"Where the hell is here? Damn, this place is like a maze."
Her laugh was light and warm, and still lifting on the air when he opened the door. "You said I could use the yellow room, didn't you?"
Sitting in a chair, she had her back to him, an easel before her, her paintbrush poised on the large sheet of paper taped to a board.
"Didn't you?" She dabbed and swiped.
"I seem to recall that, yes."
"Don't get around the house much, huh?"
"No, not in here. God, I feel like a fool."
"You were worried?"
"Hell, yes. This place is big and old—"
"And always dark," she said, twisting slightly but not looking at him. She stared at the floor just to her left.
Richard realized she was doing that for him, although there was very little light in the room. The curtains were thrown back, and silver beams streamed through the tall windows. "You're painting in the dark, Laura."
"Gee, Blackthorne, you're real quick on the uptake."
He chuckled slightly and shook his head, stepping closer.
Laura felt him moving up behind her, smelled his aftershave, and she wondered when her senses had become so acute. His body seemed to melt through the air between them and press on her skin. The sensation made her aware of herself, of the thin robe and pajamas separating her from him. She longed to see him, not out of some morbid curiosity, but for him to trust her enough to let her that close. All she knew of him was the image of him she'd seen in the photos taken nearly five years ago.
"Isn't it an incredible view?" She gestured to the town spread out like a lady's shirt below, the whitewashed homes and businesses glowing under the moonlight, the shore lapping at her sandy hem. Richard's home was on the highest ground, a Machiavellian ogre looming over the village. No wonder everyone was terrified of him, she thought.
"I thought you would like it."
She inhaled a quick breath. He was near.
"But painting without light?"
"It was an image I wanted to catch. The island asleep," she said, then jolted when he put his hands on the back of her chair.
He studied the half-finished painting. "Well, you've certainly captured it," he said.
His voice was near her ear, soft and gentle, as if he were approaching a wild creature.
"The clouds keep moving in and ruining it."
"There's a tropical storm off the coast of Florida. We might get some of it."
"I hope not." She tipped her head a bit, feeling the warmth of his skin so close to her cheek. Her body prickled with new awareness. "The season is almost over."
"Mother Nature can be such a witch sometimes. But we're safe here. This house has withstood storms for twenty years or so."
Silence stretched between them, the quiet punctured with only their breathing.
"Thank you for the paints and things. I love them."
"You're very welcome. You have an extraordinary talent."
Something curled warmly through her. "Thank you," she barely managed to say, so touched by his words.
"So, beauty queen, was this your talent portion for all those contests?"
She smiled, laughing softly. "No, it wasn't." And why wasn't she offended when he called her beauty queen?
"Not going to tell me, are you?" She shook her head. "I like challenges, Cambridge." A pause. "Oh, God, you smell good," he groaned.
"Oh, so do you," she whispered back, yet when she turned her head, he suddenly moved away, around her and to the window. He kept his back to her, his hands braced on the tall, narrow window frame. Silver light spilled over him, over his dark hair, and Laura was again taken aback by his size. He had to be well over six-foot, and his shoulders blocked the light.
"Good grief, Richard, you're a giant."
He made a sound, a half laugh. "Do I scare you?"
"Oh, yeah, can't you see me tremble? You know, you wouldn't be so mysterious to this town's people if you didn't go out of your way to keep them back."
"They don't come calling."
"Oh, gee, with the Wall of China around the house, the dragon door knocker to greet them? The house is so isolated, and frankly, Richard, it could use a few flowers or shrubs around those live oaks. Now, I'll be the first to admit that Spanish moss hanging from live oaks is a sight to behold, but it's also scary-looking. Maybe paint the trim a different—"
"Yes?" She drew a quick breath.
"You're babbling." He lowered his arms and turned, leaning back against the wall to the right of the window and facing her. Her heart slammed to her stomach.
She could see his face.