Her mothers keeper, p.5
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       Her Mother's Keeper, p.5

           Nora Roberts
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  other man. But then, she admitted ruefully, she had never come into contact with a man like Luke Powers. There was a basically sensual aura about him despite his outward calm. She felt that he, like the bayou, hid much below the surface. Gwen was forced to admit that she had no guidelines for dealing with such a man. Worse, he had kindled in her a hitherto-buried part of her nature.

  She had always thought her life and her needs simple. But suddenly, the quiet dreams inside her had risen to the surface. She was no longer the uncomplicated, controlled woman she had thought herself to be. The somewhat volatile temper she possessed had always been manageable, but in just two days the reins of restraint had slipped through her fingers.

  His fault, Gwen grumbled to herself as she glared at a pale pink peony. He shouldn’t be here—he should be in his beach house in California. If he were in California, perhaps battling an earthquake or hurricane, I’d be having a nice, uncomplicated visit with Mama. Instead he’s here, insinuating himself into my life and making me feel . . . Gwen paused a moment and bit her lip. How does he make me feel? she thought. With a sigh, she let her gaze wander over the variety of colors and hues in the garden. I’m not sure how he makes me feel. He frightens me. The knowledge came to her swiftly, and her eyes reflected her surprise. Yes, he frightens me, though I’m not altogether sure why. It’s not as if I thought he’d hurt me physically, he’s not that sort of man, but still . . . Shaking her head, Gwen moved slowly down the walkway, digesting the new thought. He’s a man who controls people and situations so naturally you’re hardly aware you’ve been controlled.

  Unconsciously, Gwen lifted her finger and ran it along her bottom lip. Vividly she remembered the feel of his mouth on hers. Its touch had ranged from gentle and coaxing to urgent and demanding, but the power over her had been the same. It was true—there was something exhilarating about fencing with him, like standing on the bow of a ship in a storm. But no matter how adventurous she might be, Gwen was forced to concede that there was one level on which she could not win. When she was in his arms, it was not surrender she felt, but passion for passion, need for need. Discovering this new facet of herself was perhaps the most disturbing knowledge of all.

  I won’t give up. Gwen lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders. I won’t let him intimidate me or dominate my thoughts any longer. Her eyes glittered with challenge. Luke Powers won’t control me. He’ll find out that Gwen Lacrosse is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and her mother.

  “Just a minute longer.” Bradley Stapleton held up a pencil briefly, then continued to scrawl with it on an artist’s pad. He sat crosslegged in the middle of the walkway, his feet sandaled, wearing paint-spattered carpenter’s pants, a checked sport shirt unbuttoned over his thin chest and a beige fisherman’s cap on his head. Surprised and intrigued, Gwen stopped in her tracks.

  “Wonderful!” With surprising agility, Bradley unfolded himself and rose. His eyes smiled with genuine pleasure as he strolled over to Gwen. “I knew you’d be a good subject, but I didn’t dare hope you’d be spectacular. Just look at this range of emotions!” he commanded as he flipped back several pages in his pad.

  Gwen’s initial amusement altered to astonishment. That the pencil sketches were exceptionally good was obvious, but it was not his talent as much as the content of the sketches that surprised her. She saw a woman with loose, curling hair and a coltish slenderness. There was a vulnerability she had never perceived in herself. As Gwen turned the pages, she saw herself dreaming, pouting, thinking and glaring. There was something disturbing about seeing her feelings of the past half hour so clearly defined. She lifted her eyes to the artist.

  “They’re fabulous,” she told him. Bradley’s face crinkled into a grin. “Bradley,” she searched for the right words. “Am I really . . . so, well . . . artless as it seems here?” She looked back down at the sketches with a mixture of conflicting emotions. “What I mean is, are my thoughts, my feelings, so blatantly obvious? Am I so transparent?”

  “That’s precisely what makes you such a good model,” Bradley said. “Your face is so expressive.”

  “But—” With a gesture of frustration, Gwen ran a hand through her hair. “Do they always show? Are they always there for people to examine? I feel defenseless and, well, naked somehow.”

  Bradley gave her a sympathetic smile and patted her cheek with his long, bony fingers. “You have an honest face, Gwen, but if it worries you, remember that most people don’t see past the shape of a nose or the color of eyes. People are usually too busy with their own thoughts to notice someone else’s.”

  “Yet you certainly did,” Gwen replied, but she felt more comfortable.

  “It’s my business.”

  “Yes.” With a smile, Gwen began flipping through the pages again. “You’re very good . . .” She stopped, speechless as the pad fell open to a sketch of Luke.

  It was a simple sketch of him sitting on the rail of the veranda. He was dressed casually, and his hair was tousled, as though he had been working. Bradley had captured the strength and intelligence in his face, as well as the sensual quality she had not expected another man to notice. But it was Luke’s eyes, which seemed to lock on to hers, that impressed her. The artist had caught the strange melding of serenity and power that she had felt in them. Gwen was conscious of an odd quickening of her breath. Irresistibly, she was drawn to the picture just as she was drawn to the man.

  “I’m rather pleased with it.” Gwen heard Bradley’s voice and realized with a jolt that he had been speaking for several seconds.

  “It’s very good,” she murmured. “You understand him.” She was unaware of the wistfulness and touch of envy in her voice.

  After a brief, speculative glance at her lowered head, Bradley nodded. “To an extent, I suppose. I understand he’s a complicated man. In some ways, he’s much like you.”

  “Me?” Genuinely shocked, Gwen lifted her eyes.

  “You’re both capable of a wide range of emotions. Not everyone is, you know. The main difference is, he channels his, while yours are fully expressed. Will you sit for me?”

  “What?” Gwen tried to focus on him again. The question was out of context with the rest of his statement. She shook her head to clear it of the disturbing thoughts his words had aroused in her.

  “Will you sit for me?” Bradley repeated patiently. “I very much want to do you in oils.”

  “Yes, of course.” She shrugged and conjured up a smile to dispel her own mood. “It sounds like fun.”

  “You won’t think so after a couple of hours of holding a pose,” Bradley promised good-naturedly. “Come on, we’ll get started now, before you change your mind.” Taking her hand, he pulled her up the walkway.

  Several hours later, Gwen clearly understood the truth of Bradley’s statement. Posing for a temperamental artist, she discovered, was both exhausting and demanding. Her face had been sketched from a dozen angles while she stood or sat or twisted in accordance with his commands. She began to feel more sympathy for the models at Style.

  She had been amused at first when Bradley rooted through her wardrobe in search of attire suitable to sitting for the portrait. When he selected a thin white silk robe, she had taken what she considered a firm stand against his choice. He ignored her objections and, to her amazement, Gwen found herself doing exactly as he instructed.

  Now, tired and alone, Gwen stretched out on her bed and relaxed her muscles. A smile lurked at the corners of her mouth as she recalled how Bradley had gently steamrolled her. Any embarrassment she had felt about wearing only the robe while he studied her or moved her this way and that had been swiftly eradicated. She might as easily have been an interesting tree or a fruit bowl. He had not been interested in the body beneath the robe but in the way the material draped.

  I don’t have to worry about fending off a passionate attack, Gwen reflected as she shut her eyes, only about stiffening joints. With a deep sigh, she snuggled into the pillow.

  Her dr
eams were confused. She dreamed she was roaming through the bayou picking roses and blueberries. As she passed through a clearing, she saw Luke chopping down a thick, heavy tree. The sound of the ax was like thunder. The tree fell soundlessly at her feet. As Luke watched, she walked to him and melted into his arms. For an instant she felt violent joy, then, just as suddenly, she found herself hurled into the cool stream.

  From behind a curtain of water, Gwen saw Anabelle, a gentle smile on her lips as she offered her hand to Luke. Gwen struggled for the surface but found it just beyond her reach. Abruptly she was standing on the bank with Bradley sitting at her feet sketching. Ax in hand, Luke approached her, but Gwen found her arms and legs had turned to stone. As he walked, he began to change, his features dissolving, his clothing altering.

  It was Michael who came to her now, a practical briefcase taking the place of the ax. He shook his head at her stone limbs and reminded her in his precise voice that he had told her she was cold. Gwen tried to shake her head in denial, but her neck had turned to stone, as well. When Michael took her by the shoulders and prepared to carry her away, she could only make a small sound of protest. From a distance, she heard Luke call her name. Michael dropped her, and as her stone limbs shattered, she awoke. Dazed, Gwen stared into blue-gray eyes. “Luke,” she murmured, “I’m not cold.”

  “No.” He brushed the hair from her cheek, then let his palm linger. “You’re certainly not.”

  “Kiss me again, I don’t want to turn to stone.” She made the request petulantly. Amusement touched Luke’s mouth as he lowered it to hers.

  “Of course not, who could blame you?”

  Sighing, Gwen locked her arms around his neck and enjoyed the warm gentleness of the kiss. Her limbs grew warm and fluid, her lips parted and begged for more. The kiss deepened until dream and reality mixed. A sharp stab of desire brought Gwen crashing through the barriers of lingering sleep. She managed a muffled protest against his mouth as she struggled for release. Luke did not immediately set her free but allowed his lips to linger on hers until he had had his fill. Even then, his face remained dangerously close. His mouth was only a sigh away.

  “That must’ve been some dream,” he murmured. With easy intimacy, he rubbed his nose against hers. “Women are so irresistibly soft and warm when they’ve been sleeping.”

  Cheeks flaming, Gwen managed to struggle up to a sitting position. “You have a nerve,” she flared. “What do you mean by coming into my bedroom and molesting me?”

  “Take a guess,” he invited with a wolfish grin. Her color grew yet deeper as she gripped the V of her robe. “Relax,” Luke continued. “I didn’t come to steal your virtue, I came to wake you for dinner.” He ran a fingertip along her jawline. “The rest was your idea.”

  Indignation stiffened Gwen’s spine but muddled her speech. “You—you . . . I was asleep, and you took advantage . . .”

  “I certainly did,” Luke agreed, then pulled her close for a hard, brief kiss. “And we both enjoyed every second of it.” He rose gracefully. “White suits you,” he commented, his gaze wandering over the soft folds of the robe, “but you might want to change into something a bit less informal for dinner, unless your object is to drive Bradley into a frenzy of desire.”

  Gwen rose, wrapping the robe more tightly about her. “Don’t worry about Bradley,” she said icily. “He spent all afternoon sketching me in this robe.”

  The humor disappeared so swiftly from Luke’s face, Gwen wondered if she had imagined its existence. His mouth was grim as he stepped toward her. “What?” The one word vibrated in the room.

  “You heard me. I’ve agreed to let Bradley paint me.”

  “In that?” Luke’s eyes dropped the length of the robe, then returned to her face.

  “Yes, what of it?” Gwen tossed her head and turned to walk away from him. The silk of her robe floated around her legs and clung to her hips as she moved. When she reached the window, she turned and leaned back against the sill. Her stance was at once insolent and sensual. “What business is it of yours?”

  “Don’t play games unless you’re prepared to lose,” Luke warned softly.

  “You’re insufferable.” The brown of her eyes grew molten.

  “And you’re a spoiled child.”

  “I’m not a child,” Gwen retorted. “I make my own decisions. If I want to pose for Bradley in this robe or in a suit of armor or in a pair of diamond earrings and nothing else, that’s nothing to do with you.”

  “I’d consider the diamond earrings carefully, Gwen.” The soft tone of Luke’s voice betrayed his rising temper. “If you try it, I’d have to break all of Bradley’s fingers.”

  His calm promise of violence added fuel to Gwen’s fire. “If that isn’t typical male stupidity! If something doesn’t work, kick it or swear at it! I thought you were more intelligent.”

  “Did you?” A glimmer of amusement returned to Luke’s eyes. Reaching out, he gave her hair a sharp tug. “Too bad you were wrong.”

  “Men!” she expostulated, lifting her palms and eyes to the ceiling. “You’re all the same.”

  “You speak, of course, from vast personal experience.”

  The sarcasm in his voice did not escape Gwen. “You’re all arrogant, superior, selfish—”

  “Beasts?” Luke suggested amiably.

  “That’ll do,” she agreed with a nod.

  “Glad to help.” Luke sat back on the edge of the bed and watched her. The flickering lights of the setting sun accentuated the hollows and shadows of her face.

  “You always think you know best and that women are too muddleheaded to decide things for themselves. All you do is give orders, orders, orders, and when you don’t get your own way, you shout or sulk or, worse, patronize. I hate, loathe and despise being patronized!” Balling her hands into fists, Gwen thrust them into the pockets of her robe. “I don’t like being told I’m cute in a tone of voice that means I’m stupid. I don’t like being patted on the head like a puppy who can’t learn to fetch. Then, after you’ve finished insulting my intelligence, you want to breathe all over me. Of course, I should be grateful for the attention because I’m such a sweet little simpleton.” Unable to prevent herself any longer, Gwen gave the bedpost a hard slap. “I am not,” she began, and her voice was low with fury, “I am not cold and unresponsive and sexually immature.”

  “Good Lord, child.” Gwen, jolted by Luke’s voice, blinked as she refocused on him. “What idiot ever told you that you were?”

  Gwen stared at Luke in frozen silence.

  “Your opinion of men obviously comes from the same source,” he continued. “Your Michael must have been really convincing.” Embarrassed, Gwen shrugged and turned back to the window. “Were you in love with him?”

  The question caught her so off balance that she answered automatically. “No, but I thought I was, so it amounts to the same thing, I imagine.”

  “Bounced around a bit, were you?” His tone was surprisingly gentle as were the hands that descended to her shoulders.

  “Oh, please.” Quickly, Gwen moved away as she felt a strange, sweet ache. “Don’t be kind to me. I can’t fight you if you’re kind.”

  “Is that what you want to do?” Luke took her shoulders firmly now and turned her around to face him. “Do you want to fight?” His eyes dropped to her lips. Gwen began to tremble.

  “I think it’s better if we do.” Her voice was suddenly breathless. “I think fighting with you is safer.”

  “Safer than what?” he inquired. He smiled, a quick, flashing movement that was both charming and seductive. The room grew dim in the dusk, silhouetting them in the magic light of a dying day. “You are beautiful,” he murmured, sliding his hand along the slope of her shoulders until his fingers traced her throat.

  Mesmerized, Gwen stared up at him. “No, I—I’m not. My mouth’s too wide, and my chin’s pointed.”

  “Of course,” Luke agreed as he drew her closer. “I see it now, you’re quite an ugly little thing. It
s a pity to waste velvet eyes and silken skin on such an unfortunate-looking creature.”

  “Please.” Gwen turned her head, and his mouth brushed her cheek rather than her lips. “Don’t kiss me. It confuses me—I don’t know what to do.”

  “On the contrary, you seem to know precisely what to do.”

  “Luke, please.” She caught her breath. “Please, when you kiss me, I forget everything, and I only want you to kiss me again.”

  “I’ll be happy to do so.”

  “No, don’t.” Gwen pushed away and looked at him with huge, pleading eyes. “I’m frightened.”

  He studied her with quiet intensity. He watched her lip tremble, her teeth digging into it to halt the movement. The pulse in her neck throbbed under his palm. Letting out a long breath, he stepped back and slipped his hands into his pockets. His look was thoughtful. “I wonder, if I make love to you, would you lose that appealing air of innocence?”

  “I’m not going to let you make love to me.” Even to herself, Gwen’s voice sounded shaky and unsure.

  “Gwen, you’re much too honest to make a statement like that, let alone believe it yourself.” Luke turned and walked to the door. “I’ll tell Anabelle you’ll be down in a few minutes.”

  He closed the door behind him, and Gwen was left alone with her thoughts in the darkening room.

  Chapter 6

  Gwen endured Bradley’s sketching for nearly an hour. His eyes were much sharper in his plain, harmless face than she had originally thought. And, she had discovered, he was a quiet tyrant. Once she had agreed to pose for him, he had taken over with mild but inescapable efficiency. He placed her on a white wrought-iron chair in the heart of the garden.

  The morning was heavy and warm, with a hint of rain hovering despite the sunshine. A dragonfly darted past, zooming over a rosebush to her right. Gwen turned her head to watch its flight.

  “Don’t do that!” Bradley’s beautifully modulated voice made Gwen guiltily jerk her head back. “I’m only sketching your face today,” he reminded her. She murmured something unintelligible that had him smiling. “Now I understand why you work behind the scenes
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