She looked up with a start and saw the mocking laughter in his eyes. She’d been practically swooning in his arms—while thinking that she had to apologize to him—and he was mocking her! She decided the apology she owed him could wait a little longer. “Humility would become you but I don’t see you exhibiting any.”
“That’s my girl.” He had the nerve to laugh outright. “I was wondering where that temper of yours had gone. You seemed as deflated as a dead balloon during dinner.”
Well, Allison thought, so much for her attempt at seeming at ease during dinner. “Quite the one for compliments tonight, aren’t you?”
“Is that what you want? Compliments?” he asked. Though his tone was still mocking, it contained a hint of seriousness.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
He cocked his head, pretending to think, before clearing his throat and looking down at her. “Your eyes have the color and sparkle of aquamarines, your hair the darkness and luster of a night sky—”
“Stop.” Even knowing he was teasing, his words sent a ripple of liquid pleasure through her.
“Because we’re in a room full of people.” And she couldn’t take anymore.
“Ah.” His eyes gleamed. “Haven’t you ever heard that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire?”
He was telling her? She was practically going up in flames, incensed yet aroused by their banter.
“So how am I doing? Am I as good as Slade?”
She must have continued to wear a blank look, because he added impatiently, “Mr. Make-Love-Not-War.”
“That’s Makepeace,” she said, correcting him.
“And his name is Sloan, not Slade.”
“Yeah, whatever. Were Makepeace’s compliments as good?” He leaned closer to whisper in her ear. “I bet he didn’t turn you on, petunia.”
He was impossible. Forget the apology. She figured he owed her one by this point, but she was willing to consider the two of them even if it meant she could get rid of him now.
His lips turned up a notch. “The look on your face is saying you want to kick me in the shins.”
“And some other places.”
“You’re too fiery for a milksop like Makepeace.”
The song they were dancing to faded into another slow tune. “I’ll be the judge of that.”
Connor cast her a disbelieving look. “Seems to me you’ve already made up your mind. Otherwise, you wouldn’t still have a thing for guys from the wrong side of the tracks.”
One guy in particular, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. Especially since he seemed to be taking pleasure in baiting her. “You know,” she said, her voice dripping disdain, “I must have been crazy even to have thought I owed you an apology.”
She had the satisfaction of seeing him look taken aback for an instant. That expression was quickly replaced by one of sardonic amusement however. “I can think of many reasons why you’d owe me an apology, petunia. So why don’t you narrow it down for me and tell me what in particular spurred this fit of remorse?”
She gritted her teeth. The only remorse she was feeling at the moment was at not having clobbered him. But, instead, she said, “I got a call from Quentin on the morning after the incident in the parking lot. He seemed to know all about what had happened without my telling him.”
“So naturally you thought I was the one who called to fill him in,” he supplied.
“It was a logical assumption to have jumped to under the circumstances,” she said defensively.
He arched a brow. “Logical because I’m an untrustworthy snitch where you’re concerned, is that it?” His lips tightened. “Ever since I lied to you and went to your folks with the story of you at the biker bar when you were seventeen. It goes as far back as that, doesn’t it?”
“It wasn’t a far-fetched conclusion to jump to,” she asserted again. “Anyway, are you also going to deny suggesting to Quentin that I quit the DA’s Office because the job may have become too dangerous for me?”
“I didn’t suggest it to him. He brought it up.” He gave her a considering look, then added, “But I won’t say I disagree.”
Her temper flared. Fortunately, the song they were dancing to faded away and the band decided to take a break.
She pulled out of Connor’s hold. “Great, then the sooner we find out who’s been making the threats, the sooner my job will stop being so dangerous and the sooner you can get the heck out of my house. Frankly, it won’t be a moment too soon for my taste. On either count.”
She turned on her heel, not giving him a chance to respond, though she noted that his face had tightened with anger.
Of all the nerve. She’d been a lovesick fool to think something unique and lasting had been developing between them. Instead of giving her his respect, it was clear that to him, she’d always be a spoiled little rich girl who needed protection. His protection.
It was Saturday, the day of the annual Memorial Day Weekend barbecue at Allison’s parents’ house.
Usually Connor looked forward to this Whittaker family tradition. Usually, but not this year.Last year, according to what had since become Whittaker family lore, the barbecue had marked the kickoff of Quentin and Elizabeth’s whirlwind relationship. Allison had made her famous suggestion that her brother act as her best friend’s sperm donor. Now, one year later, Connor’s old college buddy was happily married to Liz and the father of newborn Nicholas.
Connor took a swig of his beer and chanced a glance across the lawn at the cause of his dour mood. Allison was cuddling baby Nicholas in her arms, making cooing noises. The baby must have done something unexpectedly funny because she looked up, laughing, and their eyes met.
She looked away quickly, but not before a yearning so strong it hurt slammed into him. It wasn’t a pure physical need for her, he realized. It was deeper, more powerful. A vision of her cradling their own baby flashed across his mind.
Then he pulled himself up short. She was tying him up in knots and it had to stop. Until they found out who was threatening her, he reminded himself, sorting out his relationship with Allison was on hold.
With any luck, though, the holding pattern wouldn’t have to continue much longer. He felt for his cell phone again. No call yet, but there was time. Guests were still arriving at the Whittaker’s house.
In the meantime, he thought self-deprecatingly, he could brood at leisure. The Cortland Ball had brought home for him that he and Allison were from different worlds. And, as furious as he still was about her tossing that in his face in the middle of an argument, he’d since acknowledged to himself that there was some validity to her point.
He turned and caught a volleyball just before it hit him in the stomach.
Noah Whittaker sauntered up, a grin on his face.
“Still greeting your guests with a sucker punch to the stomach?” Connor asked dryly.
“No, just you,” Noah replied, then gave him another easy grin. “It’s one of the rituals reserved for brothers, honorary or otherwise.”
Since his college days, Connor acknowledged, he’d had an easy camaraderie with Noah, who had the reputation of being the most fun-loving of the Whittaker brothers.
“Stop doing your brooding James Dean impersonation and get your rear end moving,” Noah continued. “There’s a volleyball game starting up and we’re beating Quentin and Matt’s team again this year so I can claim bragging rights to a winning streak.”
Connor tossed the volleyball back at him and asked wryly, “You mean so you can make it two years in a row?”
“Hey, you gotta start somewhere.”
“Fine, I’m game.” As he and Noah made their way to the back of the house, he figured volleyball was preferable to standing around ruminating over Allison.
Noah slanted him a look. “Allison’s on our team. Is that cool with you?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Just because he alternated between wanting to shake some sense into her and a desperate need to make passionate love to her didn’t mean he couldn’t play nice if the situation called for it.
“Don’t know.” Noah shrugged. “Maybe because you two singe everyone around you with the sparks you throw off when you’re near each other. Heck, someone who didn’t know you might think you two were crazy about each other.”
Connor almost stopped in his tracks.
Noah’s comment was startling, Connor realized, because it was true. He was crazy about Allison. Crazy in love with her. Not just want, not just desire. Love.
It was the right name for what he’d been feeling all along, he finally realized. And, if it was the last thing he did, he’d get her to admit she felt the same way about him. Then they could talk about their differences.
He couldn’t change who he was and where he’d come from, but he loved her deeply and irrevocably. And if that still wasn’t enough for her, well—his heart clenched—she could just try to find a guy who’d care for her more than he did.
Noah waved a hand in front of his eyes. “Hey, Rafferty, you still on Earth with the rest of us mortals?”