California man - the author's cut edition (page 4)

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"Can you tell me how we've gone from strained silence to a cold war in one headlong dash?" he asked.

"I don't know what you mean."

"We're fighting—or didn't you notice?"

"I'm not fighting. You're the one who's fighting. If I touched a nerve, I'm sorry. I guess being away from your fiancée or ex fiancée or whatever makes you testy." She walked to the kitchen.

"I am not testy! And where in hell did you dig upthatword? And there's no fiancée. Ex or otherwise."

"You don't have to yell," Emily said over her shoulder as she started to put the dishes in the dishwasher. Quinn watched her a moment. She'd pulled a grim calm around her like a dark, secret cloak and disappeared into it.

Not going to happen.He came up behind her, spun her to face him, and stared into her eyes.

"Emmi, read my lips.I am not engaged.I am not interested—in any way—with Gina Manzoni. Right now, I'm only interested in the woman standing in front of me. Do you understand that?"

Quinn, holding her by the shoulders, felt the tremors begin, a persistent shaking with a relentless build. Deep trembles claimed the length of her body. Her eyes weren't frightened; they were glazed with terror. A sheen of perspiration bloomed on her forehead. She looked about to faint.

God! Something was wrong here.

He'd never had a woman react to him this way, wasn't sure what to do, so he went by instinct and pulled her close, using his own body to steady her. "It's okay. There's nothing to be afraid of."

She didn't answer, instead she closed her eyes and buried her face in his chest. Her fingers twined and knotted in the front of his shirt, while he held her and stroked the back of her head. When she seemed calmer, he said, "You have to deal with this... fear, you know. It doesn't have to be like this. I like you, Emmi. All I want is to get closer to you, get to know you. Is that so bad?"

Emily worked to settle her breathing. His words and gentle touch were at once alarming and soothing. She wanted to believe him, wanted to deal with her fears, her endless timidity. She'd lived too long with the paradox within her, strength and dread, courage and cowardice. Inside shewasstrong; she knew that, strong and proud. She was independent, ran a successful business, was blessed with loyal friends. Managing her life wasn't a problem. So far she'd handled its unpredictable offerings wisely and well. But despite that, the second she stepped out of her comfort zone, these stupid panic attacks brought her down.

She'd thought they were behind her, but all she'd been doing was kidding herself, by living small and playing it safe. She hadn't been tested—until Quinn came along and turned over her nice comfy rock. She shuddered into his shoulder and sniffed. She'd found out tonight, hadn't she? That ugly life-depleting fear was still in her—so deep she'd never exorcise it.

She became aware that she was leaning into Quinn's hard, powerful body, taking from his energy and power. Her breath came easier now, but he continued to hold her.What a fool I am,she thought, and pulled away, embarrassment replacing anxiety.

He didn't try to stop her. "Are you okay?" His hands dropped to his sides and he searched her face.

"I'm okay." She brushed down the front of her blue skirt. "You must think I'm some kind of basket case." Which from her point of view seemed a logical conclusion.

"No. You just have a demon or two to get rid of, that's all. We all do at one time or other."

"I can't imagine you having a demon. You're too—" She stopped.

Quinn gave her a half smile. "You have the damnedest habit of not finishing your sentences. Did you know that? What were you going to say?"

"I was going to say that you're too big, too confident, to have demons," she finished.

"I've had my share."

Emily gaped at him, overcome with curiosity. She couldn't imagine what kind of demon this vital, confident man would have. She wanted to ask but hesitated.

Quinn saw the interest in her face and went on. "I was one of those Johnny-come-lately kids. An only child, born when my mom was approaching fifty. My dad was sixty-three. I didn't know it then, but my birth must have been the biggest trauma in their lives. I guess they wanted me." Quinn shrugged. "But once I got here, I don't think they had a clue what to do with me. What I remember most about growing up was how incredibly quiet it was." He looked away a moment. "The house was full of silence." He stopped, seeming to pull the memory from deep storage.

"Where are you from—originally?" Emily's question was tentative.

"Pasadena. That's in the San Gabriel Valley, home of the Rose Bowl?" He looked for her nod of recognition. When there was none, he went on, "That's a football classic. It's even televisedway up here."He grinned. "Anyway, I left there after my parents died."

He looked at the coffeepot before continuing. "If I'm going to bore you with my dull past, I'll need another caffeine jolt. If you want to stay awake, maybe you should have one, too."

Emily poured them both more coffee and followed Quinn back to the living room. She returned to the big chair near the fireplace while Quinn reclaimed the sofa.

"How old were you when your parents died?" she asked.

"My mother when I was fifteen. My dad a year later—about a year before I finished high school."

"That must have been painful." Emily's parents lived in Victoria, and her one brother lived in Toronto. They were all happy, healthy, and busy. She couldn't bear the thought of losing any of them. "Where did you go, where did you live... after?"

"With my one and only aunt, my mother's sister, in San Bernardino." Quinn laughed softly. "If I was a surprise to my parents, I was the shock of a lifetime for Aunt Marion. She'd never married. To have this shy six-foot bean pole arrive on her doorstep was more than she could cope with. I've got to hand it to her, though, she did right by me."

Emily was stuck on his description of himself. "You were a bean pole, ashybean pole?"

"I was until Aunt Marion set about, as she said, 'whipping me into shape'. She fed me enough for ten teenagers and, God bless her, got me into sports. All I wanted to do was hide out in my room, watch television, and avoid members of the opposite sex. That at all costs." He chuckled. "Back then girls scared the sh—Sorry. Girls scared me stupid. Still do occasionally." He tossed her an easy smile before going on.

"Anyway, the first athletic thing I ever did was in my last year of high school. The hundred-meter dash—the same race James is starting with. I felt like a fool. Most of the other guys had been into sports since they were four years old. The track team as a whole had been together three years. I, on the other hand, was a skeleton that breathed." He paused then, looking amused. "I had grown too fast, had no real body muscle, no developed coordination, not to mention no experience in school sports of any kind. Worse, I had no concept of competition. I was a walking disaster who morphed into a stereotype. That kid on the bench who never gets called. I suppose the only reason they let me get involved at all was I'd lost both my parents. It had to be a sympathy thing. It sure as hell wasn't skill."

Emily scanned the attractive, self-assured man across from her, shook her head, and sipped some coffee. "Hard to imagine you warming a bench."

"Believe it. My entry into sports was a full-blown nightmare, and I hated every minute of it. I was terrified to find myself in a position where I had to perform, where something was expected of me, where everybody was better than me. Up until then, I'd pretty much gone my own way. All that was ever asked of me by my parents was that I didn't make waves. The whole idea of competition, winning and losing, was foreign to me. Like I said, I hated it. Not a day went by that I didn't want to quit."

"What stopped you?"

"The track and field coach." His expression turned wry.

"He supported you?"

"He told me I couldn't do it. I couldn't win. He wanted to cut me out of a meet scheduled for the following week. Suddenly, it was critical I be in that race. Not only be in it—win it. I had to try. I was scared as hell. I had no more real belief in myself than the coach did, but I had to go for it. I knew if I didn't, I'd lose something a lot more important than the race itself." Quinn leaned back into the sofa, his smile erased by past tensions.

"And did you? Try, I mean."

"I did and I won, too. Not first place but a respectable second. I've done a lot of things since then, but none of them compare to the thrill of winning that silver." He leaned back into the sofa and stared at the empty coffee cup in his hand. "When I look back on those days, I see that race as a turning point. You might say it was the day I joined the human race. Not that it was a cakewalk from there on, but at least I was out of the shadows. Had shaken off some of those old fears."

Emily coughed. "This may sound strange but is—"

"Go ahead," he urged, watching her carefully.

"Is that shy, awkward bean pole of a boy still inside you? Do youfeelhim sometimes, nervous and unsure, trying to pull you back?" Her gray eyes looked at him now more directly than ever before. He knew his answer was important to her.

"Yeah, he's still there. And every once in a while, he still tells me to quit—not to try. I just don't listen. If I did, I wouldn't be here talking to you. That boy would never have walked into your bookstore. He'd never have asked you to go on a bike ride, and he wouldn't have kissed you on your doorstep. That would have been a loss, don't you think?"

Nodding silently, she dropped her gaze to his lips, let it linger there.

Quinn's breath caught momentarily in his throat. He wondered if she realized how seductive that look was. If she were any other woman, he'd have reached for her. But she was Emily and he didn't. He stood up instead. "It's getting late. For a guy who invited himself to dinner, I've overstayed my welcome."

Emily followed him to the door. There was silence between them, but it was warmer, more companionable now. She handed him his jacket.

As he pulled it on, he asked. "Are we on for tomorrow? I don't think it's going to rain."

"The hike?" she hesitated.

"Our hike," he prodded. "I wouldn't want those muscles of yours to think they've been abandoned. Say noon?" Afraid she'd say no, he felt a stir of nervousness in his stomach.

The slightest pause, then, "Noon will be fine. I'll make a lunch."

"No. Leave that to me. I'll try to charm Blanche into it."

She smiled slightly. "Which I have no doubt you'll do."

As he turned toward the door, he couldn't resist the urge to touch her. He drew her to him and lightly kissed her forehead. This time the trembling wasn't so bad. Another brief embrace and he was gone.

Brief and gentle though he was, he left her with a deep, unknown longing.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 

After Quinn left, Emily put on a sweater and headed for the door, too unsettled to go to bed.

"Want to go for a walk, Bailly?" The click of the door pin and the word "walk" were enough to rouse the sleeping dog. In an instant the happy Ridgeback was standing expectantly at her side, tail spinning on a wriggling back end. She rubbed his velvet ears and smiled. At least she knew how to make Bailly happy.

"C'mon, then. Let's go."

The night sky over Fulford Harbour was clear now, marked by a full moon and drifting clouds. Quinn was right; it looked as if there'd be no rain tomorrow. Emily headed for the beach in front of her house. Bailly surged ahead, as excited on this walk as he'd been on the thousand before it. She marveled at his enthusiasm. Same beach, same route, same smells, yet he never tired of it.

Standing on the shoreline, she picked up a stone and threw it aimlessly into the water. Bailly watched attentively. When he figured out it wasn't a stick and that no game was in the offing, his interest waned, and he headed down the beach a few yards. Emily sat on her thinking log. She'd called it that since her first year in the house, often coming here when her writing stalled and her creative juices stopped flowing. But tonight her thoughts centered on a tall, dark, very sexy man.

She replayed the evening as if it were a videotape, kept stopping it where he said, "I'm interested in you, Emily, only you."

Unbelievable...

"Hey," Lynn, her neighbor, said from behind her. "Can you stand a bit of company?"

"Sure, but what are you doing out here?" Better Lynn's company than useless mooning over Mister Tall and Sexy.

Lynn joined her on the log. "Same as you, I guess. Getting some air."

The two women lapsed into a compatible silence, the only sound the soft tide sweeping over the stones of the beach.

"Did you want James to look after Bailly tomorrow?" Lynn asked.

She could take Bailly with her tomorrow, but she knew how much James enjoyed him. "Yes, I think so. Tell him to come by at eleven-thirty or so."

"You're going to make me ask, aren't you?"

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