"You're a drop-dead gorgeous woman, Laura. What man wouldn't look his fill? Surely you know that."
"Yes, I'm well acquainted with how much people value looks," she muttered as the timer went off.
"So am I," he said bitterly.
"Well then, we have a common ground." She removed the last batch of cookies, putting the tray on top of the stove before she turned back.
He was gone. As if a cold wind blew across her face, she knew he was gone.
"I don't like that, either, Mr. Blackthorne," she shouted into the house.
There was no answer, not that she expected one.
Richard Blackthorne did as he pleased. The rest of the world be damned.
* * *
Richard moved down the back servants' stairs, returning his supper dishes to the kitchen. He rinsed and loaded them in the dishwasher, snatching a cookie from the plate left in the center of the butcher table. Munching, he walked through the dining room, intent on the library, yet frowning when he felt the balmy air whispering through the house. He strode into the living room and suddenly stopped short. Every muscle in his body jerked tight when he saw her. She stood on the back deck outside the living room, the French doors thrown open to the breeze. Her hands rested on the rail, and a soft green robe billowed out behind her like a knight's banner as she tilted her face to a moonless sky. Beyond the deck, the sea crashed against the shore. The flood lamps at the corner of the house offered the only light.
Richard swore he was looking at an angel. The wind caught her auburn hair, lifting it with the swirl of drapes hung inside the French doors.
"Isn't this fantastic?" she said.
He stilled, feeling trapped in his own house.
"Isn't it?" she prodded, twisting ever so slightly to look at him.
Richard knew she couldn't see him clearly, with the light behind her. "You like this weather?"
Laura looked back at the sea. In the distance lightning flashed. "This is my favorite time. Storms, bone-shaking thunder, rain."
Richard realized she'd intentionally turned her back, giving him the chance to come near or leave, doing either without her seeing him. The gesture touched him, and at the same time, made him wary. Would she suddenly flip on the switch and go screaming? Yet as he already knew where Laura was concerned, he couldn't resist coming closer.
Slipping onto the balcony, he leaned back into the blowing drapes at the French doors. "Thank you for dinner." She'd left the tray outside his door on a small table she'd dragged up the stairs.
"You're welcome. You don't have to eat up there all alone, Mr. Blackthorne."
"What do you propose? That we dine like civilized folk?"
"I think you know the answer to that."
"And what am I to say to Kelly? Sorry you lost your mother, and well, you really don't have a dad, just a benefactor."
He winced. "Tell her whatever you think is best."
"I know you care, Mr. Blackthorne. I saw her bedroom."
"Just because I don't want her to see me, doesn't mean I don't want her to be comfortable here. Don't you get it? She's a child. One look at what's left of my face and she'll have nightmares for a week." He shook his head. "I'd rather spare us both that."
Laura stepped closer and saw him stiffen and fold his arms over his chest. The posture was so defensive, she knew he couldn't be reached. Not now. "Do you really think a child will be satisfied with scraps, Mr. Blackthorne?"
"She'll have you."
"I'm a stranger," she whispered.
"And so am I."
Laura snarled with frustration, her fists clenched at her sides. "You are an impossible man."
There was a stretch of silence, and then he said, "I want to protect her."
"Shielding her from knowing you is not how to go about it."
"You're the authority on children?" Disbelief colored his voice.
"I'm not unfamiliar."
Damn his judging tone, she thought, and wanted to kick him. "You don't like that other people see only your disfigurement, so you hide it. But you're no better. You see what you want, Mr. Blackthorne. No, I don't have any children, but I wish I did. Yet, I taught embassy school for years and I did minor in child psychology. That should come in handy. That and being the oldest of five. Suit you well enough?"
Angrily, she pushed away from the rail, heading inside, but he caught her arm, pulling her into the dark folds of fabric with him.
"Yes. It suits."
Laura could barely catch her breath, her heart was pounding so hard. Lord, he was a big man, his fingers wrapping around her upper arms completely, and as the curtains whipped around them, she felt enveloped by his nearness. His scent and the sudden danger of being in the shadows swirled around her like a silken rope, trapping her with him. The strength of his legs pressed against hers, the heat of his body driving away the night's chill.