California man - the author's cut edition (page 3)

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"You okay?" Quinn pulled up beside her.

She gasped for more air, then crushed her eyelids closed against the tears. "Fine. Just fine," she said. At least she'd managed not to fall over, but she knew she'd bruised a delicate part of her anatomy. She'd done the same thing as a young girl when she'd tried to ride her brother Martin's bike. It was painful then, and it was more painful now, heightened by major embarrassment.

"Hurts, huh?" he asked, giving a slight grimace.

God, they weren't two minutes into THE DATE and they were discussing her... privates.

Why didn't I simply fall off the thing and land on my head and pass out? If I had to hurt something, why couldn't it be a... public part of my anatomy? Mortifying. I can hardly sit here and talk about—it—with him. Get over it, Emily Welland, just get over it.

She looked at Quinn, sitting comfortably astride his bike, his long legs clearing the dreaded crossbar with room to spare. "You sure you're okay?" he asked.

"Fine," she croaked, adding stupidly, "Nothing broken anyway."

"Glad to hear it." He grinned at her. "Hard place to put splint."

Emily felt her eyes widen, her face turn to fire, but she couldn't help smiling the tiniest bit. Somehow his tease made her feel better. Less like the village idiot.

"Ready to roll?" he asked.

She straightened her shoulders and got back on the bike. "Ready to roll," she echoed.

* * *

It was close to four o'clock when they got back to the bookstore, and in the last half hour, rain had fallen with a vengeance. They were soaked through, but only Emily was physically wrecked and completely exhausted. Quinn looked refreshed, as though he'd taken a quick spin around the block. Emily swore he hadn't breathed heavily all day.

She had no idea how many miles they'd covered, but her aching legs put it at approximately the length of the U.S.—Canada border. She thought a minute. Yes, 5500 miles sounded about right. She rubbed one of her two throbbing thighs. For a person not accustomed to exerting herself, she knew she'd overdone it, but every time Quinn asked her if she was ready to quit, she'd said no. For some nutty reason, she wanted to prove she could handle it. The other crazy thing was she enjoyed herself.

Still, it was a good thing he was so curious about the island. Without those stops he was always taking to look at a pasture or enjoy the view, she didn't know how she would have coped. When the stops became more frequent as the afternoon progressed, she realized they were more for her benefit than his.

"Beat, huh?" Quinn asked, still comfortably astride his bike.

He was oblivious to the pouring rain and the fact that his T-shirt was clinging to his muscles like plastic wrap. The rain had packed his hair close to his head in tight, sexy curls, while her own hair trailed over her ears and down her back in stringy, wet strands. Life just wasn't fair. With a quick movement she combed her fingers through it and pulled it behind her ears.

"A little," she answered.

When she got off the bike, she could still feel the imprint of the hard leather seat etched in her butt. Without thinking, she tried to rub it away. She stopped when she saw him studying her.

"That won't help." He threw one leg easily over his bike seat, got off, and came toward her where she was standing under the bookstore awning. He looked at her forehead. "Let's have a look at those war wounds."

"It's okay. I'll take care of them when I get home." She stepped back to avoid contact with him.

Along with the aches and pains, she'd acquired a scraped knee and a bruised forehead, the result of a tree being in the wrong place. She'd traveled that road a thousand times in her car and never noticed that blasted maple branch. It took a mountain bike to find it—head on. The tumble was grand and undignified. She managed to tear her jeans and sweater and lose her leather hair tie. She didn't want to think about how scruffy she must look. Much like an abandoned alley cat, she guessed. She took another step back as Quinn continued his advance.

"Stand still. I'm not going to bite," he ordered. He knelt down and gently pulled some threads of frayed denim from her scraped knee. A reddish scab had formed and the fabric was glued to it. He looked at it carefully.

"Not life-threatening. You're right, though, you should go home and clean it up. It could use some antiseptic."

He stood then. With a shop door behind her and six feet two inches of male in front of her, Emily was trapped in the doorway. Her throat constricted and she kept her eyes fixed on his shoulder. It had been easy enough cycling side by side with him, but his looming in front of her made her nerves jump.

"Have you got any antiseptic at home?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Bandages?"

She nodded again.

"Can I drive you?"

She shook her head.

He took a step back then, and Emily let a long-held breath escape from her tight throat.

"What about dinner? Say about seven?"

"I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"You don't want to have dinner with me." Emily's statement lay flat and hard between them. She spoke with absolute certainty. Dinner. Across a table. Conversation. No escape. She'd combust.

He looked at her for a long time, then without warning he lowered his head, his blue eyes marking their target.

"What—" she started.

His mouth found hers with the question half formed on her lips. He gave her no time to react, no time to deny him, and no time to mount a defense. He simply took her head in his hands and kissed her, acting as if it were the most natural thing in the world to kiss Emily Welland on the steps of her own store. His lips were rain damp and surprisingly soft, and her own mouth, softened by shock, opened slightly. Somewhere, deep inside, a switch flipped on, a switch that until this moment had been permanently set to off.

His hands moved from her face to her shoulders before he pulled back from her. It wasn't until then she realized her eyes were closed. When had that happened? She popped them open and looked straight into his.

"Now, say that again," he said. "HowIdon't want to have dinner with you. Will it be your place, my place, or neutral territory? It's your choice."

His hands stayed on her shoulders. She looked down at them, certain steam must be rising from her wet cotton sweater. She swallowed to find her vocal cords. Not a trace.

When she didn't answer, he studied her a moment, then said, "My guess is you would be happier having me to your house. You'd feel more comfortable there. Am I right?"

Because something in her throat seemed bent on strangling her, all she could do was look into his questioning eyes and nod.

"Good, then I'll be there at seven. Morningside Road. Right?" At her look of surprise, he added, "Grace told me. Said you practically built it yourself." He stroked her wet hair, used his index finger to shift a soggy strand off her bruised forehead. "And relax. Please. It's just dinner. Nothing more—unless you want it to be. You're the one in charge. You're the one in control. Remember that."

She watched him walk away, watched him load the mountain bikes, watched him get behind the wheel of the Range Rover. She continued to stare dumbly as he waved and turned the big SUV onto the road to Southey Point. When he was out of sight, she wrapped her arms around herself and headed for her car.

I'm the one in charge,she repeated.I'm the one in control.The words were at odds with the anxiety that punctured her confidence as easily as darts did cork.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Emily sank gratefully into the old claw-footed tub. The soapy water stung her knee, but she didn't care. She would tend it after the bath. In a couple of hours, Quinn was coming to her house. Why he was coming was a mystery, but he'd seemed determined, which try as she might, she couldn't understand. She'd been her usual tongue-tied, backward self all day. Hardly the most entertaining of companions. The bike ride had been bad enough, but at least it hadn't left much time for conversation.

Tonight would be different. Two people in a room together meant... conversation. She rubbed her throat with a soapy hand. Sonother strong point. Or any other kind of point.

Looking back on the afternoon, Emily realized how strange it was. They'd scarcely talked at all. Quinn didn't initiate much conversation, instead he'd stuck to occasional questions about the island and the Pacific Northwest. He hadn't asked her anything personal, and she hadn't volunteered any information. She'd thought him bored to death. More than once she'd wanted to talk, especially at the beach. She wanted to learn about him, where he came from, what he did—everything. But was afraid he'd think she was prying.

She shivered when she thought of him, here, in her house, and the familiar clump of nerves formed in her throat. God, she was such a cowardly idiot. Always letting panic and faceless fears rule her life. She let out a long breath.

You are who you are, Emily Welland, so don't expect anything to change anytime soon.

All she had to do now was make the best of a bad situation—and get through dinner.

After bathing and cleaning her biking wounds, she put on a pale blue cotton skirt and a white sweater, loosely braided her long hair, and applied light makeup. She was doing fine until she touched her mouth with the lipstick. At the memory of his strong, sure mouth pressed to hers, a knot twisted in her belly, the hand holding the lipstick stilled, and her eyelids drifted to a close. A slow soft warmth—like a lazy incoming tide washed through her.

God, she was going crazy!

She shook her head and took a deep breath, shocked at her physical reaction to a man who wasn't within ten miles of her. Excitement, heat—all of it laced with a numbing fear.

Going crazy? She was already there.

She smoothed her skirt and headed for the kitchen. She needed to start dinner—and get busy. Stop thinking.

Above the greenhouse window near her sink, there was a needlepoint sampler, a gift from her mother. She glanced at it.

 

Under a shy moon,

the tender spirit wakes.

Dream seeking, unafraid.

 

She rinsed lettuce for a salad and smiled.It's Quinn who's unafraid, Mom. Not me. But if I try, try hard, maybe...

He arrived promptly at seven. Emily heard the low rumble of the Range Rover and then his steps to her door. Fighting back her anxiety, she wiped her hands on a tea towel and headed for the door, breathing slowly and deeply as she went.

"Hi." He smiled down at her, and despite all her efforts, she felt a catch in her throat. He seemed to fill her doorway, block out the world beyond.If only he weren't so... overpowering.

"Hi," she mumbled, stepping back to let him in. When she'd closed the door behind him, she leaned on it for support.

He bent to kiss her cheek but managed only a slight graze before she yanked her head back, banging it on door.

"You okay?"

She rubbed the back of her head. "Fine."And I'll stay fine as long as I don't get too close to you.

He handed her the bottle of wine he was carrying, then looked around. "This place is great." There was genuine admiration in his voice as he surveyed her living room.

"Thank you. I like it." And it pleased her that he did, too.

Six years ago, Emily inherited the house, originally a summer cottage, from her uncle. And it was the house that cinched her decision to move from Victoria and make the island her home. She'd enlarged it by adding another bedroom, now used as her office and writing room, pushing out the living room wall for more space, and adding two large skylights. She'd done most of the work herself, using the island's skilled tradesmen only when necessary. Morningview, as she called it, was on the shore of Fulford Harbour, and Emily could watch the ferries come and go from Sydney on Vancouver Island, less than an hour away. The passengers often waved to her when they spotted her on the beach.

Quinn shrugged out of his tan suede jacket. Wordlessly, Emily took it from him as he continued to look around.

"You did most of this yourself? Incredible."

His praise warmed her—but then it seemed everything about Quinn Ramsay warmed her. "As much as I could, yes."

He switched his focus from the room to her. "Then you're one very talented woman."

She didn't know what to say to that, so she asked, "Did you have any trouble finding the house? I suppose I should have asked how good Grace's directions were." She hung his jacket on a brass tree near the door, smoothed her hand over its softness and for a moment kept her back to him, breathing.

"Her directions were fine. Zach and Blanche filled in the blanks when I asked them to point me in the right direction."

She faced him then, "How do you know Zach and Blanche?"

"They're caretaking the place I'm using on Southey Point. They told me you know each other."