He looked at her, a teasing light in his eyes. ‘Not everyone has the chance to be at one with nature.’
Nell, despairing of her fascination with his long fingers, responded harshly. ‘I have no intention of getting back to nature with you!’ She intercepted the gleam in his eyes and, flushing to the roots of her hair, shook her head. ‘You have a vile mind.’
His wicked, husky laughter sent a sensual shiver of sensation through Nell’s body.
Luiz rose from his crouching position, brushing debris from the knees of his jeans. ‘Are you sure it’s my mind you are worried about?’
Nell was glad of the shadows as she felt the heat wash over her skin. ‘I’ve more things to worry about than your irresistibility. My niece…’
‘Your niece is an adult,’ he cut back unsmilingly.
‘Legally perhaps, but in experience…’
‘I thought you said she has been travelling around Europe for the past six months?’
‘She is only nineteen.’
‘What were you doing at nineteen, Nell? If you can remember that far back,’ he added mockingly. Standing there, her face bare of any make-up, her hair loose, she looked younger than the niece she had come to save.
His expression grew stern as he filled the silence. ‘You were caring for a dependent parent.’
Luiz couldn’t even begin to imagine what that had involved, but to his mind it was not what a young woman on the threshold of life should have been doing.
He felt a powerful surge of anger directed at the older sister and brother who had, it seemed to him, behaved with criminal selfishness.
‘There is no comparison,’ she protested crankily.
‘I’m not the one who’s making the comparison. This isn’t history repeating itself, Nell.’
Nell shook her head, a flicker of bafflement clouding her clear eyes. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I think you do.’ Nell’s eyes slid from his. ‘Your niece isn’t being forced to put duty ahead of desire. She isn’t making a selfless sacrifice.’
His tone suggested he didn’t have a high opinion of people who made such sacrifices and as his meaning penetrated an embarrassed flush of annoyance washed over Nell’s skin.
‘I’m not some sickly saintly martyr, if that’s what you’re implying.’
‘You didn’t feel trapped? Hasn’t it occurred to you that the entire personal crusade thing isn’t about your niece, it’s about you? You can’t bear the idea of your niece throwing away what was snatched away from you when you were her age.’
Nell looked shocked by the suggestion that genuinely hadn’t occurred to her—not until now anyway.
‘That is a ridiculous idea.’ Nell greeted the idea with scorn, but beneath her cool rebuttal she was uneasy… Wasn’t there a thread of truth in it? ‘I’m worried about Lucy…’
As he struggled to contain a strong irrational surge of anger at the girl’s name Luiz met her head-on aggressive glare with a narrow-eyed look of seething irritation. Why was the woman refusing to recognise the obvious? He couldn’t decide if she was too stubborn or stupid… She was definitely infuriating!
‘This isn’t about Lucy!’ he bellowed.
Her adrenaline levels high, Nell was so immersed in the heated verbal exchange that she almost let the comment pass unchallenged. She even opened her mouth to deliver another sally in the vocal battle when her expression froze. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘When are you going to stop taking on other people’s responsibilities and get around to living your own life?’ His eyes narrowed as he searched her face. ‘Or is that what you’re afraid of?’ he suggested, flinging another log onto the fire. Glowing sparks rose up wrapped in a swirling smoky cloud.
Nell recoiled, slightly taken aback by the strength of his goading anger. ‘Not you, if that’s what you think.’
He moderated his tone and he said softly. ‘I’m not trying to frighten you.’
She stuck out her chin. ‘I’m not frightened.’
Her defiance filled Luiz with a mixture of exasperation and tenderness—the former was, he thought, understandable, the latter totally inexplicable.
‘Look, your niece is young and I agree with you—’ He ignored her derisive hoot of mock amazement and added. ‘I agree that at nineteen she knows nothing much about sensible decisions, but at nineteen you knew too much. Your niece is not you, Nell. She is a wilful, spoilt child.’
Nell, her protective hackles bristling, sprang to Lucy’s defence. ‘You know nothing about Lucy! How dare you criticise her? She’s a lovely girl.’