California man - the author's cut edition (page 6)

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"Maybe so. But you're just... something I didn't plan on. That's all."

"I'm not a 'thing.' In case you haven't noticed, I'm a woman."

"I noticed.Believe me, I noticed." Quinn turned to the gas barbecue, put on a couple of potatoes, and closed the lid. "Which is exactly the problem."

"So?" Emily leaned against the cedar railing of the deck, taking balance from the solid feel of the wood.

"So? So, what?" Quinn turned back to look at her, his expression quizzical.

"What are you going to do about it?"

"You lost me. Do about what?"

"About my being a woman. That's what." With that remark, she took a quantum leap into unmapped territory—and didn't care. She refused to second guess what she said or why she said it.

Quinn cocked his head, his gaze pure speculation. She was absolutely sure she'd shocked him. "I can think of a lot of things," he said. "But it doesn't make them right—for you."

"Shouldn't I be the judge of that?"

"You're not going to let this go, are you?"

"No." But the cool way he was looking at her made her uneasy. She glanced at the door.

"Okay, then you tell me—what exactly am I expected to do about you. Is there something specific you have in mind?" His eyes locked with hers.

Emily met his gaze without wavering, then turned away. Her fingers gripped the deck rail until her knuckles were a bloodless white. She stared at the ocean and didn't look back when she spoke again. "Forget it. It was stupid of me to come here. I'm good at that—doing stupid things."

Only silence came from behind her, edgy and heavy.

"It wasn't stupid. What was stupid—unforgivable—was my disappearing act. I did exactly what I didn't want to do. I hurt you. I'm sorry." His voice was low, so low it barely carried his words to where she stood.

Emily faced him then. "Yes... well... you don't owe me anything, least of all an apology, but thanks anyway. I think I'd better go."

He took a step toward her to block her path. "Don't go." He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked down at her. "Stay. Please."

Emily kept her eyes steady when she looked up to him. There was no point acting the scared rabbit at this point. "You want me to stay? Or are you being kind?"

"I want you to stay, and believe me, being kind has nothing to do with it." He brushed his lips across hers and ran his hands down her arms until he clasped her hands. He pulled back then. "We'll have dinner and then we'll talk. Deal? I think I'd like to answer your questions. Both of them. First, about what I'm doing here on the island, and second, what I'm going to do about the fact that you're a woman. Stay." The last word was more demand than request.

The light kiss brought his scent with it, accented by his musky after-shave; she breathed him in. She would stay, she decided, but she would watch for warning flags—and would not, absolutely not, be hurt again. Nor would she be a love coward.

"I'll stay," she stated firmly.

He let go of her hands. "Good. Now, no more talk until I ruin a couple of steaks for us. Agreed?"

She nodded, but without his warm grip, she was again tense and self-conscious. "I need to do something. The salad?"

"Great. Everything you need is in the kitchen."

Quinn pointed in the direction of the house and smiled.

Watching her walk into the house, the smile slowly left his face. He was making a big mistake; he could feel it. Her question hummed in his brain. "I'm a woman. What are you going to do about it?" He took a deep breath as he saw her disappear behind the opened fridge door.

I sure as hell know what I'd like to do.

Feeling unsettled and oddly indecisive, he turned back to the steaks.

* * *

During dinner Quinn tried to keep an easy flow of conversation going, draw Emily out, encourage her to relax, and most of all undo some of the hurt he'd caused. So the steaks were overcooked and the potatoes underdone, it didn't matter. Tonight only Emily mattered.

They talked about the island, California, the forthcoming games, and James. Quinn was enthusiastic about his chances of winning. Later, he heard about Emily's writing, her coming debut as a playwright. But she quickly became uncomfortable talking about herself and changed the subject. She was good at that, he noticed.

When he told her why he'd come to Salt Spring, about the difficulty of deciding to sell his business, she listened with a keen interest, her eyes never leaving his face. He hadn't realized until now how much he'd needed to discuss it with someone.

"You're a bit afraid, aren't you?" she asked, tilting her head slightly. "About what you'll do if you sell your business."

"Yes. I've been tied up in Action Sports so long now, I don't know where I begin and the stores end. On one hand, I hate to leave it, and on the other, my gut tells me it's time for a change." He leaned back in his chair and absently drank some wine. "I'm not normally so confused."

"Could be that bean pole kid making trouble for you again," she said, a half smile playing across her mouth.

He smiled too, although it felt a bit grim. "Maybe so." It was dark now, and her face was lit only by a slant of light coming from the living room. Her long lashes shadowed her cheeks.

"When you decide, you'll do the right thing. But..." she stopped, seeming unwilling to give an unsolicited opinion.

He leaned forward. "But what? Go on. What were you going to say?"

"I was going to say what seems most important is that your decision to sell be based more on the future than the past. Not what you're leaving behind so much as what you're going toward. Maybe if you were more clear about what you wanted to do after Action Sports, the decision would sit easier, be more comfortable for you." She stopped. "I guess that sounds kind of muddled."

"Not at all. You're right on the mark. That's exactly what I've been doing, thinking about the past instead of the future." He reached across the table and took her hand. "How did you get to be so smart anyway? Or does the writing make you a natural student of human nature?" Quinn was more convinced than ever—this woman was special. He needed to be careful. Soverycareful with her. He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. The connection warmed him.

The caress of his thumb did strange things to Emily's vocal cords, so she didn't answer his question. She did lift her eyes to look at him, watched his expression deepen as he continued to stroke her hand.

"How about we move on and talk about the second question?" There was a trace of tease in his words. "Let's talk about your being a woman and what I'd like to do about it. That was your question, wasn't it?"

His words stopped her breathing.Oh, God...She had said that. Acted like a crazy woman. Swallowing the clump of nerves in her throat, she said, "You don't have to... I didn't mean to... Please. Can we just forget I said that?" She tried to withdraw her hand from his, but he held it fast.

"I don't want to forget it. And I don't think you want to either." He stood up and pulled her with him. "It's getting cold out here. Let's go in."

Emily pulled back. "It's not cold."

"Maybe not to you, but to this recently transplanted Californian, it's cold." He grinned and gave her hand another tug. "Now are we going to stay out here and play tug of war, or are you coming inside?"




Chapter 6


Ignoring the clacking and clattering of her nerves, Emily followed him. He led her to a leather sofa and left her there while he retrieved their wine glasses. That done, he sat down, not beside her as she expected, but on the floor, his back resting on the matching love seat across from her, his long legs extended across the deep carpet.

"You going to stay up there or come down here with me?"

"I'm fine here." She sat perched on the edge of the sofa with the readiness of a jet on a launching pad.

"No, you're not. Come here. I want you close to me." He reached for her hand and pulled her down to the soft carpet. In one easy movement, he placed her squarely in the vee between his legs with her back against the wall of his chest. He wrapped his arms close about her and put his mouth to her ear. "There. That's a lot better, isn't it? Especially since we are about to have an intimate conversation—a very intimate conversation. Are you ready for that?"

She didn't know what she was ready for, but she nodded her okay, closed her eyes, and laid her head back against his shoulder. His cuddling was delicious and she moved closer still, almost relaxing into his warmth.Almost.

Quinn raised one hand to her neck, exposed by the scooped neckline of her T-shirt, and lifted her hair away from her ear and nibbled lightly on her earlobe.

Until he did that, she hadn't known her earlobe was connected to her stomach, along with another even more sensitive part of her anatomy. Then her bones turned to butter when Quinn nuzzled and lightly bit where her neck met her shoulder. She shifted between his raised knees, closing her legs to ease the throb between her own.

That shift brought a soft explosion of breath from Quinn's mouth—a warm wind across her neck. He pulled back from her, ran his hands down her arms, stopping at her elbows.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all," he muttered. "If you're going to sit here, you're going to have to sit still or I might do something you're not ready for."

"Should I get up?"

He wrapped his arms around her. "Not on your life. Stay right where you are. I want to hold you."

They fell silent then, the only sounds coming through the open patio doors, the wind in the trees and the swish of the ocean tide.

Emily was happy with the quiet, wrapped as she was in Quinn's arms, but it was her who spoke first—or her infernal, unstoppable curiosity. "Quinn?"

"Uh-huh." His hands started moving again, slipping under her arms and down to stroke her jeans-clad legs.

"Tell me. Tell me what you want to do with me."

"How about if I show you instead?" He pulled her to him hard and buried his head in the recess of her shoulder. "Because at the moment I'm not sure I can put words together and make any sense of them." He kissed her throat, quick burning kisses like tiny brands. She knew they'd still be there tomorrow, and she ached with the pleasure of them.

"Try." She liked the new lowered timbre of his voice.

He took his head from her shoulder and leaned back against the leather love seat, then circled his hands loosely at the base of her neck. She heard his deep breathing, felt it against her back.

For a long time he didn't speak, then, "I want to make love with you. Have since that day in the park. I want your body under mine, your breasts filling my hands. I want to touch you, kiss you—taste you." He smiled into her hair. "In all the most sinful places. I want to be inside you... feel you hot and wet. I want you to melt for me. Because you make me burn, shy Emily." He buried his face in her hair. His voice was a low rumble, when he repeated, "You make me burn."

His words twisted through her like a rope pulled fast and hard, scorching everything it touched. If he could do this with words, what a blaze his hands and mouth would kindle. She tensed, not with fear, but with anticipation of what would follow. Whatmustfollow.

He went on. "But—and it's a big one—I'm not at a place in my life where I can make promises or commitments." He paused. "I like you, Emily—maybe too much. But in a month, I'll be gone, and I don't think you need a transient lover." His hands left their place at the base of her neck and came to rest on his own extended legs. He was pulling back, pulling away from her.

She snapped to her knees and faced him. Her heart felt huge in her chest—and it pounded as if she'd run a marathon. "But don't you see, that's exactly what I want.What I need. I want you, too... and I want those feelings. I know you have to leave, Quinn. I get that. And it's okay."

Her fevered reply seemed to startle him. "Do you know what you're saying?"

"I knowexactlywhat I'm saying. I'm saying I want to make love with you and I accept the consequences. Iwantto be seduced." Her eyes were steady as she studied his perplexed expression, looking for any trace of rejection.

What she saw in his cocked head and raised eyebrows was the dawning of suspicion. He watched her intently for a few seconds, then asked, "Emily, you're not a virgin, are you?"

She dropped her eyes.

"You are, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not. Not exactly."

"Not exactly?"

"I've made love before. So you don't need to worry about deflowering me. If that's what's bothering you."

"Deflowering—? How long ago was this... lovemaking?"

Mortification suffocated her words and stomped on her bit of bravery.

He waited a second or two, then repeated, "How long?"

"I made love... once... seven years ago." Scarlet burned her cheeks.

Jesus...Quinn let out a long breath. The high color in her face, the downcast eyes, made him want to reach for her and pull her close. He resisted, while stumbling through his amazement that the dumbass male population of the world had passed this amazing woman by. Their loss. Although he still wasn't sure whether it was his gain. She sat there, graveyard still.

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