If Grace had laughed instead of looking so embarrassed—and just a little nervous—Ethan thought he could have brushed his lips over her brow and settled the matter. But her cheeks had gone pink—it was so endearing. She wouldn't meet his eyes, and her breath was unsteady.
He watched her bite her bottom lip and decided he might as well settle the matter another way entirely.
He laid a hand on Grace's shoulder with Aubrey caught between them. "This'll be easier," he murmured and touched his lips lightly to hers.
It wasn't easier. It rocked her heart. It could barely be considered a kiss, was over almost before it began. It was nothing more than a quiet brush of lips, an instant of taste and texture. And a whiff of promise that made her long, desperately, impossibly.
In all the years he'd known her, he had never touched his mouth to hers. Now, with just this fleeting sampling, he wondered why he'd waited so long. And worried that the wondering would change everything.
Aubrey clapped her hands in glee, but he barely heard it. Grace's eyes were on his now, that misty, swimming green, and their faces were close. Close enough that he only had to ease forward a fraction if he wanted to taste again. To linger this time, he thought, as her lips parted on a trembling breath.
"No, me!" Aubrey planted her small, soft mouth on her mother's cheek, then Ethan's. "Come play."
Grace jerked back like a puppet whose strings had been rudely yanked. The silky pink cloud that had begun to fog her brain evaporated. "Soon, honey." Moving quickly now, she plucked Aubrey out of Ethan's arms and set her on her feet. "Go on and build me a castle for us to live in." She gave Aubrey a gentle pat on the rump and sent her off at a run.
Then she cleared her throat. "You're awfully good to her, Ethan. I appreciate it."
He decided the best place for his hands, under the circumstances, was his pockets. He wasn't sure what to do about the itchy feeling in them. "She's a sweetheart." Deliberately, he turned to watch Aubrey in her red sandbox.
"And a handful." She needed to get her feet back under her, Grace told herself, and to do what needed to be done next. "Why don't we just forget last night, Ethan? I'm sure you meant it all for the best. Reality's just not always what we'd choose or what we'd like it to be."
He turned back slowly, and those quiet eyes of his focused on her face. "What do you want it to be, Grace?"
"What I want is for Aubrey to have a home, and a family. I think I'm pretty close to that."
He shook his head. "No, what do you want for Grace?"
"Besides her?" She looked over at her daughter and smiled. "I don't even remember anymore. Right now I want my lawn mowed and my vegetables weeded. I appreciate you coming by like this." She turned away and prepared to give the starter cord another yank. "I'll be by the house tomorrow."
She went very still when his hand closed over hers.
"I'll cut the grass."
"I can do it."
She couldn't even start the damn lawn mower, he thought, but was wise enough not to mention it. "I didn't say you couldn't. I said I'd do it."
She couldn't turn around, couldn't risk what it would do to her system to be that close again, face to face. "You have chores of your own."
"Grace, are we going to stand here all day arguing over who's going to cut this grass? I could have it done twice over by the time we finish, and you could be saving your string beans from being choked out by those weeds."
"I was going to get to them." Her voice was thin. They were both bent over, all but spooned together. The flash of sheer animal lust that streaked through the familiar yearning for him staggered her.
"Get to them now." He murmured it, willing her to move. If she didn't, and very quickly, he might not be able to hold himself back from putting his hands on her. And putting them on her in places they had no business being.
"All right." She shifted away, moving sideways while her heart knocked at her ribs in short rabbit punches. "I appreciate it. Thanks." She bit her lip hard because she was going to babble. Determined to be normal, she turned and smiled a little. "It's probably the carburetor again. I've got some tools."
Saying nothing, Ethan grabbed the cord with one hand and yanked it hard, twice. The engine caught with a dyspeptic roar. "It ought to do," he said mildly when he saw her mouth thin in frustration.
"Yeah, it ought to." Struggling not to be annoyed, she strode quickly to her vegetable patch.
And bent over, Ethan thought as he began to cut the first swath. Bent over in those thin cotton shorts in a way that forced him to take several long, careful breaths.
She didn't have a clue, he decided, what it had done to his usually well-disciplined hormones to have her trim little butt snugged back against him. What it did to the usually moderate temperature of his blood to have all that long, bare leg brushing against his.
She might be a mother—a fact that he reminded himself of often to keep dark and dangerous thoughts at bay—but as far as he was concerned, she was nearly as innocent and unaware as she'd been at fourteen.
When he'd first begun to have those dark and dangerous thoughts about her.
He'd stopped himself from acting on them. For God's sake, she'd just been a kid. And a man with his past had no right to touch anyone so unspoiled. Instead, he'd been her friend and had found contentment in that. He'd thought he could continue to be her fr
iend, and only her friend. But just lately those thoughts had been striking him more often and with more force. They were becoming very tricky to control.
They both had enough complications in their lives, he reminded himself. He was just going to mow her lawn, maybe help her pull some weeds. If there was time he'd offer to take them into town for some ice cream cones. Aubrey was partial to strawberry.
Then he had to go down to the boatyard and get to work. And since it was his turn to cook, he had to figure out that little nuisance.
But mother or not, he thought, as Grace leaned over to tug out a stubborn dandelion, she had a pair of amazing legs.
grace knew she shouldn't have let herself be persuaded to go into town, even for a quick ice cream cone. It meant adjusting her day's schedule, changing into something less disreputable than her gardening clothes, and spending more time in Ethan's company when she was feeling a bit too aware of her needs.
But Aubrey loved these small trips and treats, so it was impossible to say no.
It was only a mile into St. Chris, but they went from quiet neighborhood to busy waterfront. The gift and souvenir shops would stay open seven days a week now to take advantage of the summer tourist season. Couples and families strolled by with shopping bags filled with memories to take home.
The sky was brilliantly blue, and the Bay reflected it, inviting boats to cruise along its surface. A couple of Sunday sailors had tangled the lines of their little Sunfish, letting the sails flop. But they appeared to be having the time of their lives despite that small mishap.
Grace could smell fish frying, candy melting, the coconut sweetness of sunblock, and always, always, the moist fragrance of the water.
She'd grown up on this waterfront, watching boats, sailing them. She ran free along the docks, in and out of the shops. She learned to pick crabs at her mother's knee, gaining the speed and skill needed to separate out the meat, that precious commodity that would be packaged and shipped all over the world.
Work hadn't been a stranger, but she'd always been free. Her family had lived well, if not luxuriously. Her father didn't believe in spoiling his women with too much pampering. Still, he'd been kind and loving even though set in his ways. And he'd never made her feel that he was disappointed that he had only a daughter instead of sons to carry his name.
In the end, she'd disappointed him anyway.
Grace swung Aubrey up on her hip and nuzzled her.
"Busy today," she commented.
"Seems to get more crowded every summer." But Ethan shrugged it off. They needed the summer crowds to survive the winters. "I heard Bingham's going to expand the restaurant, fancy it up, too, to bring more people in year-round."
"Well, he's got that chef from up north now, and got himself reviewed in the Washington Post magazine." She jiggled Aubrey on her hip. "The Egret Rest is the only linen-tablecloth restaurant around here. Spiffing it up should be good for the town. We always went there for dinner on special occasions."
She set Aubrey down, trying not to remember that she hadn't seen the inside of the restaurant in over three years. She held Aubrey's hand and let her daughter tug her relentlessly toward Crawford's.
This was another standard of St. Chris. Crawford's was for ice cream and cold drinks and take-out submarine sandwiches. Since it was noon, the shop was doing a brisk business. Grace ordered herself not to spoil things by mentioning that they should be eating sandwiches instead of ice cream.
"Hey, there, Grace, Ethan. Hello, pretty Aubrey." Liz Crawford beamed at them even as she skillfully built a cold-cut sub. She'd gone to school with Ethan and had dated him for a short, careless time that they both remembered with fondness.
Now she was the sturdy, freckle-faced mother of two, married to Junior Crawford, as he was known to distinguish him from his father, Senior.
Junior, skinny as a scarecrow, whistled between his teeth as he rang up sales, and sent them a quick salute.
"Busy day," Ethan said, dodging an elbow from a customer at the counter.
"Tell me." Liz rolled her eyes, deftly wrapped the sub in white paper and handed it, along with three others, over the counter. "Y'all want a sub?"
"Ice cream," Aubrey said definitely. "Berry."
"Well, you go on down and tell Mother Crawford what you have in mind. Oh, Ethan, Seth was in here shortly ago with Danny and Will. I swear, those kids grow like weeds in high summer. Loaded up on subs and soda pop. Said they were working down to your boatyard."
He felt a faint flicker of guilt, knowing that Phillip was not only working but riding herd on three young boys. "I'll be heading down there myself soon."