Temptation, p.13
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       Temptation, p.13

           Nora Roberts
 
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  She let him kiss her. The touch of his lips left her totally unmoved. It fascinated her that, only a few short months before, his kisses had warmed her. It had been nothing like the volcanic heat she experienced with Chase, but there had been a comfort and an easy pleasure. That was all she had thought there was meant to be.

  Now there was nothing. The absence of feeling in itself dulled the edge of her fury. She was in control. Here, as in other areas of her life, she was in control. Though his lips coaxed, she simply stood, waiting for him to finish.

  When he lifted his head, Eden put her hands on his arms to draw herself away. It was then she saw Chase just inside the open stable door.

  The sun was at his back, silhouetting him, blinding her to the expression on his face. Even so, her mouth was dry as she stared, trying to see through shadow and sun. When he stepped forward, his eyes were on hers.

  Explanations sprang to her tongue, but she could only shake her head as his gaze slid over her and onto Eric.

  “Keeton.” Chase nodded, but didn’t extend his hand. He knew if he had the other man’s fingers in his he would take pleasure in breaking them, one by one.

  “Elliot.” Eric returned the nod. “I’d forgotten. You have land around here, don’t you?”

  “A bit.” Chase wanted to murder him, right there in the stables, while Eden watched. Then he would find it just as satisfying to murder her.

  “You must know Eden, then.” Eric placed a hand on her shoulder in a casually possessive movement. Chase followed the gesture before looking at her again. Her instinctive move to shrug away Eric’s hand was stopped by the look. Was it anger she saw there, or was it disgust?

  “Yes. Eden and I have run into each other a few times.” He dipped his hands into his pockets as they balled into fists.

  “Chase was generous enough to allow us to use his lake.” Her right hand groped for her left until they were clasped together. “We had a tour of his orchards.” Though pride suffered, her eyes pleaded with him.

  “Your land must be very near here.” Eric hadn’t missed the exchange of looks. His hand leaned more heavily on Eden’s shoulder.

  “Near enough.”

  Then they were looking at each other, not at her. Somehow that, more than anything, made her feel as though she’d been shifted to the middle. If there was tension and she was the cause of it, she wanted to be able to speak on her own behalf. But the expression in Chase’s eyes only brought confusion. The weight of Eric’s hand only brought annoyance. Moving away from Eric, she stepped toward Chase.

  “Did you want to see me?”

  “Yes.” But he’d wanted more than that, a great deal more. Seeing her in Eric’s arms had left him feeling both murderous and empty. He wasn’t ready to deal with either yet. “It wasn’t important.”

  “Chase—”

  “Oh, hello.” The warmth in Candy’s voice came almost as a shock. She stepped through the doorway with Dottie at her side. “Aunt Dottie, I want you to meet our neighbor, Chase Elliot.”

  Even as Dottie extended her hand, her eyes were narrowed speculatively. “Elliot? I’m sure I know that name. Yes, yes, didn’t we meet several years ago? You’re Jessie Winthrop’s grandson.”

  Eden watched his lips curve, his eyes warm, but he wasn’t looking at her. “Yes, I am, and I remember you very well, Mrs. Norfolk. You haven’t changed.”

  Dottie’s laugh was low and quick. “It’s been fifteen years if it’s been a day. I’d say there’s been a change or two. You were about a foot shorter at the time.” She sized him up approvingly in a matter of ten seconds. “It’s apples, isn’t it? Yes, of course, it is. Elliot’s.”

  And, oh my God, she realized almost as quickly, I’ve brought Eric along and jammed up the works. A person would have to have a three-inch layer of steel coating not to feel the shock waves bouncing around the stables.

  What could be done, she told herself, could be undone. Smiling, she looked at her niece. “Candy’s been telling me about the social event of the season. Are we all invited?”

  “Invited?” Eden struggled to gather her scattered wits. “You mean the dance?” She had to laugh. Her aunt was standing in the stables in Italian shoes and a suit that had cost more than any one of the horses. “Aunt Dottie, you don’t intend to stay here?”

  “Stay here?” The white brows shot up. “I should say not.” She twisted the pearls at her neck as she began to calculate. She didn’t intend to bunk down in a cabin, but neither was she about to miss the impending fireworks. “Eric and I are staying at a hotel some miles away, but I’d be heartbroken if you didn’t ask us to the party tonight.” She put a friendly hand on Chase’s arm. “You’re coming, aren’t you?”

  He knew a manipulator when he saw one. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

  “Wonderful.” Dottie slid Candy’s hand back into the crook of her arm, then patted it. “We’re all invited then.”

  Fumbling, Candy looked from Eric to Eden. “Well, yes, of course, but—”

  “Isn’t this sweet?” Dottie patted her hand again. “We’ll have a delightful time. Don’t you think so, Eden?”

  “Delightful,” Eden agreed, wondering if she could hitch a ride out of town.

  Chapter 9

  Eden had problems—big problems. But not the least of them were the sixty adolescents in the mess hall. However she handled Eric, however she managed to explain herself to Chase, sixty young bodies couldn’t be put on hold.

  The boys arrived in vans at eight o’clock. Unless Eden missed her guess, they were every bit as nervous as the girls. Eden remembered her own cotillion days, the uncertainty and the damp palms. The blaring music helped cover some of the awkwardness as the boys’ counselors trooped them in.

  The refreshment table was loaded. There was enough punch stored in the kitchen to bathe in. Candy gave a brief welcoming speech to set the tone, the banners and the paper flowers waving at her back. A fresh record was set spinning on the turntable. Girls stood on one side of the room, boys on the other.

  The biggest problem, naturally, was that no one wanted to go first. Eden had worked that out by making up two bowls of corresponding numbers. Boys picked from one, girls from another. You matched, you danced. It wasn’t imaginative, but it was expedient.

  When the first dance was half over, she slipped into the kitchen to check on backup refreshments, leaving Candy to supervise and to mingle with the male counselors.

  When she returned, the dance floor wasn’t as crowded; but this time the partners had chosen for themselves.

  “Miss Carlbough?”

  Eden turned her head as she bent to place a bowl of chips in an empty space on the long crowded table. Roberta’s face was spotless. Her thatch of wild hair had been tamed into a bushy ponytail and tied with a ribbon. She had little turquoise stars in her ears to match a ruffled and not-too-badly-wrinkled blouse. The dusting of freckles over her face had been partially hidden by a layer of powder. Eden imagined she had conned it out of one of the older girls, but let it pass.

  “Hi, Roberta.” Plucking two pretzels from a bowl, she handed one over. “Aren’t you going to dance?”

  “Sure.” She glanced over her shoulder, confident and patient. “I wanted to talk to you first.”

  “Oh?” It didn’t appear that she needed a pep talk. Eden had already seen the skinny, dark-haired boy Roberta had set her sights on. If Eden was any judge, he didn’t stand a chance. “What about?”

  “I saw that guy in the Rolls.”

  Eden’s automatic warning not to speak with her mouth full was postponed. “You mean Mr. Keeton?”

  “Some of the girls think he’s cute.”

  “Hmm.” Eden nibbled on her own pretzel.

  “A couple of them said you were soft on him. They think you had a lovers’ quarrel, you know, like Romeo and Juliet or something. Now he’s come to beg you to forgive him, and you’re going to realize that you can’t live without him and go off and get married.”

  The pretze
l hung between two fingers as Eden listened. After a moment, she managed to clear her throat. “Well, that’s quite a scenario.”

  “I said it was baloney.”

  Trying not to laugh, she bit into the pretzel. “Did you?”

  “You’re smart, all the girls say so.” Reaching behind Eden, she took a handful of chips. “I said you were too smart to be soft on the guy in the Rolls, because he’s not nearly as neat as Mr. Elliot.” Roberta glanced over her shoulder as if in confirmation. “He’s shorter, too.”

  “Yes.” Eden had to bite her lip. “Yes, he is.”

  “He doesn’t look like he’d jump in the lake to fool around.”

  The last statement had Eden trying to imagine Eric diving into the cool waters of the lake half-dressed. Or bringing her a clutch of wildflowers. Or finding pictures in the sky. Her lips curved dreamily. “No, Eric would never do that.”

  “That’s why I knew it was all baloney.” Roberta devoured the chips. “When Mr. Elliot comes, I’m going to dance with him, but now I’m going to dance with Bobby.” Shooting Eden a smile, she walked across the room and grabbed the hand of the lanky, dark-haired boy. As Eden had thought, he didn’t have a chance.

  She watched the dancing, but thought of Chase. It came to her all at once that he was the only man she knew whom she hadn’t measured against her father. Comparisons had never occurred to her. She hadn’t measured Chase against anyone but had fallen in love with him for himself. Now all she needed was the courage to tell him.

  “So this is how young people entertain themselves these days.”

  Eden turned to find Dottie beside her. For Camp Liberty’s summer dance, she had chosen mauve lace. The pearls had been exchanged for a single, sensational ruby. BooBoo had a clip of rhinestones—Eden sincerely hoped they were only rhinestones—secured on top of her head. Feeling a wave of affection, Eden kissed her aunt. “Are you settled into your hotel?”

  “So to speak.” Accepting a potato chip, Dottie took her own survey. The powder-blue voile was the essence of simplicity with its cap sleeves and high neck, but Dottie approved the way it depended on the wearer for its style. “Thank God you haven’t lost your taste.”

  Laughing, Eden kissed her again. “I’ve missed you. I’m so glad you came.”

  “Are you?” Always discreet, Dottie led her toward the screen door. “I was afraid you weren’t exactly thrilled to see me here.” She let the screen whoosh shut as they stepped onto the porch. “Particularly with the surprise I brought you.”

  “I was glad to see you, Aunt Dottie.”

  “But not Eric.”

  Eden leaned back on the rail. “Did you think I would be?”

  “Yes.” She sighed, and brushed at the bodice of her lace. “I suppose I did. It only took five minutes to realize what a mistake I’d made. Darling, I hope you understand I was trying to help.”

  “Of course I do, and I love you for it.”

  “I thought that whatever had gone wrong between you would have had time to heal over.” Forgetting herself, Dottie offered BooBoo the rest of the chip. “To be honest, the way he’s been talking to me, I was sure by bringing him to you I’d be doing the next-best thing to saving your life.”

  “I can imagine,” Eden murmured.

  “So much for grand gestures.” Dottie moved her shoulders so that the ruby winked. “Eden, you never told me why you two called off the wedding. It was so sudden.”

  Eden opened her mouth, then closed it again. There was no reason to hurt and infuriate her aunt after all these months. If she told her now, it would be for spite or, worse, for sympathy. Eric was worth neither. “We just realized we weren’t suited.”

  “I always thought differently.” There was a loud blast of music and a chorus of laughter. Dottie cast a glance over her shoulder. “Eric seems to think differently, too. He’s been to see me several times in recent weeks.”

  Pushing the heavy fall of hair from her shoulders, Eden walked to the edge of the porch. Perhaps Eric had discovered that the Carlbough name wasn’t so badly tarnished after all. It gave her no pleasure to be cynical, but it was the only answer that seemed right. It wouldn’t have taken him long to realize that eventually she would come into money again, through inheritances. She swallowed her bitterness as she turned back to her aunt.

  “He’s mistaken, Aunt Dottie. Believe me when I say he doesn’t have any genuine feelings for me. Perhaps he thinks he does,” she added, when she saw the frown centered between Dottie’s brows. “I’d say it’s a matter of habit. I didn’t love Eric.” Her hands outstretched, she went to take her aunt’s. “I never did. It’s taken me some time to understand that I was going to marry him for all the wrong reasons—because it was expected, because it was easy. And . . .” She drew in her breath. “Because I mistakenly thought he was like Papa.”

  “Oh, darling.”

  “It was my mistake, so most of it was my fault.” Now that it was said, and said aloud, she could accept it. “I always compared the men I dated with Papa. He was the kindest, most caring man I’ve ever known, but even though I loved and admired him, it was wrong of me to judge other men by him.”

  “We all loved him, Eden.” Dottie drew Eden into her arms. “He was a good man, a loving man. A gambler, but—”

  “I don’t mind that he was a gambler.” Now, when she drew back, Eden could smile. “I know if he hadn’t died so suddenly, he’d have come out on top again. But it doesn’t matter, Aunt Dottie, because I’m a gambler, too.” She turned so that her gesture took in the camp. “I’ve learned how to make my own stake.”

  “How like him you are.” Dottie was forced to draw a tissue out of her bag. “When you insisted on doing this, even when I first came here today, I could only think my poor little Eden’s gone mad. Then I looked, really looked, at your camp, at the girls, at you, and I could see you’d made it work.” After one inelegant sniff, she stuffed the tissue back in her bag. “I’m proud of you, Eden. Your father would have been proud of you.”

  Now it was Eden’s eyes that dampened. “Aunt Dottie, I can’t tell you how much that means to me. After he died and I had to sell everything, I felt I’d betrayed him, you, everyone.”

  “No.” Dottie cupped Eden’s chin in her hand. “What you did took tremendous courage, more than I had. You know how badly I wanted to spare you all of that.”

  “I know, and I appreciate it, but it had to be this way.”

  “I think I understand that now. I want you to know that I hurt for you, Eden, but I was never ashamed. Even now, knowing you don’t need it, I’ll tell you that my house is yours whenever you like.”

  “Knowing that is enough.”

  “And I expect this to be the finest camp in the east within five years.”

  Eden laughed again, and all the weight she’d carried with her since her father’s death slipped off her shoulders. “It will be.”

  With a nod, Dottie took a step along the rail and looked out at the compound. “I do believe you should have a pool. Girls should have regulated, regimented swimming lessons. Splashing in the lake doesn’t meet those standards. I’m going to donate one.”

  Eden’s back went up immediately. “Aunt Dottie—”

  “In your father’s name.” Dottie paused and cocked a brow. “Yes, I can see you won’t argue with that. If I can donate a wing to a hospital, I can certainly donate a swimming pool in my brother’s name to my favorite niece’s camp. In fact, my accountant’s going to be thrilled. Now, would you like Eric and me to go?”

  Barely recovered from being so neatly maneuvered, Eden only sighed. “Having Eric here means nothing now. I want you to stay as long as you like.”

  “Good. BooBoo and I are enjoying ourselves.” Dottie bent down to nuzzle in the dog’s fur. “The delightful thing about BooBoo is that she’s so much more tractable than any of my children were. Eden, one more thing before I go inside and absorb culture. I would swear that I felt, well, how to put it? One might almost say earth tremors when I
walked into the stables this afternoon. Are you in love with someone else?”

  “Aunt Dottie—”

  “Answer enough. I’ll just add my complete approval, not that it matters. BooBoo was quite charmed.”

  “Are you trying to be eccentric?”

  With a smile, Dottie shifted the bundle in her arms. “When you can’t rely on beauty any longer, you have to fall back on something. Ah, look here.” She stepped aside as the Lamborghini cruised up. Lips pursed, Dottie watched Chase climb out. “Hello again,” she called. “I admire your taste.” She gave Eden a quick pat. “Yes, I do. I think I’ll just pop inside and try some punch. It isn’t too dreadful, is it?”

  “I made it myself.”

  “Oh.” Dottie rolled her eyes. “Well, I’ve some gambler in me as well.”

  Bracing herself, Eden turned toward Chase. “Hello. I’m glad you could—”

  His mouth covered hers so quickly, so completely, that there wasn’t even time for surprise. She might think of the hard possessiveness of the kiss later, but for now she just slid her hands up his back so that she could grip his shoulders. Instantly intense, instantly real, instantly right.

  She hadn’t felt this with Eric. That was what Chase told himself as she melted against him. She’d never felt this with
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