In a delirium of pleasure, Lucy rolled, scrambled, and knocked Nell flat on her back. Zack was fast, but not quite fast enough to keep her from being leaped on and licked.
"Jesus, Lucy. No! Hey, I'm sorry. " Zack shoved at the dog and lifted Nell to her feet one-handed. "You okay? Did she hurt you?"
"No. I'm fine. " She'd had the wind knocked out of her, but that was only part of the reason for breathlessness. He was brushing at her while the dog sat, head down, tail cautiously thumping. He was, Nell noted, frustrated and concerned. But not angry.
"You didn't hit your head, did you? Damn dog weighs almost as much as you do. Banged your elbow a little," he added, then realized she was actually giggling. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing, really. It's just sweet the way she's pretending to look ashamed. She's obviously terrified of you. "
"Yeah, I take a bat to her twice a week whether she needs it or not. " He ran his hands lightly up and down Nell's arms. "Sure you're okay?"
"Yes. " It struck her then that they were now standing very close, almost embracing. And that his hands were on her, and her skin was much too warm from them. "Yes," she said again and took a deliberate step in retreat. "No harm done. "
"You're sturdier than you look. " There were long, lean muscles in those arms, he noted. He'd already admired the ones in her legs. "Come on inside," he said. "Not you," he added, pointing at the dog. "You're banished. "
He scooped Nell's shoes up from the ground and walked toward a wide porch. Curious, and unable to think of an excuse not to follow, Nell went through
the screened door he opened and into a big, bright, messy kitchen.
"It's the maid's decade off. " Comfortable in his own clutter, he set her shoes on the floor and went to the refrigerator. "Can't offer you homemade lemonade, but we've got some iced tea. "
"That's fine, thanks. It's a wonderful kitchen. "
"We use it mostly for heating up takeout. "
"That's a shame. " There were acres of granite-toned counters, and wonderful rough-hewn cabinets with leaded-glass fronts. A generous double sink with a window over it offered a view of the inlet and the sea.
Plenty of storage and work space, she mused. With a little organization and a bit of imagination, it would be a marvelous. . .
We? He'd said "we," she realized. Was he married? She'd never thought of that, never considered the possibility. Not that it mattered, of course, but. . .
He'd flirted with her. She may have been out of practice and short on experience, but she knew when a man was flirting.
"You've got a lot of thoughts going on inside that head at one time. " Zack held out a glass. "Want to share any of them?"
"No. That is, I was just thinking what a nice room this is. "
"It was a lot more presentable when my mother was in charge of it. Now that it's just Ripley and me, the kitchen doesn't get a lot of attention. "
"Ripley. Oh. I see. "
"You were wondering if I was married, or maybe living here with someone who wasn't my sister. That's nice. "
"It's none of my business. "
"I didn't say it was, just said it was nice. I'd take you through the house, but it's probably in worse shape than the kitchen. And you've got a tidy soul. We'll go this way. " He took her hand again, pulled her back outside.
"Where? I really should be getting back. "
"It's Sunday, and we've hit our day off together. I've got something you'll like," he continued and tugged her across the porch.
It wrapped around the house, edged the side where there was a scrubby garden and a couple of gnarled trees. Weather-worn steps led up to a second-story porch that faced the sea.
He kept his hand over hers and led her up them.
Air and sun washed over her, made her think how easy it would be to stretch out in the wooden chaise and let the day rock away.
A telescope stood by the rail, along with a stone troth that had yet to be planted.
"You're right. " She stepped to the rail, leaned out and breathed. "I do like it. "
"You look west, you can see the mainland when it's clear enough. "
"You don't have your telescope pointed west. "
At the moment all his attention was on her very pretty set of legs. "I guess I don't. "
"What do you look at?"
"Whatever strikes my fancy at the time. "
She glanced over as she moved away. He was staring at her now-long, speculative looks, and they both knew it. "It'd be tempting to stay out here all day," she said as she turned the corner and looked out on the village. "Watch the comings and the goings. "
"I watched you this morning, feeding the gulls. " He leaned on the rail, a man at home, and drank his tea. "I woke up thinking, 'You know, I'm going to find a reason to drop by the yellow cottage today, get another look at Nell Channing,' then I came out here with my morning coffee, and there you were. So I didn't have to make up a reason to get another look at you. "
"It's my day off," he reminded her. He started to lift his hand to touch her hair, but when she edged back he simply slid it into his pocket. "Since it is, why don't we spend a couple hours of it on the water? We can go for a sail. "
"I can't. I have to. . . "
"You don't have to hunt up excuses. Some other time. "
"Yes. " The knot that had formed in her belly loosened. "Some other time. I really should go. Thanks for the drink, and the view. "
"Nell-" He took her hand again, kept his fingers light when hers jerked. "There's a line between making a woman a little nervous and scaring her. That's a line I wouldn't want to cross. When you get to know me a little better, you'll believe that," he added.
"Right now I'm working on getting to know myself a little better. "
"Fair enough. I'll get you a bag for your shells and stones. "