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Her Mother's Keeper, Page 6

Nora Roberts

  at Style and not in front of the camera.” His pencil paused in midair. “You’ve never learned how to sit still!”

  “I always feel as though I should be doing something,” Gwen admitted. “How does anyone ever just sit like this? I had no idea how difficult it was.”

  “Where’s your Southern languor?” Bradley asked, sketching in a stray wisp of hair. She would sit more quietly if he kept up a conversation, he decided, even though he did not particularly care for splitting his concentration between sketching and talking.

  “Oh, I don’t think I ever had it,” Gwen told him. She brought up her foot to rest on the chair and laced her hands around her knee. Enjoying the heady perfumes of the garden, she took a deep breath. “And living in New York has made it worse. Although . . .” She paused, looking around her again, though this time remembering to move only her eyes. “There is something peaceful here, isn’t there? I’m discovering how much I’ve missed that.”

  “Is your work very demanding?” Bradley asked, perfecting the line of her chin with a dash of his pencil.

  “Hmm.” Gwen shrugged and longed to take a good stretch. “There’s always some deadline that no one could possibly meet that, of course, we meet. Then there are the models and photographers who need their artistic egos soothed—”

  “Are you good at soothing artistic egos?” Bradley narrowed his eyes to find the perspective.

  “Surprisingly, yes.” She smiled at him. “And I like the challenge of meeting deadlines.”

  “I’ve never been good with deadlines,” he murmured. “Move your chin, so.” He gestured with a fingertip, and Gwen obeyed.

  “No, some people aren’t, but I have to be. When you’re a monthly publication, you have no choice.”

  For a moment, Gwen fell silent, listening to the hum of bees around the azalea bushes in back of her. Somewhere near the house, a bird sent up a sudden, jubilant song. “Where are you from, Bradley?” she asked at length, turning her eyes back to him. He was a strange man, she thought, with his gangly body and wise eyes.

  “Boston.” His eyes went briefly to her, then back to his sketch pad. “Turn your head to the right a bit . . . There, good.”

  “Boston. I should have guessed. Your voice is very . . . elegant.” Bradley chuckled. “How did you decide to become an artist?”

  “It’s my favorite mode of communication. I’ve always loved sketching. In school my teachers had to confiscate my sketchbooks. And some people are very impressed when they hear you’re an artist.”

  Gwen laughed. “The last’s not a real reason.”

  “Don’t be too sure,” Bradley murmured, involved with the curve of her cheek. “I enjoy flattery. Not everyone is as self-sufficient as you.”

  Forgetting his instructions, Gwen turned to him again. “Is that the way you see me?”

  “Sometimes.” He lifted a brow and motioned for her to turn away again. For a moment he studied her profile before beginning to draw again. “To be an artist, a good one, without the driving passion to be a great one, suits me perfectly.” He smiled at her thoughtful expression. “It wouldn’t suit you at all. You haven’t the patience for it.”

  Gwen thought of the brisk, no-nonsense Gwen Lacrosse of Style magazine—a practical, efficient woman who knew her job and did it well, a woman who knew how to handle details and people, who was good at facts and figures. And yet . . . there was another Gwen Lacrosse who loved old, scented gardens and watched weepy movies on television, who hopped into hansom cabs in the rain. Michael had been attracted to the first Gwen but despaired of the second. She sighed. Perhaps she had never understood the mixture herself. She had not even questioned it. At least not until she had met Luke Powers.

  Luke Powers. She didn’t want to think about him. Things were not working out quite the way she had planned in that department. Worse yet, she wasn’t at all sure they ever would.

  Gwen tilted her head up to the sky. Bradley opened his mouth to remonstrate, then finding a new angle to his liking, continued sketching. The sun lit reddish sparks in her hair. She noticed that the clouds were rolling in from the west. A storm was probably brewing, she thought. It was still far off, hovering, taking its time. She had a feeling that it would strike when least expected. Though the day appeared to be sunny and pleasant, she felt the passion there, just below the surface. The air throbbed with it. In spite of the heat, Gwen shivered involuntarily. Irresistibly, her eyes were drawn to the house and up.

  Luke was watching her from the window of his room. She wondered how long he had been there, looking down with that quiet, direct expression that she had come to expect from him. His eyes never wavered as hers met them.

  He stared without apology, without embarrassment. For the moment, Gwen found herself compelled to stare back. Even with the distance between them, she could feel the intrusion of his gaze. She stiffened against it.

  As if sensing her response, Luke smiled . . . slowly, arrogantly, never shifting his eyes from hers. Gwen read the challenge in them. She tossed her head before turning away.

  Bradley cocked a brow at Gwen’s scowling face. “It appears,” he said mildly, “that we’re done for the day.” He rose from his perch on a stone, unexpectedly graceful. “Tomorrow morning, I want you in the robe. I’ve a pretty good idea on the pose I want. I’m going in to see if I can charm Tillie out of a piece of that chocolate cake. Want some?”

  Gwen smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s a bit close to lunch for me. I think I’ll give Mama a hand and do some weeding.” She glanced down at the petunia bed. “She seems to be neglecting it a bit.”

  “Busy lady,” Bradley said and, sticking the pencil behind his ear, sauntered down the path.

  Busy lady? Gwen frowned after him. Her mother did not seem preoccupied . . . but what precisely was she doing? Perhaps it was just her way of intimating to Gwen that she, too, had a life, just as important as Gwen’s big-city profession. Moving over to the petunia bed, Gwen knelt down and began to tug at stray weeds.

  Anabelle had developed a habit of disappearing from time to time—that was something new. Unable to do otherwise, she glanced up at Luke’s window again. He was gone. With a scowl, she went back to her weeding.

  If only he would leave, she thought, everything would be fine. Her mother was a soft, gentle creature who trusted everyone. She simply had no defenses against a man like Luke Powers. And you do? she mocked herself. Swearing, Gwen tugged and unearthed a hapless petunia.

  “Oh!” She stared down at the colorful blossom, foolishly guilty. A shadow fell across her, and she stiffened.

  “Something upsetting you?” Luke asked. He crouched down beside her; taking the blossom from her hand, he tucked it behind her ear. Gwen remembered the rose and blushed before she could turn her face away.

  “Go away. I’m busy,” she said.

  “I’m not.” His voice was carelessly friendly. “I’ll help.”

  “Don’t you have work to do?” She shot him a scornful glance before ripping savagely at another weed.

  “Not at the moment.” Luke’s tone was mild as he felt his way among the flowers. His fingers were surprisingly deft. “The advantage of being self-employed is that you make your own hours—at least most of the time.”

  “Most of the time?” Gwen queried, curiously overcoming her dislike for this annoying man.

  “When it works, you’re chained to the typewriter, and that’s that.”

  “Strange,” Gwen mused aloud, forgetting to ignore him. “I can’t picture you chained to anything. You seem so free. But it must be difficult putting all those words on paper, making the people inside your head walk and talk and think. Why did you decide to become a writer?”

  “Because I have an affection for words,” he said. “And because those people in my head are always scrambling to get out. Now I’ve answered your question frankly.” Luke turned to her as he twirled a blade of grass between his fingers. “It’s my turn to ask one. What were you thinking of when you we
re watching the sky?”

  Gwen frowned. She wasn’t at all sure she wanted to share her private thoughts with Luke Powers. “That we’re in for some rain,” she compromised. “Must you watch me that way?”


  “You’re impossible,” she told him crossly.

  “You’re beautiful.” His look was suddenly intense, shooting a quiver up her spine. He cupped her chin before she could turn away. “With the sunlight on your hair and your eyes misty, you were all I have ever dreamed of. I wanted you.” His mouth drew closer to hers. His breath fluttered over her skin.

  “Don’t!” Gwen started to back away, but his fingers on her chin held her steady.

  “Not so fast,” Luke said softly.

  His kiss was surprisingly gentle, brushing her mouth like a butterfly’s wing. Instinctively, she parted her lips to receive his probing tongue. With a sigh, she succumbed to the mood of the waiting garden. Her passion had lain sleeping, like the threatening storm behind the layer of soft clouds. She trembled with desire as his fingers carefully traced the planes of her face. They caressed her cheekbones, the line of her jaw, the thick tousle of her hair at her temples, before he kissed her again. His tongue teased and tasted with only the slightest pressure. She gripped his shirt front tightly and moaned his name. Her skin was alive with him. Wanting, needing, she twined her arms around his neck and pulled him against her. Her mouth was avid, seeking.

  For one blazing moment, the flame rose and consumed them both, as they embraced in the fragrant morning heat. Then he had drawn her away, and Gwen was staring up at him, trying to catch her breath.

  “No.” She shook her head, pressing her hands to her temples as she waited for her thoughts to steady. “No.” Before she could turn and flee, Luke had sprung up, grabbing her wrist.

  “No what?” His voice was deeper, but still calm.

  “This isn’t right.” The words tumbled out of her as she tried to find reason. “Let me go.”

  “In a minute.” Luke kept his hand on her wrist and stepped toward her. A sweeping gaze took in her frantic color and widened eyes. “You want it, and so do I.”

  “No, no, I don’t!” She shot out the fierce denial and jerked her arm. Her wrist stayed in his grip.

  “I don’t remember your protesting too much!” he said mildly. She was annoyed to recognize amusement in his eyes. “Yes, I distinctly recall it was you who took matters to the boiling point.”

  “All right, all right. You win.” She took a breath. “I did. I forgot, that’s all.”

  He smiled. “Forgot what?”

  Gwen narrowed her eyes at his amusement. It fanned her temper more than his anger would have. “Forgot that I don’t like you,” she tossed out. “Now let me go, my memory’s back.”

  Luke laughed a joyous masculine laugh before he pulled Gwen back into his arms. “You tempt me to make you forget again, Gwenivere.” He kissed her again, a hard and possessive kiss. It was over almost before it had begun, but her senses were already reeling from it. “Shall we go back to weeding?” he asked pleasantly, as he released her.

  She drew herself straight, indignant, furious. “You can go . . .”

  “Gwen!” Anabelle’s soft voice cut off Gwen’s suggestion. Her mother had drifted into the garden. “Oh, here you are, both of you. How nice.”

  “Hello Anabelle.” Luke gave her an easy smile. “We thought we’d give you a hand with the garden!”

  “Oh?” She looked vaguely at her flowers, then her face brightened with a smile. “That’s sweet, I’m sure I haven’t been as diligent as I should be, but . . .” She trailed off, watching a bee swoop down on a rosebud. “Perhaps we can all get back to this later. Tillie’s got lunch ready and insists on serving right away. It’s her afternoon off, you know.” She turned her smile on Gwen. “You’d better wash your hands, dear,” she looked anxiously at Gwen, “and perhaps you should stay out of the sun for a while, you’re a bit flushed.”

  Gwen could feel Luke grin without looking at him. “You’re probably right,” she mumbled. Detestable man! Why did he always succeed in confusing her?

  Unaware of the fires raging in her daughter, Anabelle smilingly laid a hand on Gwen’s cheek, but whatever she planned to say was distracted by the drone of a furry bee. “My, my,” she said, watching it swoop greedily down on an azalea blossom. “He’s certainly a big one.” Having forgotten Tillie’s instructions, she glanced back up at Gwen. “You were sitting for Bradley this morning, weren’t you, dear?”

  “Yes.” Gwen made a face. “For almost two hours.”

  “Isn’t that exciting?” Anabelle glanced up at Luke for his confirmation, then continued before he could comment. “A portrait painted by a real artist! I can hardly wait to see it when it’s all finished! Why, I’ll have to buy it, I suppose.” Her blue eyes brightened. “Perhaps I’ll hang it right over the mantel in the parlor. That is . . .” Another thought intruded, and she stopped her planning and rearranging to look at her daughter. “Unless you want it for you and your Michael.”

  “He isn’t my Michael; Mama, I told you.” Gwen stuck her hands in her pockets, wishing Luke would say something instead of simply watching her with those cool blue-gray eyes. Why was it never possible to tell what he was thinking? “And in any case, he’d never buy a painting from an unknown. He wouldn’t be assured of the investment value,” she added. She was sorry that a note of rancor slipped into her voice.

  Luke’s eyes remained cool, but Gwen saw his brow lift fractionally. He doesn’t miss anything, she thought with a stab of resentment. Turning, she began to pull loose petals from an overbloomed rose.

  “Oh, but surely, if it were a portrait of you . . .” Anabelle began. Observing her daughter’s expression, she hastily changed her course. “I’m sure it’s going to be just beautiful,” she said brightly. She turned to Luke. “Don’t you think so, Luke?”

  “Undoubtedly,” he agreed as Gwen gave the rose her fiercest attention. “Bradley has the raw material to work with. That is . . .” He paused and, unable to resist, Gwen looked over her shoulder to meet his eyes again. “If Gwenivere manages to hold still until it’s finished.”

  Gwen’s spine stiffened at the amusement in his voice, but before she could retort, Anabelle laughed gaily. “Oh, yes, Gwen’s a ball of fire, I declare,” she emoted. “Even as a youngster, flitting here and there, quicker than a minute. Why, I’d have to nearly chain her to a chair to braid her hair.” She smiled in maternal memory, absently fluffing her own hair. “Then, at the end of the day, or most times long before, it looked as though I had never touched it! And her clothes!” She clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes. “Oh, what a time I used to have with torn knees and ripped seams.”

  “Mama.” Gwen interrupted before Anabelle could launch into another speech on her girlhood. “I’m sure Luke’s not interested in the state of my clothes.”

  He grinned at that, widely, irreverently. Gwen blushed to the roots of her hair. “On the contrary,” he said as she groped around for something scathing and dignified to say. “I’m extremely interested.” His eyes softened as he smiled at Anabelle. “It’s all grist for my mill—just the sort of background material a writer needs.”

  “Why, yes, I suppose so.” Gwen saw that her mother found this extremely profound. Anabelle lapsed into silence again, dreaming off into the middle distance. Luke grinned at Gwen over her head.

  “And I’ve always had a fondness for little girls,” he told her. “Particularly ones whose braids won’t stay tied, and who regularly scrape their knees.” He glanced down, letting his eyes run over Gwen’s French-cut T-shirt and cinnamon-colored shorts. “I imagine over the years Anabelle was pretty busy administering first aid.” His eyes traveled up on the same slow, casual journey before meeting hers.

  “I didn’t make a habit of falling down,” Gwen began, feeling ridiculous.

  Anabelle came out of her trance for a moment. “Oh, yes.” She picked up on Luke’s comment. “I don’t th
ink a day went by when I wasn’t patching up some hurt. A fishhook in your hand one day . . .” She shuddered at the memory. “And a lump the size of a goose egg on your forehead the next. It was always one thing or another.”

  “Mama.” Gwen crushed what was left of the rose between her fingers. “You make it sound as if I had been a walking disaster.”

  “You were just spirited, darling.” Anabelle frowned a bit at the damaged rose, but made no comment. “Though there were times, I admit, I wasn’t certain you’d live to grow up. But, of course, you have, so I probably shouldn’t have worried so much.”

  “Mama.” Gwen was suddenly touched. How difficult it must have been, she reflected, for such a young, dreamy woman to raise a lively youngster all on her own! How many sacrifices Anabelle must have made that Gwen had never even considered. Stepping over, Gwen put her hands on Anabelle’s soft rounded shoulders. “I love you, and I’m terribly glad you’re my mother.”

  With a sound of surprised pleasure, Anabelle framed Gwen’s face and kissed both her cheeks. “What a sweet thing to hear, and from a grown daughter, too.” She gave Gwen a quick, fragrant hug.

  Over her mother’s shoulder, Gwen saw that Luke was still watching them. His direct intensity made her feel self-conscious.

  How do I really feel about him? she asked herself. And how can I feel anything, anything at all, when the woman I love most in the world stands between us? She felt trapped, and something of her panic showed in her eyes.

  Luke tilted his head. “You’re very fortunate, Anabelle.” He spoke to the mother, though his eyes remained on the daughter. “Love is very precious.”

  “Yes.” She kissed Gwen’s cheek again, then linked her arm through her daughter’s. “I’m in a festive mood,” she told them both, glowing. “I think we should be daring and have some wine with lunch.” Her eyes widened. “Lunch! Oh, dear, Tillie will be furious! I completely forgot.” She rested a hand against her heart as if to calm it. “I’ll go smooth things along. Give me a minute.” She assumed a businesslike air. “Then come right in. And see that you make a fuss over whatever she’s fixed. We don’t want to hurt her feelings any more than we have.” She gave the final instructions as she swept back up the path and disappeared.

  Gwen started to follow. Luke neatly cut off her retreat by taking her hand. “You’d better let her play diplomat first,” he