He made a move to pull her into his arms again, but she backed away and he looked at her, puzzled.
“Shower, please? I’ve…envisioned this moment and I never thought I’d smell like formaldehyde if and when…”
He smiled. “You’ve envisioned this moment?”
Blushing, she nodded.
“I have, too,” he told her. “What about protection?”
“I’m on the pill.”
He nodded, and she turned to go upstairs. She didn’t hear him following her and she looked back, but he was only gathering up his jacket and gun and holster.
She hurried into the bathroom, silently thanking the powers that be—her bathroom was spotlessly clean. She wondered if that was something men noticed. Then she forgot about it. She started the hot spray of the shower, and as she turned, she ended up in his arms. “Your lips don’t smell like any chemical at all,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s a romantic thing to say, but…”
She smiled, pressing against him. Their lips touched again and they began pulling at each other’s clothing, kicking off shoes, skimming off their jeans.
She’d been right.
He was beautiful naked.
Later, she barely remembered stripping and helping him strip and stepping into the shower stall. She felt the delicious wet heat of the water, along with the stroking of his hands. They kissed again under the warm cascade, and she felt the full length of his body against hers.
Beautiful, and scarred. She knew he’d been a Ranger and he’d fought, bringing down criminals. And he was still in law enforcement. She didn’t know what had caused the scars that lay white against the bronze of his flesh. She traced a white scar line on his lower abdomen and kissed it gently.
“Knife wound. I didn’t move quickly enough against a drug dealer in San Antonio,” he told her.
“Thank God he didn’t kill you!”
“He’s doing twenty-five to life.”
She looked into his eyes and he grimaced. Her fingers rode over another scar on his arm, with the steamy water following her touch.
He pulled her to him with a shrug. “Dodged a bullet outside Houston.”
There was a third scar low on his abdomen. She eased against his body, feeling his heat and vitality along with the slickness of the steam. Her fingers traced the clean white line. “This one?”
He grinned, drawing her up. “Appendectomy,” he said, and she smiled, and they kissed again.
She didn’t think she’d ever been so stirred or felt such hunger and urgency. She wondered if they would make love in the shower stall.
But they didn’t. Tyler lifted her up, leaving the shower, wrapped her in one of the bath towels and caressed her body as he dried it. She shivered at his touch, just savoring the feel, then growing more confident and pressing against him, forming her mouth to his, feeling the pounding of his heart and hers as their excitement began to soar. She nearly tripped on the towel; they both laughed and he swept her into his arms. The feel of his arms was a promise in itself....
Falling down on the bed, smelling of soap and steam, they began to make love in earnest. His kisses traveled the length of her, teasing and intimate, and she lay still, feeling luxurious and then writhing and arching and returning every touch. When he rose above her and met her eyes and thrust with excruciating care into her body, she thought she’d explode in that instant, but he withdrew and began a slow, intense movement, his eyes locked with hers. The world didn’t seem in the least real, and yet she could feel the softness of the bed and the cool cotton of the sheets. But most of all she could feel the strength of his body. Everything that had happened in the past few days evaporated as sheer sensation seemed to lift her into a realm of ecstasy. She clung to him as waves of sensation rolled over her, as the climax seized her, and as she drifted in an aftermath that seemed a little like dying…and coming back to life.
When they lay silently, she stroked the rich, tawny fall of hair from his forehead, gazing into his eyes.
“I feel so right—and so wrong,” she whispered.
He smiled and pulled her toward him. “Living is right,” he told her. “Hurting others is wrong, but living…and finding something you’ve longed for in life isn’t.”
She realized again why they knew each other, as reality came crashing back upon her.
“I feel so bad for Julian and Sarah,” she whispered.
He drew her close. “Allison, we can hurt for others. But you’re doing everything you can to help them. Taking a breath yourself isn’t wrong. Life is precious and fragile, and we live it while we can.”
She didn’t dare get too comfortable. She nestled against his chest and started to speak. But then she trembled. “Your life is filled with people who are ready to take on any fight,” she said. “And when you met me, I was a basket case at the police station. You know so many women who are heroines in real life, and I’ve been…pretty much a sniveling coward.”
His fingers threaded into her hair and he smiled, not with amusement, but with wonder. “Have you never heard?” he asked her. “Courage isn’t about not feeling fear. Courage is when you’re terrified—but go forth, anyway. I think you’re one of the bravest women I’ve ever met.”
There was something in his words, something in the way he spoke, and she felt her muscles begin to relax as she curled up again.
He smoothed back her hair and teased, “All right, the first time I saw you, you were a sniveling coward....”
She laughed and started to rise. “The art showing,” she began.
“We’ll get there.”
His lips found hers again.
“We can make love quickly,” she whispered against his lips.
“Um, not too quickly. But we’ll shower again and dress for the occasion with all due haste.”
When his fingers traveled seductively down her spine, she could only agree.
* * *
Cherry Addison stood at the entrance to the gallery as if she were royalty greeting her subjects.
Her manner was gracious—and affected, in Tyler’s opinion.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to be at the showing, after all. He would’ve liked a night with Allison, never getting out of bed. A night in which he described the good, the bad and the ugly in his life, and learned more about hers.
Except, of course, people had died. And it was important that they be here.
Cherry welcomed them as they came in. She was standing with her husband, George, who smiled and seemed to be a genuinely warm man. The gallery owner was there, as well, directing people toward the food and drink and telling them they mustn’t miss the collage.
On their way to get some appetizers and a glass of wine, they walked down the gallery, looking at the paintings. George Addison was very good. The works on the wall depicted images of modern life: a mother holding a newborn, her eyes filled with exhilaration and exhaustion, a child watching a balloon disappear into the sky, a construction worker on a girder, happy as he opened a lunch pail high above the world. The details were contemporary but the emotions were enduring, universal.
“I can actually say I love his stuff!” Jane said, coming up behind them.
“Take a look at the other wall,” Logan suggested, joining them, too.
Tyler set a hand on Allison’s back as they walked toward the other side. Here, George Addison had done similar work but these included historical scenes and people. Tyler thought the paintings on this wall were even finer, more unusual, than the others.
One depicted a tree with a worn-out, dirt-smudged Union soldier on one side, and a bleeding Rebel on the other. A lone World War I soldier huddled in a trench with dead men and dead horses around him.
He had painted the Tarleton-Dandridge House with a woman in front.
Lucy Tarleton. She stood there with strength evident in her expression, her stance—and sadness in her eyes.
Glancing down at Allison, Tyler saw that she was staring at the image, the same sadness in her own eyes. She looked up at him and flushed. “She’s so conflicted.”
“It was a time of conflict,” he reminded her. He lowered his voice. “And, if I’m right, she had the problem of a hidden, illicit child to worry about!”
They studied the rest of the paintings, all of them imbued with a similar life and humanity.
Finally they made their way over to the bar. Annette Fanning and Jason Lawrence were there, looking a little lost. Allison greeted them both with a kiss.
“Nice showing, with Sarah dead on a morgue slab!” Annette whispered sarcastically.
“Can’t stop the mighty wheels of…art showings,” Jason said.
“If I understand correctly,” Tyler told them, “it was impossible to cancel the gallery and undo all the setup at such a late date.”
“I guess so. And George didn’t know Sarah all that well,” Annette said. “He’s a nice guy. No idea how Cherry rated him. Oops!” Her eyes went wide. “I didn’t just say that!”
“But I’ll say this.” Jason lifted his glass, smiling at someone across the room. “It’s a pity it was Sarah, and not Cherry.”
“Jason!” Allison said, horrified.
“Sarah was nicer. A lot nicer,” Jason muttered.
“Julian and Sarah are dead,” Annette said. “This all seems so wrong.”
Allison nodded. “And here we are—the three guides who remain, huddled together. And there they are, the three remaining board members.” She pointed across the room. Ethan Oxford and Nathan Pierson had arrived and joined Cherry.
“Excuse me,” Tyler said. “I have a question for Cherry.”
He left them and walked over to the gathering of the board. Ethan eyed him warily; Tyler knew that even though he’d done his best to be polite during their conversation earlier, Ethan had taken offense. He knew Adam had been to see him again after that, but he wasn’t sure how warm Ethan’s greeting would be.