He whipped around. "Not another step."
"What'll you do? Fire me?" she asked, knowing he couldn't.
"There are other ways to make you keep your distance," he said, and watched her disobey and advance toward him.
"Like letting you see my face."
"Don't think much of me, do you?" she whispered, staring up into the shadows.
Her compassion was there, as was her pity. "On the contrary," he said just as quietly, "I think of you too much."
He took a single step, bringing him dangerously close, and the heat of his tall body instantly penetrated her clothes. She almost swayed against him, it was so powerful and alluring. Her body called out, as if she'd known him in another life, another time. Raw and hungry, and she wanted to know him again. But she couldn't. She'd been used for her looks before, and now here was a man who was holding it against her and using her as a barrier between him and his daughter.
"And it angers you, doesn't it? That it's me here and not someone else?"
"Yes," he hissed, the sound like a serpent warning of a strike. "I see your flawless face, and I feel every scar and gash as if it happened yesterday." His voice lowered, whiskey-rough with a dark yearning for the untouchable. "Then I hear your breath quicken when I am near, feel your body pulse like it is now, and you…"
The words were out before she could stop them. "Makes you feel like a man instead of a hermit."
He froze, every muscle locking hard.
She felt it, like a vise on her bones that made her want to reach for him. "Richard."
That undid him.
And abruptly he turned away and strode up the stairs, to his sanctuary.
The closing door was like a gunshot in the dark, making her flinch, and Laura fell back against the wall, covering her face.
Now she'd done it. He would never come into the light. Not for the desire they shared, or for the little girl they loved.
* * *
« ^ »
She felt like pond scum.
Okay, not quite that bad, she thought, stopping in the downstairs hall, her hands on her hips. But bad enough to keep her awake and roaming the huge house at midnight. She wished she'd kept her big mouth shut, that's all. This is what she got from being raised in a house full of kids where you grabbed your chance to talk or were silenced by the din of others. And she wanted her chance to apologize, but Richard wouldn't respond to the intercom or his door.
Fine. She could take a hint. Hardheaded man, she thought, though she knew what he'd said was true. She made him feel things, because living alone in his castle, he'd hadn't had to feel anything for some time. Now he had her and his daughter underfoot, and he felt his isolation harder, stronger.
But he made Laura feel, too. Feminine, wanted. And she realized how much she'd missed that little boost, for no amount of new clothes, bubble baths or chick-pampering had done the trick since breaking up with Paul. Yet being near Richard was unlike anything she'd felt with her fiancé or any other man. Only Richard gave her a rush of sensation, made her heart pound like a hammer, her blood move so swiftly through her veins she felt flushed and warm. Like an internal radar, her every cell jumped to life and screamed with desire when he was near. And he didn't even have to touch her.
Her brows drew down. She wasn't sure if she liked that.
Paul had nearly destroyed her self-confidence, and she'd taken the Wife Incorporated job to get as far away from him as she could. Did she really want to invite anything from such a man again? It was clear that appearances were first in Richard's thoughts. His—and hers. It was that kind of judgment she wanted to avoid.
Sighing, she flipped on a light as she entered the library. Nice. The walls were covered in filled bookshelves, and a sofa and love seat faced each other near the fireplace, a large desk off to the side. A suit of armor rested in the farthest corner like a sentinel to the knowledge one could find here. It was definitely a masculine room, she thought, strolling inside. She smelled tobacco smoke, and just as a shot of panic swept her, she realized it had come from the pipe lying in the crystal ashtray.
Her gaze moved quickly around the room, then to the doorway. "Mr. Blackthorne?"
The thought of seeing him scared and excited her in one breath. No response came, and she picked up the pipe, feeling the bowl. It was only slightly warm and she replaced it, wondering if he had a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches to go with it.
She looked around the room, trying to imagine him here. Was he comfortable surrounded by these books? Had they become his only companions besides Dewey? A rush of pity washed over her, but she fought it, knowing he wouldn't welcome it.