Authors: Jennifer Lewis
Tags: #Contemporary romance
But he was a patient man. Some things were worth waiting for.
She handed him a plate with a knife and fork. He reached into the basket and unwrapped the fresh smoked sausage and the crusty bread.
Their arms moved within inches of each other. Louis teased her by reaching so close that she drew back a little to avoid contact. The hairs on their arms almost brushed.
But not quite.
The warm air between them crackled with volatile energy created by the absence of contact. He couldn’t remember ever hurting so badly for a woman’s touch.
A woman who might be his stepmother.
am took a bite of the spicy sausage. The boat engine throbbed in a steady pulse, and water slapped against the sides.
She could feel Louis’s eyes on her as she licked her lips. His gaze oozed over her like fresh honey. She should be offended that a man she barely knew felt free to stare at her like that.
Except that she’d already slept with him.
“Were all your husbands older than you?”
Louis’s strange question jerked her out of a sensual fog.
my husbands.” She grimaced. “You make me sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor.”
“I think she made them wait until they put a ring on her finger before she slept with them.” He winked and bit off a chunk of bread.
Sam’s mouth fell open. Then she drew in a breath and reached for her sense of humor. “You’re right. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
Her mother had repeated that phrase many times during her teen years, when Sam was competing to be Miss Corn Dog or whatever title came with the pageant of that week.
She frowned. “In fact, I was a virgin when I married my first husband.” She looked right at Louis. “And yes, he was older.”
Louis’s expression didn’t reveal any opinion, negative or otherwise. “What went wrong?”
“Who knows?” She shrugged and looked out at the waving grasses. The sun hung low on the horizon, bathing land and water in a thick golden soup of light.
She glanced up. People didn’t usually talk to her like this.
Rude. Or maybe just blunt.
But Louis just watched her, eyes twinkling with mischief as he ate.
“Okay. Let’s see. I married him so I could get away from home because my mother ran me on the pageant circles like I was a prize bull and I knew I’d never get to go to college as long as there was a penny to be earned from parading me in front of an audience. To be brutally frank, I’d probably have married anyone.”
“I doubt it. Who was he?”
She rankled at his dismissive comment. “He owned a car dealership in our town. He was safe and solid, and he treated me nicely.”
“Did you get to go to college?”
Sam’s gut tightened.
He’s already figured out the answer.
She studied his face for mockery, prepared to defend herself, but all she saw in his eyes was warm interest.
“He didn’t want his wife working or going to school.”
“Exactly. And after two years of trying to be the perfect little wife, I’d had enough.”
“See? You know exactly why you divorced him.” Louis shifted his legs as he cut the engine. The wet cotton of his pants clung to his muscled calves. A reminder of the strength and power of his body. How he’d held her close and...
She averted her gaze. She’d certainly never had feelings like that for her first husband.
Or even her third.
Guilt snaked through her. How could she have fallen so quickly into another man’s arms? She’d promised Tarrant that she didn’t miss sex. That she didn’t need crude lust or graceless fumbling to be happy.
So why did her skin tingle at the simple nearness of this man?
Sam inhaled deeply and tried to drag her mind back to the conversation. “You’re right. I do know why I divorced him. It’s amazing I lasted two full years. He barely let me leave the house. I’d been so looking forward to figuring out who I was, without my mother telling me what to wear and say and do, but he was even worse. My every move reflected positively or negatively on the Bob MacClackery Automotive empire. If he could have bought a Barbie doll and dressed it himself and called it Mrs. MacClackery, that would have been heaven for him. Lord knows I tried to please him, but it just wasn’t possible. Finally I gave up.”
Funny how she could look back with detachment now. Things that had been so painful and hard to cope with at the time now seemed funny. Her desperate attempt to be little Mrs. Perfect, polishing linoleum and hovering over racks of lamb.
And answering to the name of Samantha MacClackery.
“I’m glad your smile is back, but don’t forget to eat.” Louis spooned more potato salad on her plate.
“How can I eat when you’re distracting me with all these bad memories?”
“My humble apologies. Champagne to celebrate your freedom?”
She started to raise her glass, then her hand froze in midair. Samantha’s gut clenched as another drop of pure guilt splashed inside her. “I didn’t want to be free. I didn’t want Tarrant to die.”
The smile faded from Louis’s eyes. “I’m sorry, that was insensitive. You loved him a lot.”
Chest tight, Sam reached into her pocket for a familiar hankie and dabbed at her eyes. “More than I’d ever imagined. And I’d had a lot of practice by then.”
He didn’t smile at her attempted levity. “It’s great that you finally found someone who made you happy. I guess the third time was the charm, or however that cliché goes.”
His words sounded insincere, like he was just being polite. Suddenly she needed him to know that her late husband was not just some old man with a yen for young women.
“Tarrant Hardcastle was the kind of man who adds color and style to the history books. He was brimming with ideas and dreams and schemes and glorious visions, right up until the day he died. It was an honor to be in his presence. I still don’t know what he saw in me.” She fixed him with a steady gaze, defying him to disagree.
Louis met her gaze, his expression serious. “Maybe he saw someone who could love him for himself, not for his money.”
She raised an eyebrow. “How would he know?”
“As a man of vision, I bet he could just tell.” A dimple appeared as he smiled. “And you are pretty.”
Sam felt herself blushing. What for? It’s not like she didn’t know she was pretty.
That’s what got her roped into all those stinking beauty pageants that had her strutting about like a champion heifer when she should have been taking courses at the community college so she could get a real job.
And she knew she was still pretty now, at thirty-one. She should be, what with all the money and effort that went into it. She supported a whole army of personal trainers and massage therapists and colorists and manicurists.
And Tarrant had insisted she only wear couture originals. He called it a quirk of his.
She’d readily humored him. At the time, she’d explained it to herself and others as another example of his visionary approach to life.
Suddenly her perspective was different.
“Maybe he married me because he wanted to dress me up like a Barbie doll, too?”
“I think you enjoy the Barbie thing yourself. I asked you to dress casual and you look like you’re ready to hit a runway somewhere.”
Sam glanced down at the rather chic linen outfit she’d chosen. “I guess I can’t help it. It’s an ingrained habit. I’d probably need a twelve-step program to get me into a pair of Levi’s at this point.”
Louis grinned. “I bet you’d look cute in a pair of Levi’s. But if dressing up makes you happy, what’s wrong with that? You can’t live your life to meet other people’s expectations. You have to do what’s right for you.”
“Sometimes that’s hard to figure out. I guess I’m so used to trying to meet other people’s expectations that it’s natural to me now.”
Louis put his plate down on the floor of the boat. He crossed his arms on his knees and leaned forward. She shrank from the intensity in his gaze, from the focused attention of his sharp mind.
“Sounds like you’ve spent your life looking for a father figure who’d tell you what to do.” Again, his gaze wasn’t accusatory. If anything, it was compassionate.
She lifted her chin. She didn’t want his pity or anyone else’s. “As it happens, my father didn’t tell me what to do. He mostly ignored me.”
Louis scraped his plate into the water. Sam watched in awe as several fish spooked to the surface and snatched at morsels of potato and sausage.
She clung more tightly to her own plate.
Why was she here? She didn’t need to be psychoanalyzed by some guy who thought he was God’s gift to women. She was just trying to make it through the day in one piece.
Louis cocked his head. “Maybe you were subconsciously trying to get your father’s attention by reenacting the scenario.”
Sam narrowed her eyes. “I got his attention all right. He hasn’t spoken to me since my first divorce. He said I was a sinner for leaving my marriage and doomed to hell.” Sam’s heart still clenched at the memory. Her plate shook in her hand and she clutched it tighter.
Louis winced. “Some people shouldn’t be parents.”
He took her plate from her and cleaned it-with the same deft move. She watched the fish dart to the surface and inhale her uneaten morsels.
“Recycling in action,” he murmured, as he wrapped the plates in a pretty dishcloth and returned them to the basket. “Don’t let your dad get you down. I survived just fine without one.”
His level gaze challenged her to alter that bare and apparently comfortable fact of his life.
For a second, she felt a twinge of remorse that she’d invaded his comfortable existence and inserted a new possibility into it. “Family can be a wonderful thing.”
“In moderation.” Louis winked.
Sam smiled. His warm expression disarmed her. The rich copper rays of slow sunset shone on his too-handsome face and glittered in the droplets of water that splattered his powerful forearms.
She tried not to notice the funny ticklish sensation in her belly.
“At least I don’t have to worry about making a child miserable by inflicting my own traumas on them.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Isn’t that part of the fun of parenting?”
Sam felt her smile fade. “I don’t have any children.” She could say it calmly, all emotion buried beneath a composed exterior. She’d officially given up all hope and she was fine with that. She’d known when she married Tarrant that he was not capable of giving her a child, and she accepted it as her fate.
She’d actually felt calmer since then.
“Me, neither.” Louis sipped his wine.
“Do you want children?” It didn’t feel forward to ask. They weren’t dating. She was just curious.
“I already told you I’m the product of a chance meeting between a double bass and a saxophone. I grew up like a stream of notes in the air. I don’t think I finished an entire year of school in the same place. I certainly never did homework or ate square meals or tried out for a team. I wouldn’t have the first clue about raising a child.” His eyes sparkled, still squinting slightly against the low rays of sunlight. “So, it’s lucky I’ve never wanted to try.”
“You are lucky. It’s kind of pathetic how badly I used to want one. And when I married my second husband, who was also keen to have a child, we couldn’t get pregnant. We tried day in and day out for months on end.”
She reached for her glass and swiped a sip. Ugly memories rolled over her. “He blamed me. We had me tested and everything looked fine, but he wouldn’t get tested himself. One day we just stopped having sex. He said he didn’t want children anymore.”
Louis listened with compassion in his eyes.
“After that, he started staying out a lot. I dressed up in all the lacy lingerie I could find, but he just wasn’t interested. ‘Working late,’ he said, but I soon found out different. And that’s when I left him.”
Louis whistled. “What a jerk. He didn’t know how lucky he was just to have you.”
Sam shrugged. “Or not. Apparently I couldn’t give him what he wanted.” Goose bumps sprang up on her arms and she raised her hands to rub them. “Tarrant appreciated me just for being me. And, oh, boy, was I grateful for that after my first two husbands.”
“Finally, you found the father who gave you the love and approval you wanted.” Louis looked steadily at her.
Sam recoiled from his suggestion. “No! It wasn’t like that at all.”
“Did you have sex?”
“Well, no, but... He was ill.”
Louis made a small movement with his mouth. Like he couldn’t quite find the right words. Or maybe he could, but he didn’t like to say them.
“He was my
not my father.” Her voice rose high as emotion snapped through her.
Louis simply nodded. “And you were a good wife to him. Every man should be so lucky.”
Samantha didn’t offer any sign of acknowledgment. She didn’t need his condescension. She
been a good wife.
“I’m not mocking you.” Louis frowned. He scratched at something on his arm, pulling his shirt cuff up to reveal a stretch of tanned forearm.
Not that she cared.
He looked up at her. “You’re a very giving person. That’s a rare and beautiful thing. It’s something not everyone appreciates.”
Sam found herself wanting to take the compliment and bask in its unfamiliar light. But she managed to resist. “Well, it’s been fun analyzing my personal failures and foibles, but let’s shine a spotlight on yours for a moment, shall we?”
A wicked grin crept slowly across his mouth. “You’re assuming I have any.”
ouis leaned away and started the engine. The movement gave her an extravagant view of the thick muscles of his back under the strained cotton of his shirt.
He wasn’t perfect. He probably had all kinds of things wrong with him.
On the other hand, she certainly couldn’t find fault with his performance in bed. Of course, her experience in that realm hadn’t been of the highest quality.