Memorial Day. She should have been out playing with the rest of the world. Instead, she was in her kitchen, pretending to be doing…things.
The truth was, she was in the doldrums.Connor was upstairs packing…despite the fact that so much remained unresolved between them. Despite the fact that she didn’t want him to go.
A few weeks ago she would have said the idea was preposterous. But, a few weeks ago they hadn’t been thrown together in the same house…they hadn’t had wild and passionate sex…she hadn’t fallen in love with him. He’d sneaked into her heart—if he’d ever left.
The fact that he’d refused to be paid to protect her gave her some small measure of hope. There would have been a time when she’d have seen his volunteering as further evidence that Connor was just as overprotective as her family. But given what she knew of him now, she thought it was just another way for him to show he cared.
Connor protected those he cared about. It went to the core of what he was. It went back to being the son of a police officer killed in the line of duty, back to funding community projects in his old neighborhood.
Of course, the fact that he viewed the Whittakers as a substitute family could explain a lot about why he’d volunteered his services. He could simply have been doing her family a favor.
Yet, there was a part of her that refused to believe that was the whole explanation—at least, she hoped there was more to it. Because he hadn’t only volunteered his company’s services. Rather, he had insisted on protecting her himself when he could have delegated the task to someone on his staff, which would surely have been the logical thing to do since he probably had enough on his hands running his company.
When she’d thought Quentin was paying Connor for his services, she’d just assumed that her brother had insisted Connor take a personal hand in the matter. Instead, it had been Connor who had insisted. She liked to think it was because he cared about her, desired her…and more.
Quentin’s question sounded in her head again. Why don’t you ask him?
At a thump overhead, she looked up at the ceiling. Connor was up there packing and she was down here feeling all nervous and jittery. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the thought of the conversation she should be having with him, but inexplicable shyness made the task seem daunting.
Annoyed with herself, she threw down the dish towel she’d been absentmindedly using to wipe the kitchen counter.
As she went up, she thought about what she could say to him. It’s suddenly occurred to me that I love you? Our relationship may be a mistake, but it’s a mistake I want to spend the rest of my life making?
Maybe she should just start with, don’t go. Don’t go. Please don’t go.
She walked along the upstairs hallway and stopped at the open doorway to the spare bedroom. Connor was tossing some jeans into a suitcase. Her heart wrenched.
He looked tough and forbidding. And pulse-flutteringly gorgeous. In a pale blue T-shirt and jeans, he projected a casual sexiness.
He looked up and, when he saw her standing in the doorway, he paused for a second, folded T-shirts in hand, before resuming his packing. “If you’ve come to do a victory dance at seeing the back of me, you’re a little early. I won’t be ready to walk out the door for a while yet.”
She rubbed sweaty palms on the cargo pants she was wearing and walked into the room. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“Really?” He stopped packing and looked up at her. “Then why are you here, petunia?”
She bit her lip and then folded her hands together in front of her. “To say thank you. And to apologize.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Thank you for what?”
“For helping me.” She took a deep breath. “For capturing Kendall.” For defending me to my family. For making me love you.
“And what’s the apology for?”
“For giving you a hard time along the way.”
“That’s the second apology I’ve gotten from you in two weeks, princess.” His lips curled into a sardonic smile. “Must be a record.”
Despite her best intentions, she found herself becoming irritated by his taunting tone. And, frankly, it was easier to deal with him behind the shield of her annoyance. Coward. “What about the apology you owe me?” she demanded. “I haven’t heard any apology cross your lips, Rafferty.”
He sighed. “Okay, I’m going to play along here. Apology for what? Sleeping with you?”
Her lips tightened. “You purposely misled me about your security services. Quentin didn’t hire you. You volunteered.”
He folded his arms and nodded. “All right, I admit I’m guilty of doing that. I apologize. Is that all you came here to say?”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why did you volunteer?”
He regarded her for a second before answering, his face inscrutable. “Just following through on what I told Quentin I’d do, which was beefing up your security.”
“No, I mean, why did you volunteer when Quentin could well have afforded to hire you? And why did you show up when you could have sent any number of the experts that Rafferty Security has on its payroll? Why did you insist on staying when you had no obligation to?” There, she’d gotten it out.
He unfolded his arms. “I think you know the answer to those questions,” he said softly.
Her chin came up. “No, I don’t. Why don’t you enlighten me?”
“Have any theories suggested themselves?”
A quiver started in the pit of her stomach as he came closer. “You were doing a favor for a friend you consider to be practically family?”
He nodded, seeming to mull it over. “That would be a theory. Do you believe it?”
“Is it true?” she countered.
She backed up, but he kept on coming.
“I wouldn’t say that was my major motivation, much as I like your family.”
She skirted the side of the bed and found herself with her back to the wall. “You must not like them that much then,” she said breathlessly.
He braced an arm against the wall near her head and caressed her cheek with the knuckles of his other hand. “Maybe I like you more.”
Her heart plummeted. Like, not love.
She shoved at his chest and started to stalk past him, but he grabbed her arm and whirled her around. She felt the wall at her back seconds before his lips came down on hers.
It was the way it always was between them. A heavy dose of wanting and need shot through her. Her sense of the world around them dulled even as she became sensitized to his every touch…his lips molding hers…his body pressing against her.
She broke his hold on her to twine her arms around his neck, kissing him back with all the ardor she had kept pent up inside her.
As soon as he felt her willing response, he groaned and took the kiss deeper. His hands moved restlessly up and down her sides before one shimmied down her leg and then snaked around to cup her bottom and bring her flush up against him, letting her feel his erection.
Finally, he tore his mouth from hers and they broke apart. They were both breathing heavily. He looked as if he still had half a mind to take up where they had just left off, which was, she realized, not far from how she was feeling.
He spoke first. “You are hands-down the most frustrating woman I’ve ever known, petunia.”
“Same goes,” she parried.
And then his face was devoid of its usual sardonically amused expression, and what she read there made her breath catch in her throat. “Are you going to make me say it, princess?” He paused, holding her gaze so that she couldn’t look away. “The reason I volunteered is that the thought of anything happening to you tore me up inside. I wanted to rip to shreds the bastard who was terrorizing you.”
“No, let me finish,” he said fiercely. “I may never be as polished as the guys down at the country club, but I have plenty of money these days. You’d have trouble spending all of it even if you tried.”
She nodded. A giddy happiness was growing and spreading within her. Not about the money, but about the fact that he was laying his soul bare.
“More importantly, we have tons of chemistry between us. The kind of chemistry that a lot of people spend a lifetime looking for and don’t find.”
She nodded again, her heart melting.
“And you sure as hell aren’t going to find a man who loves you more than I do. Because it isn’t possible. I’m so in love with you I ache with it.”
He loved her. The confession was blunt and to the point—just like Connor—and she couldn’t ask for anything more. Unexpected tears welled up in her eyes.
He gave her another fierce look. “So, get used it, petunia. You’re under this tycoon’s protection for the duration.”
“May I say something?” she asked almost meekly, her smile tremulous.
“Only if it’s what I’m waiting to hear. Are you ready to say the words, petunia? Because if you’re not—” he looked down and gave her a slow, heated perusal “—I can be very convincing.”
“Darn it, Rafferty,” she said, blinking rapidly. “You’re going to make me cry.”