“I can’t!” she cried, eyes brimming with tears.
“Love isn’t the only thing that matters, you know!”
“I thought it was the most important,” he said bitterly.
Grief formed lines on her face, killing the serenity he so admired. “I made a vow.”
“And you’ll hurt both of us to keep it.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Think about what you’re doing, Melanie. Just think.”
Hands at her sides, she stared at him. “I will,” she whispered. “How can I help it?”
He left her there, unmoving, although students had begun to filter in from the top of the auditorium. His anger and frustration were too great for him to give a damn that she might be left in an awkward position.
They were even too great for him to admit that he’d blown it, that he shouldn’t have asked. Not like that, not then.
So why in hell had he done it? Someone else looking in might suggest he’d sabotaged his chances on purpose.
He swore softly as he stalked outside.
Had part of him wanted the answer he’d gotten?
SHE’D KNOWN he was too stubborn a man to leave things alone. Melanie preferred to think that way—of him as stubborn—than to believe he loved her too deeply to accept her refusal.
A lead weight had lain on her chest since he’d proposed. He was everything—almost—that she had dreamed of finding. Kind, tender, patient, sexy, even good with her daughter.
Everything but honest, a glowing kernel of anger reminded her. Everything but the settled resident of Elk Springs he’d led her to believe he was.
She’d told him from the beginning what she was determined to have for herself and for Angie, and instead of being similarly honest, he’d lied by omission. He had made her fall in love with him, knowing the whole while that he had more in common with her ex-husband than he did with her ideal. If he was hurt, he deserved to be, she told herself.
Her own hurt…well, perhaps she deserved it, too, for being so blind to the many hints Kevin had dropped, for her foolish trust.
The very next day she was cutting out an Edwardian-style gown from pale peach silk when the doorbell to her business entrance rang. Instantly, in her bones, she knew it was him. She was very tempted not to answer it. Pull in her head like a turtle.
But he’d be back of course. Why not get it over with? She refused to think that she might be hoping he could change her mind, that he would announce he’d bought a house, resigned from the Park Service, that he would do anything, be anything, if only she would be his. She wouldn’t believe it if he did say all that. People didn’t change so easily.
When she opened the door, Kevin stood on the small side porch, hands shoved in the pockets of his parka, his russet hair disheveled. Behind him, the sky was gray and cold, promising snow that had yet to fall this winter in Elk Springs.
She’d known it would be him, and yet still she felt a ripple of purely sexual response to his presence.
“Can we talk?” he asked, creases seemingly worn overnight between his brows. “Don’t say no. Please. I just need to understand.”
Wordlessly Melanie stood aside, letting him pass her, his big body so close she smelled aftershave and the chill of the air.
He walked to her sewing table and touched the silk. “Beautiful,” he murmured, then turned to face her. “Like you.”
“I’m far from beautiful,” Melanie said uncomfortably. “I’m…rather ordinary.”
“Not to me.” His voice had the texture of sandpaper. “Tell me why you won’t take a chance on me.”
“I told you.” She didn’t move from her stance by the door. Her hands were squeezed together painfully. “From the very beginning I told you. I’ve spent my whole life never belonging anywhere. I will not live that way again, and I won’t do that to Angie.”
“Your childhood was so unhappy?” Kevin asked in that same voice, the one that would have scraped her palms if she could have grasped it.
“Unhappy?” Strangely, she felt taken aback.
“Not entirely. Of course not. But I hated the moves—”
He interrupted. “Were your parents happy? Did they love each other? You?”
“I…yes,” she whispered, then repeated more strongly. “Yes. They were excited about a transfer. A new place. Sacramento? They talked about day trips to gold-rush ghost towns and the Sierra Mountains. Germany? The Alps, the Rhine, beer fests.” The child in her still resented the sparkle in her mother’s voice as she’d tried to coax her eldest daughter to share their anticipation. Yet the adult Melanie couldn’t help reluctantly seeing Kevin’s point: that perhaps she was blanking out the happy times and focusing entirely on her childish fear of the unknown, her certainty that she would never make a new friend. She continued, “I’m glad I saw the Alps and skied at Squaw Valley. But I would have traded all our adventures for the chance to grow up feeling secure, knowing I’d have a best friend to whisper with at school, that if I got lost…” She stopped, knowing how nonsensical that sounded.
“Knowing I wouldn’t get lost just walking home.”
Of course, he heard what she hadn’t finished saying. “You did get lost.”
“Yes. In… I don’t remember where.” She didn’t want to remember, had never even asked her mother about the episode. “All I know is, nobody spoke English and a strange man was following me, and…” She had been terrified. “I had bad dreams for years.”
A frown gathered on his brow. “You won’t marry me because you had nightmares as a child about being lost in a strange place.”
“No! That isn’t why I won’t marry you!” He was deliberately misunderstanding. “You lied to me. How can I marry a man I can’t trust?”
Kevin swore. “Melanie, I will never lie to you again. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you.”
“You already have,” she said starkly.
“Give me a chance.”
How she ached to do just that! To gamble that he would never lie again, would try to make her happy.
“A chance to do what?” she asked, just above a whisper. “Take me to dinner again? Or put a wedding ring on my finger?”
“Can we at least keep seeing each other?” He was begging and, typically for a man, was angry to have to be. “We don’t need to make decisions about the future now.”
“Which is certainly your preference.” Hearing her own waspish voice, Melanie wished she could snatch back the spiteful remark, make it unsaid. That had been her anger speaking.
Kevin stalked toward her, his face darkening. “Dammit, Melanie!” he said between clenched teeth. “Is considering a change of career in your thirties evidence of instability? Unreliability? You seem to have found your vocation rather late in life for you to be sneering at me.”
“I didn’t mean…” Melanie faltered.
“Didn’t you?” he asked softly. “I suggest you watch yourself. You’re going to stifle your daughter.”
Her chin shot up in outrage. “Don’t you dare criticize how I choose to raise my child.”
Still in that silky voice, he said, “Is that what I would have gotten as her stepfather, too? Butt out?”
Actually she’d thought how wonderful it would be to have someone like him to consult, to offer another perspective, to lean on those days when parenting was so terribly lonely. But her temper wouldn’t let her admit it.
“If I thought you were the man I wanted to marry, I would have trusted you to be Angie’s father. So the point is moot, isn’t it?”
He visibly flinched, a muscle jerking in his cheek.
Shame cooled her anger. “I’m sorry.” She made herself say it. “That was cruel.”
“I would have been good to Angie.”
Her throat closed. “I know,” she whispered.
Kevin reached out and gripped her arms. “I don’t want to lose you, Melanie.”
She felt as if she was saying goodbye to any chance of romance or marriage. The man she’d thought she wanted wouldn’t be Kevin. Could she really promise forever to someone kind and steady, who liked to stay home evenings and watch football, who probably had a paunch and no curiosity about the world beyond the Elk Springs city limits? No. After Kevin…no.
She was weakening and knew it. Deliberately she remembered one apartment where she’d lived with Ryan. The cockroaches and the freezer that incessantly needed defrosting, and the neighbors who had angry visitors at strange hours. The elementary school down the street with graffiti-covered walls and no grass.
Or the last move, when she’d just painted the kitchen a soft lemon yellow and made curtains. But Ryan had come home, grinned triumphantly and announced, “I’m on my way up, baby!” and they’d had to pack everything they owned that night. The twelve-hour drive with Angie crying in the back seat and Melanie with no idea where they’d sleep that night or what the new apartment would look like.
Kevin saw both her weakening and her ultimate decision on her face, because he let out a low animal sound and pulled her to him. His kiss was desperate, hungry.
She melted into the kiss, grasping the front of his parka to hold on as her knees buckled. Anger and regret seemed to have burned away the restraint that had kept their kisses polite. Now his tongue forced its way into her mouth, and she tangled it with hers.
For one moment Kevin lifted his head. His eyes were nearly black, his skin seeming to be stretched taut across his cheekbones, his whole face blazing with intensity. “I need you,” he said in a raw voice that made her tremble inside. “Don’t do this to us, Melanie.”
Her every nerve ending was alive. She could not seem to pull back from him, though the hard thrust of his body against her belly made his desire plain.
Heaven help her, but she needed him, too, if only this once. “I want you,” she managed, though tremulously. “I can’t marry you, but…I do want you.”
Another guttural sound, and he’d lifted her onto the sewing table and laid her back on the peach silk. A pin pricked her, but it felt unimportant, nothing compared to the hands lifting her shirt and unfastening her bra to free her breasts. Nothing compared to the hard smooth wall of his chest beneath her palms as she slid them under his sweater. Nothing compared to his hot urgent mouth, to the way her thighs parted to urge him closer.
His mouth on her breast was another sensation of such clarity that she wondered dizzily if she had ever really felt sexual need before. Her back arched and she made muffled sounds that should have embarrassed her. She was the one tugging at his buckle, trying frantically to free him from his jeans, though he still wore his parka.
Perhaps he had more presence of mind than she did, because he pulled back long enough to shed some clothes and to peel her jeans from her legs. For a moment she was chilled and her knees clenched together; what was she doing, desperately trying to couple with a man on her cutting table? On top of a precious bolt of shot silk?