"Don't worry." The voice was a deep rumble. "I'm not going anywhere as long as you're the one with the knife."
Jonas patted him down. The man was wearing a wool jacket, a shirt, and denim pants. There was no knife or gun strapped to his leg or hanging from his belt.
"Stay where you are." Jonas got to his feet and hit the light switch. An instant later the harsh glow of the bare overhead bulb filled the small room. Jonas found himself looking at a bear of a man.
His full beard and mustache had once been red but were now heavily streaked with gray. Ditto for the mass of short, shaggy curls that framed a small balding patch on top of his head. Aquamarine eyes glittered at Jonas from beneath heavy brows. He had big shoulders and was broad in the chest and heavy in the thigh. He was probably somewhere in his early sixties, although the short struggle he'd put up suggested the vigor of a younger man.
"Don't tell me, let me guess," the man stated as he rubbed the shoulder he had landed on. "My mercenary daughter decided to make a few bucks on the side by renting out my cabin, right?
Sometimes that gal shows absolutely no respect for her poor, aging father. No respect at all."
Jonas leaned back against the wall in a casual slouch and studied those familiar aquamarine eyes.
"Emerson Ames, I presume?"
"The one and only." Emerson sat up slowly. His sharp gaze moved assessingly over Jonas. "You play with knives frequently?"
"Not if I can avoid it. A man can get hurt playing with knives." Jonas decided there could be absolutely no doubt about the identity of this man. He walked over to the duffel bag and dropped the knife into its sheath. "Sorry about the unfriendly welcome."
Emerson watched him move. "My fault entirely," he growled generously. "I assumed the place was empty.
It was too late to rouse Verity so I thought I'd just find my own way into the cottage for the night. I don't suppose you're Verity's lover, are you?"
Still leaning over the duffel bag, Jonas raised an eyebrow at the undisguised tone of hope. He straightened as Ames got to his feet. "Nope. I'm her dishwasher."
Ames nodded sadly. "Figures. Give her a good, strong, solid son of a bitch like yourself who knows how to take care of himself, and what does she do with him? Hires him as a dishwasher. Lord, where did I go wrong with that girl? It's enough to make a man question the wisdom of giving female children a decent education." He glanced around the room. "I suppose by now you've probably drunk what was left of that bottle of vodka I left in the kitchen cupboard?"
Jonas grinned briefly. "Not quite."
"Good. I could use a little something to steady my nerves after that set-to on the floor. Mind if I help myself?"
"It's your bottle," Jonas said with a shrug.
Emerson Ames sighed hugely. "That's a fact. I'll pour you a shot, too. Something tells me we have a few things to talk about."
"Yeah," Jonas agreed. "Like who gets the floor for the rest of the night,"
* * *
Verity saw the lights come on in Jonas's cabin. She was standing at the window in her flannel nightgown, the red, curling mass of her hair hanging down around her shoulders, when she saw the unexpected glow appear among the trees that separated her cottage from his.
Jonas was awake, too.
The knowledge gave her an odd sense of kinship, which made no sense at all. She wondered if he was regretting the harsh things he had said to her as much as she was regretting the things she had said to him.
He was right, she thought for the hundredth time. She had no business judging him. A man was free to scatter his talent and ambition to the winds if that's what he chose to do. She had better things to do than try to save him from a wasted future. He wouldn't thank her for the effort, anyway. He had made that perfectly clear.
Just as her father had made it clear that he wanted to be footloose and fancy free to squander his literary talent on throwaway paperbacks with titles such as Lone Star Ranger and Trouble at Silver Creek.
Verity knew her father well enough to know that he had no real concept of home, at least not in the sense that she had always understood the term. She would save herself a lot of energy and grief if she accepted right from the beginning the fact that Jonas Quarrel was out of the same mold.
She watched the lights in Jonas's cabin as her thoughts drifted back over the evening spent with Caitlin Evanger. There was something fascinating about that woman. Verity had never met anyone quite like her.
Caitlin was a woman to be admired. Strong, courageous, brilliant, hardworking, and successful. It was obvious that Caitlin had no particular use for men in her life. A good role model all the way around, Verity thought wryly. Verity was willing to bet that if Caitlin ever took lovers, she didn't allow herself to get tangled up in the webs men liked to weave. Caitlin would laugh at male promises and masculine persuasion. She would always keep her priorities straight.
Verity knew that she owed it to herself to take a leaf out of Caitlin's book. For the past twenty-eight years she'd done a fairly good job of keeping her own priorities straight. If she was wise, she would not let one Jonas Quarrel, dishwasher and Ph.D., distract her.
But there was something infinitely compelling about this particular dishwasher. Too compelling by far.
A shadow moved behind the curtain in Jonas's window. He was going into the kitchen. Verity hesitated a moment longer, thinking, then she made up her mind. She went to the closet and pulled out a long wool coat that came to her knees. Belting it on over her flannel nightgown, she reached for a pair of loafers.
There were ghosts in Jonas's soul. She had known that from the moment she had first set eyes on him.
She'd had no right to taunt those specters tonight, regardless of her feelings on the subject of shiftless, footloose males. Her employee deserved an apology.
A few minutes later Verity stood on Jonas's front step, the chilled breeze whipping the hem of her nightgown beneath her coat. She raised her hand, hesitated, then knocked tentatively.
The door opened a few seconds later. Jonas stood silhouetted in the light, a glass in his hand. For an instant he just stared down at her, an unreadable expression flickering over his hard face. Then his gaze turned sardonic. He gave her a skewed smile and took a long swallow of his drink.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'll bet you're not here to throw me down onto the bed and make wild, passionate love to me, right?"
Verity felt most of her good intentions hardening into irritated resolve. "I came to apologize," she got out between set teeth.