"Actually, I haven't been here with a woman since the summer of my sophomore year in college. Then it was a fairly decent Chablis, chilled shrimp, and Marianne Teasdale."

"I suppose I should be flattered."

"I don't know. Marianne was pretty hot." He flashed that killer grin again. "But being callow and shortsighted, I threw her over for a pre-med student with a sexy lisp and big brown eyes."

"Lisps do weaken a man. Did Marianne recover?"

"Enough to marry a plumber from Princess Anne and bear him two children. But, of course, we know she secretly yearns for me."

Laughing, Sybill spread a cracker for him. "I like you."

"I like you, too." He caught her wrist, holding it as he nibbled at the cracker she held. "And you don't even lisp."

When his fingers continued to nibble, at the tips of her fingers now, it wasn't quite as easy to breathe. "You're very smooth," she murmured.

"You're very lovely."

"Thank you. What I should say," she continued, and eased her hand out of his, "is that while you're very smooth, and very attractive, and I'm enjoying spending time with you, I don't intend to be seduced."

"You know what they say about intentions."

"I tend to hold to mine. And while I do enjoy your company, I also recognize your type." She smiled again and gestured with her glass. "A hundred years ago, the word 'rogue' would have come to mind."

He considered a moment. "That didn't sound like an insult."

"It wasn't meant to be. Rogues are invariably charming and very rarely serious."

"I have to object there. There are some issues that I'm very serious about."

"Let's try this." She peeked in the cooler and took out another container. "Have you ever been married?"

"No."

"Engaged?" she asked as she opened the lid and discovered a beautifully prepared crab salad.

"No."

"Have you ever lived with a woman for a consecutive period of six months or more?"

With a shrug, he took plates out of the hamper, passed her a pale-blue linen napkin. "No."

"So, we can theorize that one of the issues about which you are not serious is relationships."

"Or we can theorize that I have yet to meet the woman I want a serious relationship with."

"We could. However…" She narrowed her eyes at his face as he scooped salad onto the plates. "You're what, thirty?"

"One." He added a thick slice of French bread to each plate.

"Thirty-one. Typically, by the age of thirty a man in this culture would have experienced at least one serious, long-term, monogamous relationship."

"I wouldn't care to be typical. Olives?"

"Yes, thanks. Typical is not necessarily an unattractive trait. Nor is conformity. Everyone conforms. Even those who consider themselves the rebels of society conform to certain codes and standards."

Enjoying her, he tilted his head. "Is that so, Dr. Griffin?"

"Quite so. Gang members in the inner city have internal rules, codes, standards. Colors," she added, selecting an olive from her plate. "In that way they don't differ much from members of the city council."

"You had to be there," Phillip mumbled.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing. What about serial killers?"

"They follow patterns." Enjoying herself, she tore a chunk off her slice of bread. "The FBI studies them, catalogs them, profiles them. Society wouldn't term them standards certainly, but in the strictest sense of the word, that's precisely what they are."

Damned if she didn't have a point, he decided. And found himself only more fascinated. "So you, the observer, size people up by noting what rules, codes, patterns they follow."

"More or less. People aren't so very difficult to understand, if you pay attention."

"What about those surprises?"

She smiled, appreciating the question as much as she appreciated that he would think to ask it. Most laymen she'd socialized with weren't really interested in her work. "They're factored in. There's always margin for error, and for adjustments. This is wonderful salad." She sampled another bite. "And the surprise, a pleasant one, is that you would have gone to the trouble to prepare it."

"Don't you find that people are usually willing to go to some trouble for someone they care for?" When she only blinked at him, he tilted his head. "Well, well, that threw you off."

"You barely know me." She picked up her wine, a purely defensive gesture. "There's a difference between being attracted to and caring for. The latter takes more time."

"Some of us move fast." He enjoyed seeing her flustered. It would be, he decided, a rare event. Taking advantage of it, he slid closer. "I do."

"So I've already observed. However—"

"However. I like hearing you laugh. I like feeling you tremble just slightly when I kiss you. I like hearing your voice slide into that didactic tone when you expand on a theory."

At the last comment she frowned. "I'm not didactic."

"Charmingly," he murmured, skimming his lips over her temple. "And I like seeing your eyes in that moment when I start to confuse you. Therefore, I believe I've crossed over into the care-for stage. So let's try your earlier hypothesis out on you and see where that leaves us. Have you ever been married?"

His mouth was cruising just under her ear, making it very difficult to think clearly. "No. Well, not really."

He paused, leaned back, narrowed his eyes. "No or not really?"

"It was an impulse, an error in judgment. It was less than six months. It didn't count." Her brain was fogged, she decided, trying to inch away for some breathing room. He only scooted her back.

"You were married?"

"Only technically. It didn't…" She turned her head to make her point, and his mouth was there. Right there to meet hers, to urge her lips to part and warm and soften.

It was like sliding under a slow-moving wave, being taken down into silky, shimmering water. Everything inside her went fluid. A surprise, she would realize later, that she'd neglected to factor into this particular pattern.

"It didn't count," she managed as her head fell back, as his lips trailed smoothly down her throat.

"Okay."

If he'd taken her by surprise, she'd done exactly the same to him. At her sudden and utter surrender to the moment, his need churned to the surface, thrashing there. He had to touch her, to fill his hands with her, to mold those pretty curves through the thin, crisp cotton of her blouse.

He had to taste her, deeper now, while those little hums of shock and pleasure sounded in her throat. As he did, as he touched and as he tasted, her arms came around him, her hands sliding into his hair, her body turning to fit itself against him.

He felt her heart thud in time with his own.

Panic punched through pleasure when she felt him tug at the buttons of her blouse. "No." Her own fingers shook as she covered his. "It's too fast." She squeezed her eyes shut, struggling to find her control, her sense, her purpose. "I'm sorry. I don't go this fast. I can't."

It wasn't easy to check the urge to ignore the rules, to simply press her under him on the deck until she was pliant and willing again. He put his tense fingers under her chin and lifted her face to his. No, it wasn't easy, he thought again as he saw both desire and denial in her eyes. But it was necessary.

"Okay. No rush." He rubbed his thumb over her bottom lip. "Tell me about the one that didn't count."

Her thoughts had scattered to the edges of her mind. She couldn't begin to draw them together while he was looking at her with those tawny eyes. "What?"

"The husband."

"Oh." She looked away, concentrated on her breathing.

"What are you doing?"

"Relaxation technique."

Humor danced back and made him grin at her. "Does it work?"

"Eventually."

"Cool." He shifted until they were hip to hip and timed his breathing to hers. "So this guy you were technically married to…"

&nbs

p; "It was in college, at Harvard. He was a chemistry major." Eyes shut, she ordered her toes to relax, then her arches, her ankles. "We were barely twenty and just lost our heads for a short time."

"Eloped."

"Yes. We didn't even live together, because we were in different dorms. So it wasn't really a marriage. It was weeks before we told our families, and then, naturally, there were several difficult scenes."

"Why?"

"Because…" She blinked her eyes open, found the sun dazzling. Something plopped in the water behind her, then there was only the lap of it, kissing the hull. "We weren't suited, we had no feasible plans. We were too young. The divorce was very quiet and quick and civilized."

"Did you love him?"

"I was twenty." Her relaxation level was reaching her shoulders. "Of course I thought I did. Love has little complexity at that age."

"So spoken from the advanced age of what twenty-seven, twenty-eight?"

"Twenty-nine and counting." She let out a last long breath. Satisfied and steady, she turned to look at him again. "I haven't thought of Rob in years. He was a very nice boy. I hope he's happy."

"And that's it for you?"

"It has to be."

He nodded, but found her story strangely sad. "Then I have to say, Dr. Griffin, that using your own scale, you don't take relationships seriously."

She opened her mouth to protest, then wisely, shut it again. Casually, she picked up the wine bottle and topped off both glasses. "You may be right. I'll have to give that some thought."


Tags: Nora Roberts Chesapeake Bay Saga Romance
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