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By JANET DAILEY
ZEBRA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One The traffic thinned out once they were north of Miami, and Todd Gaynor relaxed behind the wheel. He reached over and gave Barbara's arm a friendly pat. Then his hand rumpled the short curls of her silky black hair.
His caresses were affectionate, she thought with a small inward sigh. But not passionate. Still, considering what had happened months ago, before she met him, it was just as well. Barbara had been madly in love with another man and thought it was for real. It hadn't lasted.
After that, she'd decided to make reasonable choices about guys. Everything about Todd fit the checklist. He was a grandmother's dream: reliable, pragmatic, not too bad-looking, and he never made a move without asking if it was okay with her.
Okay, she wasn't going to get swept off her feet again, but she could get carried over a threshold. He was already hinting at making "this" permanent.
Barbara glanced his way and managed to smile. So far "this" didn't involve sex. Kisses, yes. Holding hands, yes. Looking at rings, yes. Rings in the inexpensive tray, rings with mock diamonds that were a reasonable choice in terms of cost. He had even looked deep into her eyes and discussed the tax benefits of filing as a couple.
Some women would feel lucky to be in your shoes, she told herself, feeling a little unhappy.
Todd took his eyes from the highway long enough to glance at her. "Tired?"
"Mmm." It was a soft, negative sound. Through half-closed lashes Barbara saw the late afternoon sunlight glinting off the waters of Lake Okeechobee.
"Nervous?" Todd's voice was calm. He just wasn't a particularly emotional guy.
"A little," she admitted. It was difficult to be too nervous around him. She told herself that Todd was her rock. With him she felt safe and protected, not dangling on the edge of a precipice about to take a nasty fall. He had a way of making sure that most things went smoothly-even something as potentially daunting as meeting his family.
Just for a moment, the inflection of his voice made her heart flutter in reaction to the memory of another man's voice. Looking out the window at nothing in particular, Barbara forced the sensation to go away.
"Yes," she answered. Her voice sounded loud to her ears, as if she was attempting to deny the unwanted memory.
"I'm in love, too."
By his definition of it, maybe he was. It seemed rude to argue. She ought to count her blessings. "Are you?" It wasn't that easy for Barbara to match his light, bantering tone.
"Yes. With a very nice lady who has big blue eyes and a wonderful personality."
Which sounded like a runner-up in a beauty pageant. She didn't exactly feel special, but she knew that he meant well. "I hope she makes you very happy." Her hand sought his and their fingers interlaced. It was a gesture oddly reminiscent of another time, and another man's hand entwined possessively with hers. A shudder trembled through her.
"Are you cold?" Todd was instantly attentive. "I could turn the air conditioner down."
"No, I'm fine," she insisted, and tilted her head back against his arm to gaze at his face. "Sometimes it seems that I've known you all my life instead of just four weeks."
"It's been awesome," he said.
Not the word she would pick. But if that was how he saw this relationship, she didn't feel up to arguing about it. He just wasn't the kind of guy who got riled up or lost his temper or let emotions take over, anyway. She felt a poignant throb of memory and swallowed hard.
"Well, things happened fast," she said carefully. "Sometimes I wish-" Shoot. There was a catch in her voice.
"I wish I had met you first."
He slid her a look before letting his attention return to the highway. "Do you want to talk about him?" It was a considerate question.
A long silence followed his question. Barbara was barely aware of it as her gaze ran over his profile. Funny how he reminded her sometimes of Jock. So did other guys, of course-Jock stayed on her mind and she still tended to see him coming down the street when it really wasn't him at all.
But Todd's hair and eyes were plain brown, not shot through with gold from being outdoors. At thirty-one, he lacked the character lines that had etched Jock's eyes and mouth. Nor did he possess that potent brand of sexuality that had taken Barbara's breath away the first time she saw Jock on the beach. She had only to close her eyes to remember the hard feel of his body against hers and the undermining caress of his sure hands.
"What's there to talk about?" A bitter hurt that Barbara had thought was behind her crept into her voice. "He dropped me like a rock."
It was no good to claim that only her pride had suffered. And she couldn't claim that he had taken advantage of her. She'd gone into the affair with her eyes wide open, never dreaming it would last less than a few weeks. For her, loving Jock was everything. Until it was suddenly over, she wouldn't have been able to say how long she'd loved him, only that she did, and she'd wanted it to last forever.
Jock's huskily seductive voice echoed in her head, saying the words she'd heard six months before. "I'm not any good at small talk, honey. I want to make love to you." The forthright statement had thrilled her. Jock Malloy had only been saying what was on her mind whenever he was within touching distance.
"Todd, did I tell you that he once asked me to go with him when he left?" It was a short, mocking question, laced with yearning that she hadn't gone. She had thought many times about that offer, and also her reaction to it. She flashed Todd a brittle smile. "I nearly agreed. I was so tempted ... But I kept thinking about my job, and my apartment. Can you imagine the mess I would have been in if I had gone with him, and he'd gotten tired of me and dumped me between here and Texas or wherever his ranch was-if he had one?"
Details hadn't mattered at the time. She'd known Jock was vacationing in Miami, and that the beach house where he was staying belonged to a friend. Stupidly, she had thought that it was the real deal, forever after, hearts on fire, and all that. She'd had no idea that it would come to an abrupt end when he left. Jock was a man who knew how to make the loving last, but he didn't look back when he was done with her. Later, alligator. He hadn't said that, but his interest had been just about that casual, when all was said and done. She was so positive it would continue that she had never bothered to ask him the usual questions.
Talking-well, serious talking-hadn't seemed necessary. No, Jock was more about margaritas at sunset, and making her laugh for hours, and wild, soul-satisfying sex.
She doubted she would ever experience that again. Of course, Todd had probably put sex on one of his lists-he liked to keep lists-but Barbara knew without even asking that getting physical wasn't a priority for him. Jock's very male amorousness had been unmistakable from the second their eyes had met. But it's over, she told herself angrily. Over means over. Afterward Barbara had been glad she didn't know a whole lot of details about him other than his name and, vaguely, what he did. Something about a cattle ranch-he'd mentioned it once.
"But you didn't go with him," Todd pointed out, moving into the right lane to let a white-haired driver zoom past on his left.
"No." A sudden, almost desperate sigh broke from her. "Why am I telling you all this?"
"Confession is supposed to be good for the soul." He kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead.
"I ... can't." She looked out the window of the luxury sedan again, feeling a little depressed by the sameness of the landscape. Other than the bare bones of her story, Barbara had never fleshed out the affair to Todd. Even now he wasn't asking her to, only offering a willing ear to listen. Her refusal to confide in him didn't produce a reaction.
Taking out a map from the glove compartment, Barbara unfolded it and pretended to study it. "So where am I going?"
Good question in more ways than one.
Todd exhaled and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "I told you before we left. You can check it on the GPS system." He switched it on and a soft but robotic female voice gave the distance to their destination.
"I love this thing," he said. "She never gets lost and she never gets excited." He cast a glance at Barbara, who was absent-mindedly trying to stick the map back where she got it. "And she never folds up a map like that. Would you mind doing it right?"
Barbara took it out again and folded the map in neat sections. "How's that?"
She smoothed it against her thigh, regretting the crinkles she'd unintentionally put into it. But she didn't see why he had to get snippy about a map when he had an expensive GPS gizmo. And a radar detector that he didn't need because he usually drove at least five miles under the speed limit.
She wondered why he'd thrown caution to the winds when it came to her. A question nagged at her and at last she asked it. "Why haven't you ever asked about him, Todd? His name? How we met? What happened?" Her sideways glance was wary, apprehension shimmering in the blue depths of her eyes.
"Because I know that someday you'll trust me enough to tell me the whole story," he answered without hesitation.
"I do trust you." Barbara glanced down at the folded map in her hands. She'd agreed to meet his parents and it was early in the relationship for that.
"All right. That's important. You can't love somebody you can't trust."
"Well, yeah." Trust was a tough word. So was love. Good guy that Todd was, he had promised to keep her heart safe. It had been shattered when she met him, but she was hoping her heart would be whole again. He did things by the book, so it should all work out. Sometimes she wasn't sure that she appreciated him enough. "But doesn't it bother you that there was someone else before you came?"
"No. A woman doesn't reach the age of twenty-five without, you know, being experienced. I accepted that when I met you." He seemed thoughtful.
Barbara considered the implications of that remark, then looked at his hands on the steering wheel. One at ten o'clock, one at two o'clock. Their touch didn't make her skin tingle, but she didn't trust that sensation anymore. His comment prompted a fleeting curiosity to voice itself.
"What about your heart? Has it ever been bruised and battered, Todd?" She found it hard to believe. His face was so smooth and calm. There were no shadows of tormented longing and heartbroken grief in his eyes. Which was probably a good thing.
"A half a dozen times, at least." It came out like a joke.
"Be serious," Barbara insisted.
"I am. It's difficult to judge past emotional involvements since I met you. From this perspective, they all seem like infatuations. Does that answer your question?" He briefly arched an eyebrow in her direction, his brown eyes warm with amused indulgence.
"Yes, I suppose it does." She didn't have that perspective.
"Besides, if you had met me first, maybe you wouldn't have noticed me," Todd said.
"That isn't true," Barbara protested quickly. "You're a really nice guy, Todd. And you're nice-looking. Any woman would notice you." Unless Jock Malloy was around, a naughty little voice qualified her statement.
As if reading her mind, Todd followed his thought one step further. "Or maybe I would have lost you to him." Barbara was thankful he didn't give her a chance to respond to that remark, because she didn't know what she could say to that distinct possibility. "The 'maybes' don't have anything to do with the present or the way it happened. There isn't any reason to say 'what if.'"
"Yes, there is," she said in a sober voice. "What if I had never met you? You have been so good to me and for me, and with me"-she emphasized the little words carefully-"that sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve someone like you. You're just so understanding and patient."
"When I first met you, you reminded me of a stray kitten I once found that someone had dumped on the highway," Todd mused. "You were so scared and frightened ... not that you let it show." He darted her a glance. "No, you arched your back and hissed at me, pretending you weren't scared or frightened. How many times did you turn me down before I finally persuaded you to go on a date with me?"
"At least twelve." Barbara remembered his gentle coaxing. "Although I don't know why you bothered," she sighed.
Letting go of her hand, Todd reached up and flipped down the sun visor on her side. The mirror on the back side of the visor reflected her image, midnight black hair framing an oval face, brilliant blue eyes outlined by long, sooty lashes, and delicate features that were enhanced by a golden Florida tan.
"That woman in the mirror should answer your questions," he said. "When I first met her, there were dark circles under her eyes and a sad smile. You needed affection more than you needed love, you know."
A passing thought crossed her mind that love had given her the dark circles and sad smile in the first place. Barbara didn't mention it, but she couldn't keep the pain of remembering what she had lost from flickering across her expression.
"I promised I wouldn't rush you into marriage, Barbara, and I won't. We'll have a long engagement, an old-fashioned courtship period where I can shower you with presents and flowers and love poems." A bantering note in his voice seemed to tease his own romanticism and make her smile with him. Still and all, she felt guilty for not feeling more enthusiastic about it.
"And then," he went on, "we can have a big church wedding, which will make my mother happy, and a Caribbean honeymoon, which will make me happy. You'll like my mother," he added unexpectedly.
"I hope she'll like me," was the automatic response.
"She will," Todd assured her. "I wish we'd had more time together for ourselves. I wouldn't have suggested spending our vacations with my family if either one of us could arrange to take them later this year. But these two weeks are the only slack time the hotel has before the Easter crunch hits, then summer tourists. My manager takes his vacation in the fall and-"
"The airline wouldn't let me rearrange my schedule unless I gave up my vacation for this year," Barbara said. She worked the reservation counter at the airport, after two years as a flight attendant with the same company. "It's just coincidence that we have the same vacation time now."
"Could be a sign," he smiled. "And I want you to get to know my family. I want you to think of them as yours."
"You haven't told me very much about your family, besides that your mom's a widow, and your brother," she began, and Todd picked up the conversation from that point.
"There's just my mother and brother, but we've always been very close. Maybe three is a magic number. My mother, Lillian, is a great lady. Gentle, warm and loving."
"You must take after her," Barbara said politely.
"I don't know. My dad was a pretty great guy, too. Mom said he was the softest touch in town. When any charity in Miami needed to raise money, they stopped at his hotel first. He couldn't say no to anyone in trouble. If he had, he'd probably have been a multimillionaire when he died. Not that he left us broke." Todd laughed at the thought.
Only recently had Barbara even realized that she was involved with a relatively wealthy man. The hotel Todd owned and operated was one of the most popular resorts on the oceanfront strip. The income from it could have enabled him to do nothing at all, but Todd had chosen to work. He was frugal by nature, except for this car.
"What about Sandoval?" she asked, referring to the citrus farm that was their destination. "Is that where you grew up?"
"No. We did spend time there. J.R. liked it but I'm not much of a country boy. I prefer city life, like my dad," Todd admitted.
Looking at him, Barbara was glad. She was beginning to prefer his good grooming and cared-for skin to the rugged look of an outdoorsman. It would have been an unwanted reminder of a man browned from hours in the sun. Like hers, Todd's light tan came from lazing by a pool or on an ocean beach.
"J.R. is your brother?" she asked for confirmation.
"My older brother, yes. It's a good thing Sandoval belongs to him. That life fits him like a glove. I should warn you about J.R.," Todd added after a second's consideration.
"Warn me?" Her blue eyes sent him a quizzical glance as a little shiver of fear danced down her spine.
Todd met her look with a smile. "He's going to hit on you."
"But why? I-I'm-whatever the next step before fiancée is." She remembered the inexpensive tray of rings that she'd politely passed up. If she had one of those on her left hand, she'd be safe. "Todd, he wouldn't-" She tried to stammer out an astonished protest, but Todd laughed out loud.
Excerpted from Stealing Kisses by JANET DAILEY Copyright © 2008 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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