She turned and ran. Her feet pounded the hard dirt. Within minutes she was in her car heading south on Highway 121, on her way home to San Francisco, where she would undoubtedly shove everything back in its proper place, the way she always did.
Copyright © 2010 by Susan Donovan