Nic was still letting Rowan’s remark eat at him the next morning and he couldn’t fathom why. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard variations of it from other women, one in particular. I didn’t think you’d care.
He turned his mind from that excruciating mental fracture, knowing no amount of backtracking and trying to prove he did care could bring back the loss he’d suffered then.
No, he had concluded over the years that there was a deficiency in him that portrayed him as not needing what others did: a home, family, love. And since he had been denied those things all his life, he had learned to live without them. He didn’t need them. It was a closed loop.
So why did he feel unfairly judged by Rowan’s, I wish you had some feeling of having a home and family here? Even if he wanted to be different, he couldn’t. The thought of trying to change made his hands curl into fists and a current of nervousness pulse through his system.
“I’m going for groceries!” she shouted from the bottom floor, startling him from his introspection.
Good, he thought, needing a reprieve from the way she upset his equilibrium. “Check the insurance,” he responded in a yell.
He let out a sigh, forcing himself back to his desk and the work spread over it, dimly aware of the distant hum of the garage door then the growl of a motor—
Leaping to his feet, he shot open the window in time to see his vintage black convertible, top down, slithering with the speed of a hungry mamba up the curving drive. Tucking fingertip and thumb against his teeth, he pierced the air with a furious whistle.
The brake lights came on. Her glossy head turned to look back at the house.
Nic pointed at the front steps and met her there a few seconds later. Rowan chirped the brakes as she stopped before him, staying behind the wheel while all eight cylinders purred like its namesake in her lap. Glamorous Tiffany sunglasses obscured half her face, but her mouth trembled in a subtle betrayal of nervousness before she sat a little straighter and gave him a lady-of-the-manor, “Yes?”
“What the hell are you doing?” He hitched his elbow on the top of the windscreen from the passenger side.
“You said to check the insurance. Mine’s up, but this one is still valid.”
“So is the hatchback.”
“This is more fun.” She pulled out one of her cheeky grins, trying to cajole him into indulging her.
He narrowed his eyes, determined not to fall for her act the way the rest of his sex did no matter how engaging she was. “And you know that how?” he asked.
Her nose crinkled. “I might have taken Black Betty here for a spin once or twice before. But I always fill the tank.” The assertive finger she lifted fell. “Today that could be a problem though. I took the petty cash from the kitchen, but it wasn’t much.”
“You are utterly shameless, aren’t you? I’m speechless.” Unaccountably, he had to suppress an urge to laugh.
“Okay, well could you, um, step back while you ponder what you’d like to say?”
“Get out of my car, Rowan!”
“Oh, Nic, don’t be like that,” she coaxed, leaning toward him so the chunky zipper of her flight jacket gaped open and showed him the dark plum line of her scooped shirt plastered low across her breasts. Pale globes swelled out the top.
“Like what?” He tried not to get distracted. “I know you. You’ll start looking at a basket of puppies and won’t notice the rain’s started again.” Was he any different? A monsoon could blow in at this moment and he’d still be fascinated by those puppies.
She caught him ogling. He wasn’t exactly being discreet so it wasn’t a surprise to lift his gaze and find a smug grin of womanly power widening her lips. In the way of all beauties who recognized the advantage of their appeal, she assumed it was legal tender.
“I’ll put the top up at the first spit, I promise.” She slipped the car into gear.
He shook his head, as much at himself for revealing his weakness as at her for thinking she had him where she wanted him. “No.”
“Look at this gorgeous morning.” She gestured expansively at the broken clouds scudding across the brilliant blue sky. Streaks of sunlight bathed the rain washed landscape in pockets of gold. “Doesn’t it make you want to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair?”
He never allowed himself to be susceptible to Rowan’s appealing enthusiasm. Old reflexes crowded a refusal onto his tongue. Park the jag and use the hatchback. I have to work. Work was the one thing he did care about. It was always there and, since it was all he would ever have, he was making a legacy of it.
But a damp, sweet breeze floated across his face, hinting at spring. It turned his mind to the instinctive pursuits of the season, the mating season. His blood warmed with male appreciation of the youthful female smiling up at him with such guile.
Seduce her, whispered on the air.
At the very least, he should remind her that batting her lashes had consequences. “Give me the keys,” he said on impulse.
“Oh, Nic!” Rowan cut the engine and flung open the driver’s door. As he came around to her side, a long thigh in tight green jeans stretched out. Tall boots planted firm with temper. “Why do you have to be like this? You’re just like everyone else who thinks they own my life. No, Rowan, you can’t possibly have five minutes of enjoying yourself. Take the housekeeper’s hatchback because that’s what you are now. What do you gain from these power trips, huh, Nic? What?”
She stood before him in the V of the open door. The full impact of her tough, piqued magnificence hit him like a truck. He’d thought to play her at her own game, but the stakes were high. It took everything he had to hold out a steady hand.
“I get to drive. Are you going to stand there and sulk or move to the other seat?”
“You’re coming with me? To the market?” Her stunned surprise was mostly hidden by her sunglasses, but he got to watch her elegant chin drop and her glossy lips part. The urge to kiss her edged him into her space.
“Wouldn’t you like company? I have my wallet.” He felt for it.
She shook back her hair, taking a second to eye him warily. If he hadn’t felt the weak sunshine before, he got a full blast of fireball heat as they stood facing each other. The attraction built in exponential waves of silence, bouncing back and forth, compressing with super-nova potential for explosion. Excitement for the chase swelled in him like a wind catching a sail.
“Of course.” Her winning smile was meant to disarm and it did.
His abdomen tightened, but when she made an abbreviated move to slip around him, he stayed exactly where he was. He wanted her to brush up against him.
The barest hint of nervousness diluted her bravado before she stated airily, “I guess I’ll crawl through.”
She planted her knee in the driver’s seat and offered him a breathtaking view of her wiggling backside while she maneuvered into the passenger seat. Righting herself, she inquired sweetly, “Will you be warm enough without a jacket?”
“Plenty,” he drawled, jeans feeling as snug here as they were there. This was insane. “The market and back,” he stated as he dropped behind the wheel. “I have a corporation to run.”
“I know and I appreciate you doing this.” Her hand grazed his bare wrist as he turned the key. All the hair stood up on his arm. “I want us to be friends, Nic.”
His insides turned over with the engine. She had to be kidding. Dislodging her touch, he reached across to steal her sunglasses so he could see her as clearly as she saw him. He wanted to watch her comprehend they’d come too far for any more pretenses.
“The extent of the attraction between us doesn’t seem to be penetrating for you. We’ll never be friends, Ro. People with this much sexual desire between them can’t be.”
The undisguised stare of masculine intent from Nic started a pull in her belly. Rowan resisted with a clench of her stomach muscles. Through a night of tossing and turning, she’d absorbed that Nic didn’t keep his lovers in his life. He was ruthlessly throwing her out of her home. She absolutely shouldn’t have an affair with him, but here she was, unable to resist flirting with him when she could see, at last, that she had an affect on him. Insidious thoughts crept in that she might be able to persuade him against his plans for Rosedale if she got close enough to him.
Being close was heady, but frightening. She’d grasped at the Let’s Be Friends routine to slow things down. He wasn’t having it and the sexual energy between them couldn’t be ignored when they were crammed together in this tiny car, her sunglasses dangling from his fingers behind her head. He was caressing her face with his gaze, taking in the telltale bags under her eyes that she’d tried to cover with makeup. She couldn’t help dropping her gaze to his mouth and think of the way those lips had hardened against hers, feasting and appreciating.
The lips in question curled into a knowing smile.
“I—” She became aware of a slow burn inside her, like a fuse that had been lit and was taking its time creeping toward the cache of gunpowder.
“I want you, Rowan.” Her sunglasses slid down her shoulder into her lap as his fingers combed into her hair over her ear. “I’ve wanted you for a long time and knowing you want me too means I have no reason to keep my distance any longer. It’s only a matter of time before we satisfy our curiosity.”
“Curiosity,” she repeated, heart trip-hammering as she processed that he’d wanted her for a long time. “You make it sound so...” Unemotional. Of course it was pure physical desire for him. It still managed to pierce her with a sweet shot of excitement.
Blinking to ease the sting in her eyes, she shrugged, fighting the urge to turn her lips into his wrist where his warm hand cupped the side of her head. God help her if she revealed she was motivated by something far more tender than basic earthly appetites.
As a bit of self-protection, she murmured, “You make it sound like you just want to get to the bottom of this.”
She waited a beat before she gave him the limpid, ingénue blink that would tell him she knew exactly what a double-entendre she’d just delivered.
It only took a stunned second before he tipped back his head in a hearty laugh, a rare full-bodied sound that melted her heart. Thanks Mum, she thought with a caustic nod of acknowledgement to the woman who’d taught her the valuable art of flirting. Cassandra had always used it aggressively, to bring a man in line with her wants whereas Rowan wielded it for defense, but at least it was in her repertoire of skills.
“Well it would go a long way to easing the tension between us, wouldn’t it?” Nic mused as he released her to gun the engine and pull away.