“Who’s joking?” she asked. She made her voice absurdly melodramatic. “I knew the minute I walked into the radio station for the Celebrity Debate that if I couldn’t taste your lips there was nothing left to live for.”
“If you’re going to make a joke out of this, then you can forget the whole discussion.” He vaulted to his feet and stuffed the wrappers from their burgers and fries into the empty sack. “I was hoping we could have a mature talk, one adult to another, but that’s obviously beyond you.”
“Don’t get so bent out of shape,” she said, trying not to smile. “Sit down before you do something silly, like leave in a huff. We both know you’ll regret it.” She didn’t know anything of the sort, but it sounded good.
He complied grudgingly, but he stared past her, training his eyes on the darkened window.
Maryanne got stiffly to her feet, every muscle and joint protesting. “It seems to me that you’re presuming a great deal with this hands-off decree,” she said with all the dignity she could muster. “What makes you think I’d even want you to kiss me again?”
A slow cocky grin raised the corners of his mouth. “A man can tell. My biggest fear is that you’re going to start thinking things I never meant you to think. Eventually you’d end up getting hurt. I intend to make damn sure nothing romantic develops between us. Understand?”
“You’re saying my head’s in the clouds when it comes to you?”
“That’s right. You’re a sweet kid, stubborn and idealistic, but nonetheless naive. One kiss told me you’ve got a romantic soul, and frankly I don’t want you fluttering those pretty blue eyes at me and dreaming of babies and a white picket fence. You and I are about as different as two people can get.”
“Different?” To Maryanne’s way of thinking, she had more in common with Nolan Adams than with any other man she’d ever dated.
“That’s right. You come from this rich upstanding family—”
“Stop!” she cried. “Don’t say another word about our economic differences. They’re irrelevant. If you’re looking for excuses, find something else.”
“I don’t need excuses. It’d never work between us and I want to make sure neither of us is ever tempted to try. If you want someone to teach you about being a woman, go elsewhere.”
His words were like a slap in the face. “Naturally a man of your vast romantic experience gets plenty of requests.” She turned away, so angry she couldn’t keep still. “As for being afraid I might fall in love with you, let me assure you right now that there’s absolutely no chance of it. In fact, I think you should be more concerned about falling for me!” Her voice was gaining strength and conviction with every word. The man had such colossal nerve. At one time she might have found herself attracted to him, but that possibility had disappeared the minute he walked in her door and opened his mouth.
“Don’t kid yourself,” he argued. “You’re halfway in love with me already. I can see it in your eyes.”
Carol had said something about her eyes revealing what she felt for Nolan, too.
Maryanne whirled around, intent on composing a suitably sarcastic retort, away from his searching gaze. But before any mocking words could pass her lips, a sharp pain shot through her neck, an ache so intense it brought immediate tears to her eyes. She must have moved too quickly, too carelessly.
Her hands flew to the back of her neck.
Nolan was instantly on his feet. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she mumbled, easing her way back to the sofa. She sat down, hand still pressed to her neck, waiting a moment before slowly rotating her head, wanting to test the extent of her injury. Quickly, she realized her mistake.
“Annie,” Nolan demanded, kneeling in front of her, “what is it?”
“I…don’t know. I moved wrong, I guess.”
His hands replaced hers. “You’ve got a crick in your neck?”
“If I do, it’s all your fault. You say the most ridiculous things.”
“I know.” His voice was as gentle as his hands. He began to knead softly, his fingers tenderly massaging the tight muscles.
“I’m all right.”
“Of course you are,” he whispered. “Just close your eyes and relax.”
“I can’t.” How could he possibly expect her to do that when he was so close, so warm and sensual? He was fast making a lie of all her protestations.
“Yes, you can,” he said, his voice low and seductive. He leaned over her, his face, his lips, scant inches from hers. His hands were working the tightness from her neck and shoulders and at the same time creating a dizzying heated sensation that extended to the tips of her fingers and the soles of her feet.
She sighed and clasped his wrist with both hands, wanting to stop him before she made a fool of herself by swaying toward him or doing something equally suggestive. “I think you should stop. Let me rephrase that. I know you should stop.”
“I know I should, too,” he admitted quietly. “Remember what I said earlier?”
“You mean the hands-off policy?”
“Yes.” She could hardly hear him. “Let’s delay it for a day—what do you think?”
At that moment, clear organized thought was something of a problem. “W-whatever you feel is best.”
“Oh, I know what’s best,” he whispered. “Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to make a damn bit of difference right now.”
She wasn’t sure exactly when it happened, but her hands seemed to have left his wrists and were splayed across the front of his T-shirt. His chest felt rigid and muscular; his heart beneath her palms pounded hard and fast. She wondered if her own pulse was keeping time with his.
With infinite slowness, Nolan lowered his mouth to hers. Maryanne’s eyes drifted closed of their own accord and she moaned, holding back a small cry of welcome. His touch was even more compelling than she remembered. Nolan must have felt something similar, because his groan followed, an echo of hers.
He kissed her again and again. Maryanne wanted more, but he resisted giving in to her desires—or his own. It was as if he’d decided a few kisses were of little consequence and wouldn’t seriously affect either one of them.
Wrong. Maryanne wanted to shout it at him, but couldn’t.
His mouth left hers and blazed a fiery trail of kisses across her sensitized skin. His lips brushed her throat, under her chin to the vulnerable hollow. Only minutes earlier, moving her neck without pain had been impossible; now she did so freely, turning it, arching, asking—no, demanding—that he kiss her again the way he had that night at the waterfront.
Nolan complied, and he seemed to do it willingly, surrendering the battle. He groaned anew and the sound came from deep in his throat. His fingers tangled in the thick strands of her hair as his mouth rushed back to hers.
Maryanne was experiencing a renewal of her own. She felt as if she had lain dormant and was bursting to life, like a flower struggling out of winter snows into the light and warmth of spring.
All too soon, Nolan pulled away from her. His eyes met and held hers. She knew her eyes were filled with questions, but his gave her no answers.
He got abruptly to his feet.
“Nolan,” she said, shocked that he would leave her like this.
He looked back at her and she saw it then. The regret. A regret tinged with compassion. “You’re so exhausted you can barely sit up. Go to bed and we’ll both forget this ever happened. Understand?”
Too stunned to reply, she nodded. Maybe Nolan could forget it, but she knew she wouldn’t.
“Lock the door after me. And next time don’t be so eager to find out who’s knocking. There isn’t any doorman here.”
Once more she nodded. She got up and followed him to the door, holding it open.
“Damn it, Annie, don’t look at me like that.”
“Like that,” he accused, then slowly shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. He rubbed his face and sighed, then pressed his knuckle under her chin. “The two of us are starting over first thing tomorrow. There won’t be any more of this.” But even as he was speaking, he was leaning forward to gently brush her mouth with his.
It was the sound of Nolan pounding furiously away on his electric typewriter—a heavy, outdated office model—that woke Maryanne the next morning. She yawned loudly, stretching her arms high above her head, arching her back. Her first night in her new apartment, and she’d slept like a rock. The sofa, which opened into a queen-size sleeper, was lumpy and soft, nearly swallowing her up, but she’d been too exhausted to care.
Nolan’s fierce typing continued most of the day. Maryanne hadn’t expected to see him, so she wasn’t disappointed when she didn’t. He seemed determined to avoid her and managed it successfully for most of the week.
Since she’d promised not to make a nuisance of herself, Maryanne kept out of his way, too. She started work at the cleaning company and wrote three articles in five days, often staying up late into the night.
The work for Rent-A-Maid was backbreaking and arduous. She spent three afternoons a week picking up after professional men who were nothing less than slobs. Maryanne had to resist the urge to write them each a note demanding that they put their dirty dishes in the sink and their soiled clothes in the laundry basket.
Rent-A-Maid had made housekeeping sound glamorous. It wasn’t. In fact, it was the hardest, most physically exhausting job she’d ever undertaken.
By the end of the week, her nails were broken and chipped and her hands were red and chapped.
It was by chance rather than design that Maryanne bumped into Nolan late Friday afternoon. She was carrying a bag of groceries up the stairs when he bounded past her, taking the steps two at a time.
“Annie.” He paused on the landing, waiting for her to catch up. “How’s it going?”
Maryanne didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t very well inform him that the highlight of her week was scraping a crusty patch off the bottom of an oven at one of the apartments she cleaned. She’d had such lofty expectations, such dreams. Nor could she casually announce that the stockbroker she cleaned for had spilled wine on his carpet and she’d spent an hour trying to get the stain out and broken two nails in the process.
“Fine,” she lied. “Everything’s just wonderful.”
“Here, let me take that for you.”
“Thanks.” She handed him the single bag, her week’s allotment of groceries. Unfortunately it was all she could afford. Everything had seemed so exciting when she started out; her plans had been so promising. The reality was proving to be something else again.
“Well, how do you like cleaning?”
“It’s great, really great.” It was shocking how easily the lie came. “I’m finding it…a challenge.”
Nolan smiled absently. “I’m glad to hear it. Have you got your first paycheck yet?”