‘Steady as a rock,’ he agreed admiringly, ‘but very much prettier.’ He bent forward and touched his lips to the back of her extended hand.
She gasped; she couldn’t help it; the neat electricity made her toes curl tightly in her elegant high heels. Benedict raised his dark head slowly and she pulled her hand back, nursing it protectively in her lap—not even the best will in the world could have kept the tremors at bay now.
‘There are things I need to say to you that are better said in private, Rachel.’
‘I don’t think I want to hear them,’ she confessed, too flustered to compose a less truthful reply.
Through the protective shield of her lashes she watched him fill up her glass with wine which she had no intention of consuming—she needed all her wits about her tonight.
‘You’re going away.’
Too late for me, she thought grimly as she hung grittily onto what composure she had left. She could see it might be nice for him to have some blatantly besotted idiot to while away the time with before he packed his bags and moved to the other side of the world, but she wasn’t going to be that idiot.
‘And does that bother you?’ The dark eyes were fixed with unnerving intensity on her face.
‘If you’re waiting for me to say I’ll be devastated, don’t hold your breath,’ she returned calmly.
‘I really like that in you.’
‘You’re a fighter, a real scrapper.’ Elbows on the table, he rested his chin in his hands and allowed his eyes to wander admiringly over her flushed face. ‘Only you ought to accept there are some things you just can’t fight.’
‘Really?’ she said, compressing her lips and suppressing the urge to run—well, she was still sitting anyhow.
‘You were about to say, Such as? Only you thought better of it.’
‘Now you’re a mind-reader too.’
‘Last night we both seemed to be doing a lot of that.’ The slow, husky drawl, only a notch above a whisper, had a resonance that vibrated through her tense body. She couldn’t tear her eyes from the lips that had formed the words and once she started looking the remembering was inevitable. She remembered how those lips, applied in various imaginative ways, had reduced her to a… She shook her head to clear the images that flooded through her disorientated mind.
‘I thought we’d agreed that that was a one-off thing,’ she said harshly.
‘I didn’t agree to anything; you agreed for us both,’ he reminded her. ‘I didn’t think you were the sort of girl who went in for one-night stands, Rachel?’
‘Neither did I,’ she admitted with a flash of honesty. She suspected he knew as well as she did that that put her in a situation where she had to say no; one night would no longer be an appropriate description.
‘Would it make a difference if I wasn’t going away?’
The sly question threw her shaky balance completely for six. ‘Naturally I’m flattered you haven’t got bored with me just yet. But…don’t you think you should get a bit of practice with normal relationships before you contemplate the long-distance variety?’ She and Benedict didn’t want the same things from relationships. She knew what she wanted, but it wasn’t on offer.
‘And if I wasn’t leaving would you offer to repair that gap in my education?’
‘My spare time’s pretty full at present.’ The linen napkin was crushed beyond salvation in her fingers. ‘I don’t think you’re ready for the sort of…’
‘Commitment.’ He pounced almost eagerly on the opening in her faltering explanation.
Rachel had already heard his opinion on longevity and permanence; she didn’t want to offer him the opportunity to rub salt in the wound. She didn’t want to join the legion of women who pursued him.
The fleeting expression of seething frustration that flickered through Benedict’s eyes made it quite clear that the levity in his manner had been masking deeper, more urgent emotions. Only Rachel didn’t see it because her attention was riveted on the man beside her daughter. Good God, he was talking to her.
Concern replaced frustration as she continued to stare beyond him. She looked, he thought, as though she’d seen a ghost. He automatically turned to see what was causing her such alarm.
It looked innocuous enough; Charlie was handing an empty glass to a tall guy who was patting his damp shirt-front. He looked to be taking the incident in his stride. The Italian proprietor’s laid-back attitude to children had obviously rubbed off on some of the patrons too.