First impressions, p.6
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       First Impressions, p.6

           Nora Roberts
 
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  She was more attractive with her hair short, Vance decided as he studied her. The way it curled and clung to the shape of her face accented the smoothness of her skin, and the way her jaw tapered …

  He found himself wondering if Cy had taken the picture and was immediately annoyed with the idea. He disliked Cy on principle, though he’d certainly employed a good many men like him over the years. They plotted their way through life as though it were a tax return.

  What the hell had she seen in him? Vance thought in disgust as he turned away to take more measurements. If she had tied herself up with him, she would be living in some stuffy house in the suburbs with 2.3 children, the Ladies Auxiliary on Wednesdays and a two-week vacation in a rented beach cottage every year. Fine for some, he thought, but not for a woman who liked to paint porches and wanted to see Fiji.

  That buttoned-down jerk would have picked on her for the rest of her life, Vance concluded before he headed back downstairs. She’d had a lucky escape. Vance thought it was a pity he hadn’t had one himself. Instead he had spent an intolerable four years wishing his wife out of existence and another two dealing with the guilt of having his wish come true.

  Shaking off the mood, Vance walked outside to take a look at Shane’s front porch.

  Later, when he was measuring and muttering, Shane came out with a mug of tea in each hand. “Pretty bad, huh?”

  Vance looked up with an expression of disgust. “It’s a wonder someone hasn’t broken a leg on this thing.”

  “No one uses it much.” Shane shrugged as she worked her way expertly around the uncertain boards. “Gran always used the back door. So does anyone who comes to visit.”

  “Your boyfriend didn’t.”

  Shane shot him a dry look. “Cy wouldn’t use the back door, and he’s not my boyfriend. What do you think I should do about it?”

  “I thought you’d already done it,” he returned, and pocketed his rule. “And very well.”

  Shane eyed him a moment, then laughed. “No, not about Cy, about the porch.”

  “Tear the damn thing down.”

  “Oh.” Gingerly, Shane sat on the top step. “All of it? I was hoping to replace the worst boards, and—”

  “The whole thing’s going to collapse if three people stand on it at the same time,” Vance cut in, frowning at the sagging wood. “I can’t understand how anyone could let something get into this condition.”

  “All right, don’t get riled up,” she advised as she held out a mug of tea. “How much do you think it’ll cost me?”

  Vance calculated a moment, then named a price. He saw the flicker of dismay before Shane sighed.

  “Okay.” It killed her last hope of holding on to her grandmother’s dining-room set. “If it has to be done. I suppose it’s first priority. The weather might turn cold anytime.” She managed a halfhearted smile. “I wouldn’t want my first customer to fall through the porch and sue me.”

  “Shane.” Vance stood in front of her. As she sat on the top step, their faces were almost level. Her look was direct and open, yet still he hesitated before speaking. “How much do you have? Money,” he added bluntly when she gave him a blank look.

  She drew her brows together at the question. “Enough to get by,” she said, then made a sound of annoyance as he continued to stare at her. “Barely,” she admitted. “But it’ll hold until my business makes a few dollars. I’ve got so much budgeted for the house, so much for buying stock. Gran left me a nest egg, and I had my own savings.”

  Vance hesitated again. He had promised himself not to become involved, yet he was being drawn in every time he saw her. “I hate to sound like your boyfriend,” he began.

  “Then don’t,” Shane said quickly. “And he’s not.”

  “All right.” Vance frowned down at his mug. It was one thing to take on a job as a lark, and another to take money from a woman who was obviously counting her pennies. He sipped, trying to find a reasonable way out of his hourly wage. “Shane, about my salary—”

  “Oh, Vance, I can’t make it any more right now.” Distress flew into her eyes. “Later, after I’ve gotten started …”

  “No.” Embarrassed and annoyed, he put a hand on hers to stop her. “No, I wasn’t going to ask you to raise it.”

  “But—” Shane stopped. Realization filled her eyes. Tears followed it. Swiftly, she set down the mug and rose. Shaking her head, she descended the stairs. “No, no, that’s very kind of you,” she managed as she walked away from him. “I—I appreciate it, really, but it’s not necessary. I didn’t mean to make it sound as though—” Breaking off, she stared at the surrounding mountains. For a moment there was only the sound of the creek bubbling on its way behind them.

  Cursing himself, Vance went to her. After a brief hesitation, he put his hands on her shoulders. “Shane, listen—”

  “No, please.” Swiftly, she turned to face him. Though the tears hadn’t brimmed over, her eyes still swam with them. When she lifted her hands to his forearms, he found her fingers surprisingly strong. “It’s very kind of you to offer.”

  “No, it’s not,” Vance snapped. Frustration, guilt and something more ran through him. He resented all of it.

  “Damn it, Shane, you don’t understand. The money isn’t—”

  “I understand you’re a very sweet man,” she interrupted. Vance felt himself become tangled deeper when she put her arms around him, pressing her cheek to his chest.

  “No, I’m not,” he muttered. Intending to push her away and find a way out of the mess he’d gotten himself into, Vance put his hands back on her shoulders. The last thing he wanted was misplaced gratitude. But his hands found their way into her hair.

  He didn’t want to push her away, he realized. No, by God, he didn’t. Not when her small firm breasts were pressed against him. Not when her hair curled riotously around his fingers. It was soft, so soft, and the color of wild honey. Her mouth was soft, he remembered, aching. Surrendering to need, Vance buried his face in her hair, murmuring her name.

  Something in the tone, the hint of desperation, made Shane long to comfort him. She didn’t yet sense his desire for her, only his trouble. She pressed closer, wanting to ease it while she ran soothing hands over his back. At her touch, his blood leaped. In a swift, almost brutal move, Vance pulled her head back to savage her mouth with his.

  Shane’s instinctive cry of alarm was silenced. Her struggles went unnoticed. A fire consumed him—so great, so unbearably hot, he had no thought but to quench it. She felt fear, then, greater than fear, passion. The fire spread, engulfing her until her mouth answered his wildly.

  No one, nothing had ever brought her to this—this madness of need, terror of desire. She moaned in panicked excitement as his teeth nipped into her bottom lip. Along her skin, quick thrills raced to confuse and inflame. There was never a thought to deny him. She knew she was already his.

  He thought he would go mad if he didn’t touch her, learn just one of the secrets of her small, slim body. For countless hours the night before, his imagination had tormented him. Now, he had to satisfy it. Never stopping his assault on her mouth, he reached beneath her shirt to find her breast. Her heart pounded beneath his hand. She was firm and small. His appetite only increased, making him groan while his thumb and finger worked the already erect peak.

  Colors exploded inside her head like a blinding, brilliant rainbow. Shane clutched at him, afraid, enthralled, while her lips and tongue continued with a demand equal to his. Against her smooth skin his palm was rough and callused. His thumb scraped her, lifting her to a delirium of excitement. There was no smoothness, no softness in him. His mouth was hard and hot with the stormy taste of anger. Crushed to hers, his body was taut and tense. Some raw, turbulent passion seemed to pour out of him to dare her to match it.

  She felt his arms tighten around her convulsively; then she was free so quickly she staggered, grabbing his arm to steady herself.

  In her eyes, Vance saw the clouds of passion, the lights
of fear. Her mouth was bruised and swollen from the fierceness of his. He frowned at it. Never before had he been rough with a woman. For the most part, he was a considerate lover, perhaps indifferent at times but never ungentle. He took a step back from her. “I’m sorry,” he said stiffly.

  Shane lifted her fingers to her still-tender lips in a nervous gesture. Her reaction, much more than Vance’s technique, had left her shaken. Where had all that fire and feeling been hiding all this time? she wondered. “I don’t …” Shane had to clear her throat to manage more than a whisper. “I don’t want you to be sorry.”

  Vance studied her steadily for a moment. “It would be better all around if you did.” Reaching in his back pocket, he drew out a list. “Here are the materials you’ll need. Let me know when they’re delivered.”

  “All right.” Shane accepted the list. When he started to walk away, she drew up all of her courage. “Vance …” He paused and turned back to her. “I’m not sorry,” she told him quietly.

  He didn’t answer, but walked around the side of the house and disappeared.

  Chapter Five

  Shane decided she had worked harder over the following three days than she had ever worked in her life. The spare bedroom and dining room were loaded with packing boxes, labeled and listed and sealed. The house had been scrubbed and swept and dusted from top to bottom. She had pored through catalogs on antiques until the words ran together. Every item she owned was listed systematically. The dating and pricing was more grueling for her than the manual work and often kept her up until the early hours of the morning. She would be up to start again the moment the sunlight woke her. Yet her energy never flagged. With each step of progress she made, the excitement grew, pushing her to make more.

  As the time passed, she became more convinced, and more confident, that what she was doing was right. It felt right. She needed to find her own way—the sacrifices and the financial risk were necessary. She didn’t intend to fail.

  For her, the shop would be not only a business but an adventure. Though Shane was impatient for the adventure to begin, as always, the planning and anticipation were just as stimulating to her. She had contracted with a roofer and a plumber, and had chosen her paints and stains. Just that afternoon, in a torrent of rain, the materials she had ordered from Vance’s list had been delivered. The mundane, practical occurrences had given her a thrill of accomplishment. Somehow, the lumber, nails and bolts had been tangible evidence that she was on her way. Shane told herself that Antietam Antiques and Museum became a reality when the first board was set in place.

  Excited, she had phoned Vance, and if he were true to his word, he would begin work the next morning.

  Over a solitary cup of cocoa in the kitchen, Shane listened to the constant drumming rain and thought of him. He had been brief and businesslike on the phone. She hadn’t been offended. She had come to realize that moodiness was part of his character. This made him only more attractive.

  The windows were dark as she stared out, with a ghostly reflection of the kitchen light on the wet panes. She thought idly about starting a fire to chase away the damp chill, but she had little inclination to move. Instead, she rubbed the bottom of one bare foot over the top of the other and decided it was too bad her socks were all the way upstairs.

  Sluggishly, a drip fell from the ceiling into a pot on the floor. It gave a surprising ping now and again. There were several other pots set at strategic places throughout the house. Shane didn’t mind the rain or the isolation. The sensation of true loneliness was almost foreign to her. Content with her own company, the activity of her own mind, she craved no companionship at that moment, nor would she have shunned it. Yet she thought of Vance, wondering if he sat watching the rain through a darkened window.

  Yes, she admitted, she was very much attracted to him. And it was more than a physical response when he held her, when he kissed her in that sudden, terrifyingly exciting way. Just being in his presence was stimulating—sensing the storm beneath the calm. There was an amazing drive in him. The drive of a man uncomfortable, even impatient, with idleness. The lack of a job, she thought with a sympathetic sigh, must frustrate him terribly.

  Shane understood his need to produce, to be active, although her own spurts of frantic energy were patch-worked with periods of unapologetic laziness. She moved fast but didn’t rush. She could work for hours without tiring, or sleep until noon without the least blush of guilt. Whichever she did, she did wholeheartedly. It was vital to her to find some way to enjoy the most menial or exhausting task. She concluded that while Vance would work tirelessly, he would find the enjoyment unnecessary.

  The basic difference in their temperaments didn’t trouble her. Her interest in history, plus her teaching experience, had given her insight into the variety of human nature. It wasn’t necessary to her that Vance’s thoughts and moods flow along the same stream as hers. Such comfortable compatibility would offer little excitement and no surprises at all. Absolute harmony, she mused, could be lovely, rather sweet and very bland. There were more … interesting things.

  She’d seen a spark of humor in him, perhaps an almost forgotten sense of the ridiculous. And he was far from cold. While she accepted his faults and their differences, these qualities caused her to accept her own attraction to him.

  What she had felt from the first meeting had only intensified. There was no logic in it, no sense, but her heart had known instantly that he was the man she’d waited for. Though she’d told herself it was impossible, Shane knew the impossible had an uncanny habit of happening just the same. Love at first sight? Ridiculous. But …

  Impossible or not, ridiculous or not, Shane’s heart was set. It was true she gave her affections easily, but she didn’t give them lightly. The love she had felt for Cy had been a young, impressionable love, but it had been very real. It had taken her a long time to get over it.

  Shane had no illusions about Vance Banning. He was a difficult man. Even with spurts of kindness and humor, he would never be anything else. There was too much anger in him, too much drive. And while Shane could accept the phenomenon of love at first sight on her part, she was practical enough to know it wasn’t being reciprocated.

  He desired her. She might puzzle over this, never having thought of herself as a woman to attract desire, but she recognized it. Yet, though he wanted her, he kept his distance. This was the reserve in him, she decided, the studied caution that warred with the passion.

  Idly, she sipped her drink and stared out into the rain. The problem as Shane saw it was to work her way through the barrier. She had loved before and faced pain and emptiness. She could accept pain again, but she was determined not to face emptiness a second time. She wanted Vance Banning. Now all she had to do was to make him want her. Smiling a little, Shane set down her cup. She’d been raised to succeed.

  The glare of headlights against the window surprised her. Rising, Shane went to the back door to see who’d come visiting in the rain. Cupping her hands on either side of her face, she peered through the wet glass. She recognized the car and immediately threw open the door. Cold rain hurled itself into her face, but she laughed, watching Donna scramble around puddles with her head lowered.

  “Hi!” Still laughing, Shane stepped back as her friend dashed through the door. “You got a little wet,” she observed.

  “Very funny.” Donna stripped off her raincoat to hang it over a peg near the back door. With the casualness of an old friend, she stepped out of her wet loafers. “I figured you were hibernating. Here.” She handed Shane a pound can of coffee.

  “A welcome home present?” Shane asked, turning the can over curiously. “Or a hint that you’d like some?”

  “Neither.” Shaking her head, Donna ran her fingers through her wet hair. “You bought it the other day, then left it at the store.”

  “I did?” Shane thought about it a moment, then laughed. “Oh, that’s right. Thanks. Who’s minding the store while you’re out making deliveries?” Turning, s
he popped the can into a cupboard.

  “Dave.” With a sigh, Donna plopped onto a kitchen chair. “His sister’s baby-sitting, so he kicked me out.”

  “Aw, out in the storm.”

  “He knew I was restless.” She glanced out the window. “It doesn’t seem as though this rain’s ever going to let up.” With a shiver, she frowned at Shane’s bare feet. “Aren’t you cold?”

  “I thought about starting a fire,” she said absently, then grinned. “It seemed like an awful lot of trouble.”

  “So’s the flu.”

  “The cocoa’s still warm,” Shane told her, automatically reaching for another cup. “Want some?”

  “Yes, thanks.” Donna ran her fingers through her hair again, then folded her hands, but she couldn’t keep them still. Suddenly, she gave Shane a glowing smile. “I have to tell you before I burst.”

  Mildly curious, Shane looked over her shoulder. “Tell me what?”

  “I’m having another baby.”

  “Oh, Donna, that’s wonderful!” Shane felt a twinge of envy. Hurriedly dismissing it, she went to hug her friend. “When?”

  “Not for another seven months.” Laughing, Donna wiped the rain from her face. “I’m just as excited as I was the first time. Dave is too, though he’s trying to be very nonchalant.” She sent Shane a beaming look. “He’s managed to mention it, very casually, to everyone who came into the store this afternoon.”

  Shane gave her another quick hug. “You know how lucky you are?”

  “Yes, I do.” A little sheepishly, she grinned. “I’ve spent all day thinking up names. What do you think of Charlotte and Samuel?”

  “Very distinguished.” Shane moved back to the stove. After pouring cocoa, she brought two cups to the table. “Here’s to little Charlotte or Samuel.”

  “Or Andrew or Justine,” Donna said as they touched rims.

  “How many kids are you planning to have?” Shane asked wryly.

  “Just one at a time.” Donna gave her stomach a proud little pat.

  The gesture made Shane smile. “Did you say Dave’s sister was
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