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"I've decided to get married."
Julia McCarver looked at her roommate over the heavy black rims of her reading glasses. Liz Costa sat in an overstuffed smoke-blue chair, her tiny feet propped on the bleached-pine coffee table as she painted her toenails an alarming shade of red. She looked as unconcerned as if she had just announced she had decided to eat toast for breakfast.
Absently Julia licked a fingertip and turned the page of her medical journal without looking at it. After a long moment of puzzled silence she said, "But you're not dating anyone."
"A mere formality."
"Kind of a major formality, I'd say."
Liz shook her head, sending her fashionable black bob swinging artfully around the circle of her face.
"There are plenty of men out there. I just have to apply myself." she said, a hint of a Puerto Rican accent flavoring her words like a dash of hot pepper. "The time is right. If I send out the proper signals, the man of my destiny will be drawn to me. I read that in Vogue."
"Yeah, that's where I get all my life's wisdom," Julia drawled, rearranging her long legs on the couch.
"Is that what brought on this sudden change of heart? An article in a fashion magazine? What happened to Liz Costa, liberated independent businesswoman?"
Liz waved a dainty, elegantly manicured hand. "That was in the eighties, the Me Decade. Get with the program, Julia. This is the nineties, the age of New Traditionalism. Romance is in."
"Well, that settles it. We wouldn't want you to be unfashionable."
Liz sat back and wiggled her toes as the doorbell rang. "My polish is wet," she said as Julia unfolded herself from the sofa and headed for the foyer. "I won't come to the door unless it's Kevin Costner."
"It's probably the man of your destiny being drawn to you."
"Could be. I've been sending out signals since Thursday."
Julia trudged up the three steps to the entrance hall and swung the door open. Her heart stopped dead. She stood on the threshold, stunned, clutching the doorknob for support as she stared at the man who had first captured her heart as a teenager, the man who had broken her heart on three separate occasions, the man she had vowed never to let anywhere near her heart again: S. T. Dalton.
She had told herself she would never see him again, that she never wanted to see him again. But there he was, in the flesh, six feet two inches of lean, muscular cowboy with shoulders as wide as the Parthenon. Despite the fact that he had probably made more money than God during his years in football, he still dressed like a ranch handbattered boots, faded jeans that molded every masculine inch of his lower body, a chambray shirt with the sleeves rolled back. He held a dusty, disreputable-looking black Stetson in one hand as he stood before her, his face set in uncharacteristically stern lines of concentration.
He had aged a bit since she'd last seen him, although he wore the lines beside his eyes and mouth as comfortably as a model wears an Armani suit. At thirty-six he looked as if he was just coming into the prime of desirability. Then again, S.T. had always looked that wayripe for trouble, impossibly sexy, handsome in a way that had nothing to do with the arrangement of his features. In fact, his cheekbones were a little too high, his chin a little too long, and his nose had been broken at least once, but none of that mattered because he radiated magnetism. He was a natural generator of sex appeal. It thrummed in the air around him and burned in his blue eyes, and Julia had yet to meet the woman who was immune to it.
She wasn't immune to it, much to her consternation. She hadn't been immune to it at sixteen or at twenty or at thirty-two. Storm Dalton's charm was like a virus in her blood. Even now she felt a flash of fever. She lifted a hand to her forehead to check her temperature and hit herself in the face with the magazine she'd been reading, knocking her glasses askew.
"Well, if it isn't the Lone Stranger," she said dryly, trying to cover her shock with sarcasm.
S.T. gave her a hesitant, lopsided smile. He was shaking inside. He'd rehearsed this moment in his head a thousand times as he'd driven north from Kansas City. He'd pictured Julia standing in the doorway looking implacable, pictured himself saying some magical phrase that would erase all the hurt he'd dealt her in the past. But now that the time was at hand, he couldn't remember any of the magic words. Now that he actually saw her standing there, he couldn't get himself past the fear that nothing he could say or do would get her to take him back. He could feel their past rise up between them like a wall.
"It's mighty good to see you, Legs," he drawled softly in the smoke-edged voice that had driven more than one sane woman wild with desire. For Julia it conjured images of whiskey and smoke and rumpled sheets. The fact of the matter was he'd gotten clotheslined by a two-hundred-pound tackle in the tenth grade and had sounded this way ever since, but knowing that didn't dilute the effect a bit.
Julia scowled at him. "I'd say the same if it were true, but frankly I'd rather open my door and find a cobra on the step. At least I'd know that's a snake instead of just acting like one."
S.T. winced. "That hurt."
Julia shook her head, narrowing her eyes with contempt. "You don't know the meaning of the word."
"Yes, I do."
"Sorry," Julia sneered, unmoved by his ability to look sincere. "I know you think you have all the monosyllables memorized, but that one has managed to escape your grasp."
S.T. took it on the chin. He knew he deserved her cutting remarks. Hell, he probably deserved to have her cut him up with a dull, rusty knife and feed him to stray dogs, but he had come here to change all that if he could. This woman was his destiny, the woman he'd loved and left and loved still. The woman glaring at him with all the ferocity of an angry tigress.
He stared at her and saw the same wide-eyed girl he'd known back in Muleshoe, an overgrown tomboy who had blossomed into a swan and couldn't quite get used to it. The glasses she wore looked as if they belonged to Buddy Holly. Her faded navy-blue T-shirt hung shapelessly to her hips and proclaimed in peeling white letters trauma nurses do it stat. A baggy pair of men's boxer shorts revealed a mile of shapely female leg. Her waist-long mane tumbled in wild disarray all around her. She didn't wear a hint of makeup. Despite all of that, she was gorgeous.
S.T. tilted his head a little to one side, spilling a few strands of black hair across his broad forehead. His eyebrows lifted hopefully. "Could I come in?"
Julia stepped back and closed the door on the biggest part of her past. She left the tiny front hall in a daze, walked back across the living room and resettled herself on the sofa, curling her legs beneath her once more. Her heart was pounding, her ears were ringing. She felt hot and cold at once. The virus was back. Stormitis. The man was no different than a case of malaria, recurring when she least expected it, driving her out of her mind. Forget curing the common cold. If someone could come up with a vaccine to fight the effect of Storm Dalton on women, that would be worth something.
Liz glanced up from her second coat of polish, only vaguely curious. "Salesman?"
Julia's wide mouth twisted, caught between a smile and a grimace. "I didn't want any."
"What was he selling?"
Liz made a face. "Odd thing to be selling door-to-door."
Julia pretended to turn her attention back to the article she'd been reading before the doorbell had rung, but somehow obstructed bowels didn't grab her interest at the moment. As a visual image they couldn't hold a candle to S. T. Dalton. Damn, but he looked good. It should have been illegal for the man to wear tight jeans.
"Was he that cute?" Liz asked slyly.
A guilty flush crept under her skin as Julia glanced up at her friend. Liz was regarding her with her black eyes narrowed to slits, full lips pursed. Liz had an unerring eye for detail, which made her very successful as the manager of one of the trendiest boutiques in Minneapolis. It also made her uncomfortably insightful as a friend.
"You look the way I felt the time I met Mel Gibson in New York," she said. "Hot, cold, dizzy, weak."
"Sounds like the flu."
"Oh, no," Liz said, adopting her Look of Great Wisdom. She stuck the brush back into the polish bottle so she could talk with her hands. "It was hormones. Raging hormones. The kind of hormones that race through your veins like wild horses. The kind of hormones that give off enough heat to thaw the polar ice caps. The kind of hormones that make you want to grab a man by the"
"Enough!" Julia exclaimed, throwing her hands up in a gesture of finality. "Enough with the hormones already! I don't have hormones. My hormones are in remission."
Liz lifted one artfully plucked brow. "Boring Bob will be crushed to hear it."
"Bob?" Julia cut herself short as panic grabbed her by the throat. Robert. She had forgotten Robert! One look at S. T. Dalton and her whole world was turned upside down. She had even forgotten her relationship with the most eligible plastic surgeon in the metro area. A sense of impending doom weighed down on her like a stone.
Why had S. T. Dalton come back? What did he want from her? They hadn't had any contact in over a year. Not since the Vikings had traded him to Kansas City for a second-string wide receiver and a third-round draft pick. He had walked out of her life thenfor the third timeand she hadn't heard from him since. Now he'd turned up again, like the proverbial bad penny.
The doorbell rang with a loud, insistent buzz that nearly catapulted Julia to the ceiling. Liz looked on in amused silence as she proceeded to fall all over herself in an attempt to get to the door.
"That must be some kind of horse manure."
Julia made no comment as she crossed to the foyer. She swung the door open and glared at the man standing on the step. "What do you want?"
"You," S.T. said with a sweet, lazy smile. He didn't really expect to charm her that easily. In fact, he didn't expect she would be charmed at all, but he couldn't help himself. Charm was a reflex for him, a defense, an all-purpose tool. He had learned at an early age to wield it with skill in situations where all else failed.
His answer had the same effect on Julia as a hammer blow between the eyes. She felt her head swim and her knees go weak, but she hardened herself. She would not think of the past they shared. She would absolutely not think of the sex they had shared. She wouldn't let herself remember how he looked nakedthe granite-hard chest and washboard stomach, the horseman's thighs and a backside that was She would not let him charm his way into her house or her bed or her heart, and that was that. Storm Dalton had done all the damage to her life he was ever going to do.
She regarded him with her steeliest head-nurse look. "Sorry, I'm not in the market for any bastards today. I've had all I can stand for this lifetime, thanks."
"How about apologies?" he asked sincerely.
"I'm full up on apologies. Call again when hell freezes over."
She started to shut the door, but S.T. reacted with all the finesse of the athlete he was. He grabbed her by one wrist, pulled her out onto the wide front step, and shut the door behind her, all in one fluid motion that left Julia breathless. He blocked her route to the door by bracing a hand against the wall. She turned to bolt the other way, but he blocked that path, too, and she found herself virtually corralled against the wall of her house.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded indignantly. With S.T. leaning toward her they were at eye level. Definitely the wrong place to be. His brilliant blue eyes looked into hers with a stubborn intensity that sent shivers through her.
"I'm apologizing," he murmured. "I reckon it could take all day, considering what I've got to make up for, so I hope you're comfortable."
"I don't want to hear it."
"Maybe you don't, but I need to say it. I'm sorry I hurt you, baby."
Julia glanced away, barely resisting the urge to fan herself with her hand. Her body temperature had jumped twenty degrees. She could still feel the laser beam of his gaze lingering on her face. Tingles ran over her from head to toe, concentrating in all her most sensitive parts. It was amazing, really, that she could still react to him this way. He had become the prime example of everything she loathed in a man and yet a part of her was still attracted to him. It made her furious and terrified.
"Uh-huh," she said, willing her anger to override her instinctive response to him. "You're sorry for leaving for Kansas City while I was on duty at the hospital, or are we going back to the time you dumped me before your first pro training camp?"
"All of it. For every rotten thing I ever did."
"What do you want from me, S.T.? Forgiveness? Absolution?"
His jaw tightened, but his gaze didn't waver. She'd never seen him so serious. "Another chance," he said simply.
Julia's heart jolted into a weird arrhythmia, as if she'd been given an electric shock. She stared at him for a long second before her temper rushed to her rescue.
"Of all the colossal nerve!" She ducked under his arm and came up pacing the width of the tiny porch, shaking her head. "I've got news for you, Seth Thomas Dalton. I don't care how sorry you are. I don't care if you mean to take a pledge of celibacy and shave your head bald to prove it. I don't want to hear your 'let's start over' bull hooey. You're out of my life. Do you understand me? Have I made myself perfectly clear? You're gone, finished, finito, out of here."