Authors: Pamela Burford
Tags: #witty, #blizzard, #photographer, #adult romance, #Stranded, #snowed in, #long island, #Romance, #secret, #new york, #sexy contemporary romance, #mansion, #arkansas, #sexy romance, #gold coast, #Contemporary Romance, #rita award
“James, why did you develop a picture of your father?”
“I thought you’d like to see what he looked like.”
She felt an icy wash of apprehension. “Why?”
“You commented on the fact that I don’t have any pictures of him on the walls. Remember?”
She remembered. After breakfast he’d offered an impromptu tour. She’d made the observation while admiring a striking photograph of his mother on the west wall of the ballroom. The large close-up portrait told a story, brutally revealing. No, she’d thought, approaching the portrait, studying it more closely: brutal, yet at the same time compassionate. A story of the weight of years, the glow of life, and, unless she was mistaken, the specter of approaching death in the pale, world-weary eyes.
In any event, James had ignored her remark. If he had a reason for not immortalizing his father on the walls of his home, it was clear he wasn’t going to share it with her.
“Mary told me your father died three years ago,” she said.
“You asked Mary about my father?”
“No! I mean...it just came up.”
“He died three years ago. Auto accident. Not half a mile from here.”
“I’m sorry. Was anyone else hurt?”
He stared at the image of his father. “My wife was killed.”
For a moment Leah was too stunned to speak. “I
I’m so sorry, James. I had no idea.”
“It’s all right.” He sounded weary. “It was a long time ago.”
“Was she a photographer, too?”
“No, Renee was a model. That’s how I met her.”
“You must have lots of pictures of her then.”
There was a finality to that
and she knew the discussion was over. The man with an insatiable curiosity about others had shut the door on his own inner secrets. And turned the key.
“One more fixer bath,” he said, placing the picture in the last tray. When that bath was finished, he flicked on the normal room light and turned on the faucet, letting cool water run into the sink. “Why don’t you rinse it off?”
“Go on. It won’t bite. Just hold it under the water for a while.”
Was it her imagination, or did his azure gaze hold a challenge? She’d have preferred handling a rattlesnake, but she gingerly lifted the picture and held it under the stream of water until he turned it off.
He said, “Slap it on that board there.”
She placed the photograph on a tilted board, where he carefully examined it under a bright spotlight as it drained.
“Now just put it in that wire rack and you’re done.”
As she did so, she felt his warm hand on her back. Just a fleeting pressure, but strangely reassuring.
“Now that you’re an old hand at this, you want to do the next one yourself?” he asked.
“Shoot me,” Leah groaned as she slumped into a chair in the kitchen. She’d just deposited her borrowed skis, boots, hat, gloves, and jacket in the adjacent mudroom. The boy’s jeans she had on had been unearthed by James in the attic, and the oversize navy turtleneck was from his dresser.
“Wasn’t that fun?” He followed her into the kitchen and started filling a kettle with water for tea. It was early evening and the sky had begun to darken as they’d completed their excursion around the grounds and made their way back to the house. “I told you you’d love it.”
“Cross-country skiing is the best exercise in the world. Well, almost. Where in Arkansas do you live, Leah?”
“Are your parents still alive?”
She hesitated. “Yes. They live in Texarkana.”
“The two-state city. What side are they on, Texas or Arkansas?”
James knew his geography. “Arkansas,” she said.
“What did your folks think about you slinging catfish at sixteen instead of going to school?”
She shrugged. “We never had much money. It was time for me to get a job. And I did finish school
my shift started at four
, and I studied during my breaks.”
“That’s a hell of a schedule for a teenage girl. Didn’t you socialize at all? Date?”
“School and work took preference. After high school I went to college part-time.”
He turned from the stove to study her face. The candid admiration in his eyes warmed her. “Well, it would seem your old-fashioned work ethic paid off. Not many twenty-four-year-olds are successful business owners.”
“Work ethic, huh? Daddy always said it was pure cussedness. A revered family trait.”
Grinning, he reached into a cupboard for heavy ceramic mugs. “Leah. That’s a pretty name. Old Testament. Do your folks have biblical names, too?”
She studied his back. When the water boiled, he poured it over tea bags. “You’re right,” she said at last, “you are inquisitive.” She wasn’t about to provide him with her parents’ names. As a young boy, he might not have known that the gardener was named Douglas Harmony, but he’d certainly remember a housemaid named Merlina Moody.
“How about siblings?” he persisted. “Let’s see. You wouldn’t have a sister named Rachel, by any chance? If I remember my Genesis correctly.”
“My parents are religious, but not that literal.”
He carried the mugs to the table. “But you do have a sister?”
“I had a sister.”
“Oh.” He took a carton of milk from the fridge and sat across from her. His voice softened. “Sorry. Was it recent?”
“No. I never knew her.” She forced all her mental concentration into the task of lifting the tea bag, squeezing it, dropping it onto a saucer. It was preferable to thinking about Annie. She added milk and sugar to the mug and took a sip.
Time to turn the tables. “Tell me about your family, James.”
“I have two brothers, younger than me. Mark lives in Denver
he’s a writer. Luke’s a chef. He owns a restaurant in Boston.”
“James, Mark, and Luke. Sounds like my mama’s not the only one who got bit by the Bible bug. And only you carried on the family trade,” she said. “That photograph of your mother is intense. She must’ve been some lady.”
He smiled and she was struck by the change that came over his handsome features. She saw fond remembrance mingled with a hint of pain at his loss. She resisted the sudden urge to reach out and place her hand on his.
“She was that,” he said quietly.
“When did she die?”
“Ten years ago.”
An awkward silence followed while she thought about the things she’d learned that day.
Don’t do it,
she warned herself even as the demon inside her said, “So. No pictures of your father. No pictures of your late wife. You must admit that’s a bit strange.”
He stared at her. “No one else makes it their business.”
She shrugged. “Of course not. Everyone’s afraid of you.”
“Maybe everyone knows me better than you do.”
The implicit warning gave her pause until she remembered Kara. James’s agent probably knew him better than anyone, and to her he was all bluster. But then, maybe that was just Kara. Could be everyone else had more sense.
“I’ll risk your wrath, Attila,” she said, with more bravado than she felt. “Come on. Satisfy my curiosity.”
He was silent a long while. A muscle twitched in his cheek. “Leah, have you ever been married?” When she shook her head no, he said, “I wish to God I never had.” His tone was frigid, unforgiving.
“You sound so bitter. What did she do?”
He was on the verge of answering her, she could tell, but then his face changed, like a door closing, and she knew the secret would remain inside him. “That’s ancient history.” He rose and went to the refrigerator. “Does the queen of southern vittles know how to do something with chicken?”
Grateful for a chance to lighten the mood, she dredged up her thickest drawl. “Do
know how to do somethin’ with
? Why, sugah, this Dixie gal’ll fry you up a mess a’ cluckers that’ll bring a tear to your eye.”
“You’re on.” He deposited a package wrapped in white butcher paper on the counter.
Leah made them dinner
fried chicken, biscuits, and a salad
while James took a shower. He came back down looking fresh scrubbed and painfully handsome with his wet hair combed off his face.
They took their meal and two bottles of dark ale into the dining room, where they occupied one corner of the enormous linen-draped table, sitting at right angles to each other. Their legs brushed under the table, sending a tingling current of awareness through Leah. The lingering smell of soap overlaid the essence of James himself, a heady combination.
He pretended to bully her until she finally divulged the secret of her fried chicken: “Put lots of pepper in the flour, some butter in the shortening, and make sure that fat is hot.”
“I think there’s some fudge ripple in the freezer,” he offered. When she declined dessert, he rose, lifting the plates. “You cooked, I’ll clean.”
“What a man.” She helped him clear the table and then headed upstairs for a bath.
When they’d been preparing to ski earlier, he’d found a variety of clothes that had belonged to him and his brothers when they were younger. He’d added some of his own flannel shirts that on her would be long enough for nightshirts. And of course, the red silk kimono. He’d deposited this pile of clothing in the room next to his own, a comfortable guest room that he’d said had once been his brother Mark’s.
“I’m fresh out of lacy undies, I’m afraid,” he’d apologized.
“That’s okay. I’ll just wash my things out tonight.” She hadn’t added that if her unmentionables weren’t dry by morning, she’d simply do without. No reason to put that fine a point on it.
She luxuriated in the enormous claw-footed bathtub, letting the hot water soothe her sore muscles. First a savage battle with a would-be rapist, then two hours of cross-country skiing. Her muscles shrieked in rebellion. She noticed with disgust the large purple bruise on her hip from where she’d been thrown against the table, and the marks where Mike’s fingers had dug into her breast. She’d never been so terrified in her life.
She thanked God James didn’t share the other man’s violent inclinations. In fact, the most disturbing thing about him was her own reaction to him. She despised herself for the physical attraction she couldn’t manage to quash.
She sighed. James hadn’t known how right he was when he’d called this blizzard nature’s “practical joke.” She stepped out of the tub and dried off. Of all the men in the world, this was the one she couldn’t even think of getting involved with, she reminded herself. It wouldn’t be easy, but she could handle the next two or three days. She had no choice.
Leah donned a pair of baggy jeans and a pale blue vee-necked cashmere sweater. She slipped the sinfully soft garment over her head and rolled up the sleeves, then washed out her underthings in the sink and hung them over the side of the tub. With her wet hair hanging loose to her waist, she went downstairs.
James was in what he called the Gold Room, a parlor designed by his maternal grandmother fifty years ago. The room still retained most of its original gold and pink furnishings, including the pink marble mantel over the fireplace in which a huge log now blazed. Stieglitz was curled in front of the fire, as near as he could get without actually singeing his fur.
James didn’t notice her at first. He was standing in front of the fire, scowling into it, lost in thought.
He turned abruptly, startled out of his reverie. A bottle of cognac and two filled snifters sat on a nearby table.
“Do you happen to have a hair dryer?” Leah asked.
“I never use one myself, but there might be one in a linen closet. Renee had a few.” He held out his hand to her. “Come here. You don’t need a dryer.” He pulled her down to sit cross-legged on the thick carpet, her back to the fire. “Move over, cat,” he ordered. Stieglitz didn’t look too happy at being forced to share the hearth.
James sat next to Leah, facing her side. She felt his strong fingers burrow from the back of her neck over her head, loosening the strands of her wet hair. Her head dropped back, her eyes closed, and she groaned in contentment. He chuckled, a rumble from deep in his chest. “Tell me this isn’t better than an electric dryer,” he said.
Long minutes passed as he continued to rub her scalp, fluffing her hair as it gradually dried. “Here.” He placed a snifter of cognac in her hand.
“Mmmm, thanks.” The amber liquid spread its welcome glow into every limb, to the very tips of her fingers and toes.
“You’re not going to fall asleep on me, are you, Leah?”
“Mmmm, uh-uh...” she assured him, and he chuckled again. It was hypnotic
the fire’s warmth, James’s pampering fingers, the cadence of his breathing. Leah felt transported.
When her hair was nearly dry, he turned her in his arms so she faced the fire. She leaned back, cradled against his hard chest, feeling the even rhythm of his heartbeat against her back. His long legs, bent at the knee, bracketed her body. Lazily she opened her eyes, saw the shimmering flames of the low-burning fire, and closed them again. Never in her life had she felt so relaxed. So protected.
After a few minutes he leaned forward to poke the fire, and like a rag doll, she moved with him. The muscles of his shoulder and chest flexed beneath her as he tended the blaze with one hand and held her securely with the other.
What must it be like, she wondered, to share a life with a man like this? How many evenings had Renee lounged here with her husband and wallowed in the delicious security of his arms? She must have been very beautiful to have been a model. What could she have done to so blister her husband’s memory of her?
And did he despise his father, too? Was that why he had no pictures of him in his home? She recalled what Douglas had said, that the senior Bradburn had been “real rough” on his wife and sons. Leah couldn’t help but wonder how rough.
He twisted a little so he could see her left cheek. His warm breath fanned her face. With infinite tenderness he brushed his fingertips over the bruise and followed with his lips
a natural gesture, spontaneous and devoid of cunning. He repeated the kiss, his mouth firmer this time.