Now You See Her by Linda Howard

  “I told you no yesterday afternoon.” She hugged the blanket around her, suddenly self-conscious about how she must look. She was still wearing sweats, and she hadn’t brushed her hair, so she knew it was bushed around her head in a wild tangle. A long curl hung in her eyes; she pushed it back and blushed, then scowled. She didn’t like the feeling of embarrassment. She couldn’t remember the last time she had cared what someone thought of how she looked, but . . . but Richard was different. She didn’t want him to be, but he was.

  “That was for dinner.” He eyed her critically, moving forward even more, frowning as he registered the heat in the apartment. “Why do you have it so hot in here?”

  “I told you, I’m cold.” Despite herself, her voice sounded querulous. He reached out and placed a warm hand on her forehead. She would have jerked back, but the warmth felt so good she felt herself lean a little into his hand.

  A slight frown knit his forehead. “You don’t seem to be feverish.”

  “Of course I’m not. I just told you, I’m cold.”

  “Then something is wrong, because it’s hot in here.”

  “Says the man wearing a jacket.” She sniffed in disdain and moved away from him to reclaim her seat in the corner of the couch, curling into herself for warmth.

  He wasn’t the least put off by her snappishness. “It’s called a suit,” he said, sitting down beside her. “Do you feel ill in any other way?”

  “I don’t feel ill at all. I’m just cold.”

  He regarded her stubbornly set face for a moment. “You know that isn’t normal.”

  “Maybe my internal thermostat’s messed up,” she muttered, though she didn’t really think so. The coldness had begun with the change, so she had thought there was nothing she could do about it. On the other hand, the thought that she might actually be ill wasn’t any more welcome. She didn’t have time for illness, so she refused to be ill. It was that simple.

  His dark eyes were sharp and probing as he continued to study her. “How long has this been going on?”

  If she hadn’t been so cold, she could have asserted herself, but it was difficult to sound assertive when anything she said was filtered through chattering teeth. Rather than appear ridiculous, she said, “I stay cold, most of the time, but this is the worst it’s been.”

  “You need to see a doctor,” he said decisively. “Come on, get dressed and I’ll take you.”

  “Forget it.” Pulling the blanket closer, Sweeney rested her head on her knees. Deciding to turn the pressure on him, she said, “You should have called before you came over.”

  “So you could tell me not to come? That’s why I didn’t call.” He touched her hand and frowned at the iciness of her fingers.

  “Well, I can’t go out, and you can bet your last penny I’m not going to cook for you.”

  “I don’t expect you to.” He was still frowning as he watched her, half turned toward her with one arm resting along the back of the couch. She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering, wishing he would go. He was too close, and she was too cold. A woman couldn’t muster her defenses when she had to concentrate on shivering.

  “Okay,” he said, getting to his feet as if he had made a decision. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and shrugged out of it.

  “What are you doing?” Sweeney demanded, sitting up in alarm. Even as she said it, the question struck her as stupid, since obviously she could see what he was doing. It was the why that alarmed her.

  “Getting you warm.” He plucked the blanket from her grasp and pulled it away. Before she could protest, he settled his jacket around her shoulders.

  The warmth was almost shocking. She inhaled sharply in relief as the heat sank into her spine. My God, the man must be like a furnace, for his jacket to absorb that much of his body heat. The sensation was so delicious she didn’t notice him sitting down again until he scooped her onto his lap.

  She went rigid with a brief moment of panic, then pushed hard at him as she swung one foot to the floor so she could stand. To her astonishment, he simply wrapped his arms around her and gathered her in as if she were a child, lifting her feet onto the couch and holding her close. He tucked the blanket around both of them, making sure her feet were covered.

  “Body heat,” he said calmly. “That’s one of the first things they taught us in army survival courses, to huddle together when we got cold.”

  Sweeney stilled, lured both by the incredible warmth wrapping around her and by the image his words brought up in her mind. She couldn’t help smiling. “I can just see all you tough young soldiers cuddling together.”

  “Not cuddling, huddling. There’s a difference.” He laid his hand over her feet; she was struck by the fact that his hand was big enough to cover both of her feet. Heat began seeping through her socks to her icy toes.

  Convulsive shivering suddenly shook her, despite the warmth of coat, blanket, and body, and Richard gathered her closer, tucking her head under his chin and pulling the blanket up so that her nose was covered, warming the air she breathed. “You’re going to smother me,” she protested.

  “Not for a while yet.” There was that note of laughter in his voice again, though when she rolled her head back to see, his mouth was perfectly straight. No, not straight; she paused, mesmerized by the clear cut of his lips. He had a good mouth, not too thin, not too full. Not so wide that a woman would feel as if she might fall in, and not so small it looked as if he’d just sucked a lemon like Ronald Trump’s, or whatever his name was. All in all, Richard’s lips looked just right.

  “You’re staring,” he said.

  Over the years she had been caught staring at people more times than she could remember, and usually it didn’t bother her, but this time she blushed. “I do that,” she mumbled. “Stare at people. I’m sorry.”

  “It doesn’t bother me. Stare away.”

  There was a warm, soft, indulgent tone in his voice that gave her another one of those alarming, exciting stomach flutters. It occurred to her that sitting in a man’s lap was not a good way to discourage his attentions, or flatten her own interest. On the other hand, not only did she doubt he would let her get up, the warmth was so marvelous she didn’t want to get up, at least not now. Though she still shivered, she could tell the body heat thing was working, because the shivers were lessening in intensity.

  “When were you in the army?” She felt she had to say something, because just sitting there was awkward, and if you couldn’t talk to a man when you were in his lap, then when could you?

  “A long time ago, when I was young and macho.”

  “Why did you join? Or were you drafted?” She had no idea when the draft had been abolished.

  “I joined. I didn’t have any money for college, so that seemed like the best way to get an education. Turned out I had a knack for things military. I would probably still be in if I hadn’t stumbled on a knack for the stock market, too. The stock market is a lot more lucrative, and I wanted money.”

  “Well, you have it now.”

  “Yes, I do.”

  His body heat was seductive, melting her bones, leaching strength from her muscles. She felt herself sinking into him, molding to him like soft gelatin. The departing chill left her limp and sleepy, utterly relaxed. Not even the hard ridge forming under her bottom could alarm her. She yawned and stuck her cold nose into the warm curve where jaw joined neck. She felt him give a little jump, but then his arms tightened.

  She should get up. She knew she should. This was asking for trouble. She wasn’t a child, and she knew how sexual this situation was, and how much more sexual it could become. But the warmth . . . ah, God, the warmth! She was comfortable for the first time since getting out of bed that morning, more comfortable, truly, than she had been in a long time, at least a year. An electric blanket didn’t provide the same kind of heat as another body, didn’t reach all the way down to the marrow of her bones. The army knew what it was about, making its young soldiers cuddle.

  She ya
wned again and felt a chuckle rumble in his chest, his throat, though it never actually made it out. “Go to sleep,” he murmured, deep voice soothing. “I’ll take care of you.”

  Sweeney wasn’t a trusting soul; a solitary woman couldn’t afford to be. But she didn’t have a moment’s doubt that Richard was a man of his word. She could feel sleep coming, heavy and delicious, and she gave herself up to it with a little sigh. “Don’t let me sleep past one o’clock,” she said, the words slurred, and closed her eyes.

  * * *

  One o’clock? Richard stifled his laughter. A glance at his wristwatch told him the time wasn’t yet eleven-thirty. Sweeney evidently saw nothing wrong in expecting him to hold her in his lap for an hour and a half and let her sleep, disregarding all concern for any cramps he might develop or appointments he might have. The thing was, she was right. He would rather be right where he was than any other place he could think of.

  His cell phone was in his coat pocket. Using his free hand, he carefully reached inside the jacket without disturbing her, though the back of his hand brushed her breast, which disturbed him. He ignored his aching erection and flipped open the flat little phone, pressing the buttons with his thumb. “I won’t be going out to lunch,” he said quietly when Edward answered. “Pick me up at one-fifteen.”

  “Very good, sir.”

  Richard ended the call and folded the phone. Sweeney stirred and nudged her nose against his neck, but didn’t open her eyes. She was truly, deeply, asleep.

  He shifted into a more comfortable position, settling his shoulders and easing his head back against the couch. He was going to be here awhile, so he might as well relax and enjoy it. Holding Sweeney on his lap was definitely enjoyable. He had a sneaking idea she had no clue how appealing she was, with her big blue eyes and curly mass of hair, but he had always thought she was one of the most attractive women he’d ever met. Not beautiful—attractive. People liked to look at her, talk to her. Men would have been swarming all over her if she had ever given any indication she was aware of them as men, not just sexless acquaintances. She was an expert at keeping people at a distance, blocking any but the most superficial contact.

  Until yesterday. He didn’t know what had happened, but suddenly he had known her blinders were gone and she was aware of him personally, emotionally, sexually. God knows he had been aware of her, standing there with that red sweater molded to her breasts and those blue eyes getting wider and wider as she listened to the McMillans. He had almost been able to see some irrepressibly scathing comment welling up in her throat, because she was known for saying what was on her mind. In the world he moved in, such spontaneous honesty was so rare as to be almost nonexistent. People guarded their words and stuck to the polite, the politically correct, the inane. He knew Sweeney tried to be polite, but as she had said yesterday, her tolerance level for bullshit was really low.

  She made him grin. Hell, she made him laugh. He had the feeling he could spend every day with her for twenty years and not know all of her quirks or exactly how her mind worked.

  He liked her. He had dated other women since he and Candra had separated, but he had been careful to keep any relationships casual, and in fact hadn’t really liked any of the women. Enjoyed them, yes, even been aroused by them, but he had never felt any of them could be a friend. Maybe that was why he hadn’t slept with any of them, which Candra would never believe, and in fact he astonished himself with his reticence. He missed sex. He wanted sex. He was so horny he was going through the torments of the damned, holding Sweeney on his lap, but the truth was he had turned down a lot of opportunities.

  Legally, he was still married. He couldn’t forget that. The marriage was over—he could barely tolerate being in the same room with Candra—but until a judge ruled the marriage was dissolved, he wasn’t a free man. It wouldn’t be fair to any woman to start a sexual relationship with her knowing he wasn’t able to offer more. Until yesterday, when he had met Sweeney’s eyes and felt that zing of attraction, it hadn’t mattered. Now it did.

  Gently he touched one of her curls, picking it up and stretching it out, marveling at its length. Straightened, her hair would reach over halfway down her back. He released the tension on the strand and it wrapped around his finger like a loose spring.

  The chill she’d had worried him. The apartment’s heat, added to the warmth of both her and the blanket draped over him, had sweat running down his face. Her face had been pale, her skin clammy. She had looked shocky, as if she had lost a lot of blood. Since that obviously wasn’t the case, something else was wrong. Glancing down at her now, though, he saw a tinge of delicate color in her cheeks, and her face had lost the drawn look of hypothermia.

  One unrestrained breast pressed against his rib cage. She was definitely braless, a detail he had immediately noted, with her chill pinching her nipples into tight little points. They had plumped out now, though, because he couldn’t feel them pushing at him.

  Not today, but one day soon, he would hold her naked breasts in his hands and rub his thumbs over her nipples and watch them pucker. He closed his eyes as he let himself imagine how it would feel to hold her beneath him and push deep into her. Making love to Sweeney would be a challenge; despite the startled awareness in her eyes, she was resisting doing anything about it. Part of it was scruples, yes; he understood that. But part of it was sheer stubbornness, an unwillingness to open herself up to him. She wanted her life just the way it was, without a man around to distract her. She was good at keeping it that way, too, because judging from the comments Candra had dropped over the years, Sweeney was practically a nun.

  Not for much longer, though.

  He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax, but as he began to doze, he remembered her charge—he would demand time and sex and things like that, he thought was the way she’d put it. She was right on the money. He went to sleep with a slight smile on his face.

  In the army, he had trained himself to sleep for a specified length of time, no matter how brief, and wake up when he wanted. Now they were called power naps, but then he had called it staying alive. He shut out of his mind the uncomfortable heat, ignored it as if it didn’t exist, another trick he had learned in training. When he woke half an hour later, he felt rested despite the fact that his shirt was wet with sweat. Sweeney was warm, too; she had pushed the blanket down from around her face, and her fingertips were pink. As he had expected, she began stirring just a few moments later, rather than the hour and a half she had given herself; sleep was the body’s reaction to cold, and once warmth was restored, the sleepiness was gone.

  He was looking down at her, so he saw her eyes pop open. Like flashes of lightning, her expression was startled, then flickered to alarm. She sat up suddenly, catching his balls beneath her and pinning them. He barely restrained a yelp and swiftly shifted her weight in his lap.

  “Oh, God, I can’t believe I did that,” she muttered, scrambling off his lap in a tangle of blanket and coat.

  “I can.” Wincing, he eased into a different position.

  She looked down, and her eyes widened. “I didn’t mean that,” she blurted. “I was talking about going to sleep in your lap. I’m so sorry.” She bit her lip. ‘Are you all right?”

  A chuckle burst through his clenched teeth. Gingerly he moved again, and the pain began to fade. “I don’t know,” he said, deliberately pitching his voice high.

  She threw herself back against the couch, shrieking with laughter.

  Richard bent over her, framed her face with his hands, and kissed her laughing mouth.

  She went still, like a small animal trying to hide from a predator. Her hands came up to clasp his wrists, clever hands, the skin soft and sensitive over delicate bones. He wanted to crush her mouth with his, but he gentled his kiss, treasuring rather than taking. Her lips trembled, just a little. He opened them and sought her tongue with his. Heat roared through him, white-hot and urgent. His entire body tightened with the need to cover and enter. Ruthlessly he restrai
ned himself, knowing she was far from acceptance.

  Then she kissed him back. The movement of her lips and tongue were tentative, almost shy at first, and then a low moan vibrated in her throat and her grip tightened on his wrists. He felt tension invade her body, felt her strain upward even though she never left her seat beside him. He deepened the kiss, his tongue slow and sure, both taking and inviting.

  She tore away from him, launching herself to her feet and stomping several feet away. When she whirled to face him, her expression was tight with anger. “No,” she said, voice clipped. “You’re married.”

  He got to his feet, gaze locked on her face. “Not for much longer.”

  She made an abrupt motion. “You’re married now, and that’s what counts. You’re in the middle of an unfriendly divorce—”

  “Is there any other kind?” he interrupted, tone as mild as if he were asking the time.

  “You know what I mean. Candra’s my business associate, and on top of that I like her.”

  “Most people do.”

  “Getting involved with you would be messy It wouldn’t be right.”

  His dark eyes narrowed. “Okay.”

  Her eyebrows arched in surprise. “Okay?”

  “For now. Until the divorce is final. Then ...” He shrugged, letting the word trail off, but from the way he still watched her, she could figure out what “then” entailed. “One question: What’s your first name?”

  She gaped at him. “What?”

  “Your first name. What is it? I refuse to call a woman I’ve slept with by her last name.”

  “We didn’t—” she began, then scowled, because sleeping together was exactly what they had done. “You have to call me by my last name,” she snapped. “Because it’s the only name I’ll answer to.”

  “Maybe. You might as well tell me,” he said maddeningly. “You had to fill out an application when you moved into the apartment. I can find out from that.”

  Her scowl deepened. “Paris,” she said abruptly.

  He didn’t follow. “What about it?”

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