CHAPTER TWELVE

“Hardy! Hardy — ” He had come for me. I nearly lost it then. In the wild torrent of relief and gratitude, there were at least a dozen things I wanted to tell him at once. But the first thing that came out was a fervent, “I’m so sorry I didn’t have sex with you.”I heard his low laugh. “I am too. But honey, there are a couple of maintenance guys with me who can hear every word we’re saying.”

“I don’t care,” I said desperately. “Get me out of here and I swear I’ll sleep with you.”

I heard one of the maintenance guys volunteer in a Spanish accent, “I’ll pull her out.”

“This one’s mine, amigo,” Hardy said affably, and he leaned farther into the elevator cab, one long arm extended. “Can you reach my hand, Haven?”

Standing on my toes, I strained upward. Our palms met, and his fingers moved downward to close around my wrist. But I was coated with slippery stuff, and my hand slid right through Hardy’s grip. I fell back against the wall. “I can’t.” I tried to sound calm, but my voice was shredded. I had to stifle a sob. “The water’s oily.”

“Okay,” he said quickly. “That’s okay. No, don’t cry, honey, I’m coming down. Stay on the side and hold on to the rail.”

“Wait, you’ll get stuck down here too — ” I began, but Hardy was already lowering his feet and legs. He gripped part of the ceiling frame, eased himself down and hung for a moment. As he came into the cab with a controlled drop, the floor shifted and the level of water came up. I sloshed through the heavy water, leaping on him, climbing halfway up his body before he could even move.

Hardy caught me in a firm grip, one arm sliding beneath my bottom, the other strong and solid around my back. “I’ve got you,” he said. “My brave girl.”

“Not brave.” My arms were locked in a death grip around his neck. I buried my face against him, trying to comprehend that he was really there with me.

“Yes you are. Most women would be in hysterics by now.”

“I was w-working up to that,” I said into his shirt collar. “You just c-caught me early in the process.”

He gripped me closer. “You’re safe, sweetheart. It’s all right now.”

I tried to set my teeth against the chattering. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

“‘Course I’m here. Anytime you need me.” He squinted up at the hole in the ceiling, where one of the maintenance men was angling a flashlight to help us see. “Manuel,” he said, “you guys got a sump pump at the bottom of the shaft?”

“Nah,” came the regretful reply. “It’s an old building. Only the new ones got pumps.”

Hardy’s hand stroked up and down my shivering back. “Probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway. Can someone shut off the main disconnect switch? I don’t warn this thing to start moving while we’re getting her out.”

“Don’t need to, it’s off.”

“How do you know?”

“There’s an automatic shunt trip.”

Hardy shook his head. “I want someone to go to the machine room and make sure the fucker’s really off.”

“You got it, jefe.” Manuel used a two-way radio to get in touch with the supervisor running the security office. The supervisor said he would send their only available guard to the machine room to shut off the mainline switch for all the elevators, and call back when it was done. “He says he can’t get the cops,” Manuel reported to us. “Nine-one-one is broke. Too many calls. But the elevator company is sending a guy.”

“The water’s getting higher,” I told Hardy, my arms linked tightly around his neck, my legs clamped on his waist. “Let’s get out now.”

Hardy smiled and pushed my straggling hair back from my face. “It’ll only take a minute for them to find the disconnect switch. Just pretend we’re in a hot tub.”

“My imagination’s not that good,” I told him.

“You’ve obviously never lived on a drilling rig.” His hand rubbed over my shoulders. “Are you hurt anywhere? Any bumps or bruises?”

“No, I was just scared for a little while.”

He made a sympathetic sound, gripping me closer. “You’re not scared now, are you?”

“No.” It was true. It seemed impossible that anything bad could happen while I was holding on to those solid shoulders. “I’m just c-cold. I don’t understand where the water’s coming from.”

“Manuel says a wall between the garage and a drainage tunnel collapsed. We’re getting runoff from some pretty big waterways.”

“How did you find me so fast?”

“I was just heading home when you called. I hightailed it over here and got a hold of Manuel and his buddy. We took the service elevator to the level just above this one, and I popped the doors open with a bent screwdriver.” He kept smoothing my hair as he talked. “The escape hatch on the elevator was a little harder — I had to knock a couple of bolts out with a hammer.”

We heard some static and a garbled voice from the two-way radio overhead, and Manuel called to us. “Okay, jefe. Switch is off.”

“Great.” Hardy squinted at Manuel. “I’m going to hand her up to you. Don’t let her fall into the hoistway — she’s slippery.” He pulled my head back until I was looking into his eyes. “Haven, I’m going to push you up, and then you get on my shoulders and let them pull you out. Got it?” I nodded reluctantly, not wanting to leave him. “Once you’re on top of the elevator,” Hardy continued, “don’t touch any of the cables or drive sheaves or any of that shit. There’s a ladder attached to the wall of the elevator shaft. Be careful while you’re climbing — you’re as slick as a greased hog on ice.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll be fine. Put your foot in my hand.”

“But h-how are you — ”

“Haven, quit talking and give me your foot.”

I was amazed by the ease with which he lifted me, one big hand fitting under my bottom to boost me up to the two maintenance men. They gripped me beneath the arms and pulled me onto the top of the elevator, holding me as if they feared I might skid over the side. And I probably would have, I was so covered in slime.

Normally I could have clambered up the ladder with ease, but my feet and hands kept slipping on the metal. It required concentration and effort to make it to the landing, where Hardy had pried open the hoist doors. There were more people to help me, a couple of office workers, the security supervisor and guard, the newly arrived elevator technician, and even Kelly Reinhart, who couldn’t stop exclaiming in horror, saying over and over, “I just saw her a half hour ago . . . I can’t believe this . . . I just saw her . . . ”

I ignored them all, not out of rudeness but single-minded fear. I waited beside the open doors and refused to budge, calling out Hardy’s name anxiously. I heard a lot of splashing and some grunting, and a few of the foulest curses I’d ever heard in my life.

Manuel was the first to emerge, and his companion came next. Finally Hardy crawled out of the hoistway, dripping and covered with the same dark slime I was, his business clothes plastered to his body. I was certain he didn’t smell any better than I did. His hair was standing up in places. He was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen in my life.

I launched myself at him, wrapped my arms around his waist, and drove my head against his chest. His heart thudded strongly under my ear. “How did you get out?” I asked.

“I got a foothold on the handrail, did a pull-up on the top frame, and swung a leg up. I almost slipped back down again, but Manuel and Juan grabbed me.”

“El mono,” Manuel said as if to explain, and I heard a rumble of laughter in Hardy’s chest.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“He called me a monkey.” Reaching into his back pocket, Hardy extracted a wallet and fished out some dripping cash, apologizing for the condition it was in. They chuckled and assured him the money was still good, and they all shook hands.

I stood with my arms clutched around Hardy as he spoke with the elevator technician and security office supervisor for a couple of minutes. Even though I was safe, I couldn’t make myself let go of him. And he didn’t seem to mind that I had attached myself to him, only ran his hand over my back now and then. A fire truck pulled up outside the building, lights flashing.

“Listen,” Hardy said to the security supervisor, handing him a soggy business card. “We’re done talking for now — she’s been through enough. I’ve got to take care of her and get us both cleaned up. If anyone wants to know something, they can reach me tomorrow.”

“Right,” the supervisor said. “I understand. You let me know if I can help you in any way. Take care, y’all.”

“He was nice,” I said as Hardy guided me out of the building, right past the fire truck and a van with a camera crew emerging.

“He’s hoping you don’t sue his ass,” Hardy replied, leading me to his car, which had been double-parked. It was a gleaming silver Mercedes sedan, and the inside beige upholstery was buttery and perfect.

“No,” I said helplessly. “I can’t get into that car when I’m all disgusting and dirty.”

Hardy opened the door and manhandled me inside. “Get in, darlin’. We’re not walking home.”

I cringed every second of the short drive to 1800 Main, knowing we were ruining the interior of his car.

And there was worse to come. After Hardy parked in the garage beneath our building, we approached the elevator that went to the lobby. I stopped like I’d been shot, and looked from the elevator to the stairs. Hardy stopped with me.

The absolute last thing I wanted to do was in get back on another elevator. It was too much. I felt every muscle tense in rejection of the idea.

Hardy was silent, letting me struggle through it. “Shit,” I choked out. “I can’t avoid elevators for the rest of my life, can I?”

“Not in Houston.” Hardy’s expression was kind. Soon, I thought, the kindness would turn to pity. That was enough to spur me forward.

“Cowboy up, Haven,” I muttered to myself, and pushed the up button. My hand was shaking. While the elevator cab descended to the garage, I waited as if I were at the gates of hell.

“I’m not sure I actually thanked you for what you did,” I said gruffly. “So . . . thank you. And I want you to know, I’m not usually . . . troublesome. I mean, I’m not one of those women who needs to be rescued all the time.”

“You can rescue me next time.”

That actually pulled a smile from me despite my anxiety. It was exactly the right thing to say.

The doors opened, and I just did it, made myself walk into the metal box, and I hunched into the corner as Hardy followed. Before the doors had closed, Hardy had pulled me into a tight-bodied clinch, length to length, and our mouths came together, and it seemed as if everything I had felt that day, anguish, anger, desperation, and relief, all surged to a flash point of pure white heat.

I responded with frantic kisses, pulling his tongue into my mouth, wanting the taste and feel of him all over me. Hardy gave a short, sharp pant, as if taken unawares by my response. He gripped my head in his hand and his mouth worked over mine, hungry and sweet.

In a matter of seconds we were at the lobby. The doors opened with an annoying beep. Hardy pulled away and tugged me out of the elevator, into the shining black marble lobby. I was sure we looked like a pair of swamp creatures as we went past the concierge desk to the main residential elevator.

David, the concierge, gaped as he saw us. “Miss Travis? My Lord, what happened?”

“I had a little . . . sort of, well . . . accident at Buffalo Tower,” I said sheepishly. “Mr. Cates helped me out.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No, we’re both fine.” I gave David a meaningful look. “And there is really no need to tell anyone in my family about this.”

“Yes, Miss Travis,” he said, a little too quickly. And as we went to the residential elevator, I saw him pick up his phone and start to dial.

“He’s calling my brother Jack,” I said, trudging into the open elevator. “I don’t feel like talking to anyone, especially not my nosy, interfering — ”

But Hardy was kissing me again, this time bracing his hands on the wall on either side of me as if I were too dangerous to be touched. The hot openmouthed kiss went on and on, and the pleasure of it was overpowering. I reached up and let my hands follow the thick slope of his shoulders, the muscles bunched and rigid.

I was dimly amazed by the effect of my hands on him, the way his mouth locked on mine as if he were desperately feasting on something that might be taken away. He was aroused, and I actually wanted to touch him there, put my hand on that heavy bulge. My trembling fingers slid over the flat reach of his stomach, crossing the warm metal buckle of his belt. But the elevator stopped, and Hardy gripped my wrist, tugging it back.

His eyes were a hot, soft blue, his color high as if with fever. He gave a shake of his head to clear it, and pulled me from the elevator. We were at the eighteenth floor. His apartment. I went with him willingly, waiting at the door as he entered the combination. He misdialed, causing it to beep indignantly. I bit back a grin as he swore. He gave me a wry glance and tried again, and the door opened.

Taking me by the hand as if I were a small child, Hardy led me to the shower. “Take your time,” he said. “I’ll use the other bathroom. There’s a robe on the back of the door. I’ll fetch some clothes from your apartment later.”

No shower had ever been as good as that one. I doubted any future ones would even come close. I turned the water temperature up to near-scalding, groaning with pleasure as it rushed over my cold, aching limbs. I washed and rinsed my body and shampooed my hair three times.

Hardy’s robe was too big for me, trailing the floor by at least a half-foot. I wrapped myself in it, in the scent that was now becoming familiar. I tied the belt tightly, rolled the sleeves up several times, and looked at myself in the steam-slicked mirror. My hair had sprung up in curls. Since there were no styling tools other than a brush or comb, there was no help for that.

I would have expected to feel drained after what I’d experienced, but instead I felt alive, overstimulated, the soft terry of the robe abrasive on my tender skin. Wandering to the main room, I saw Hardy dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, his hair still wet from his shower. He was standing at the table, pulling sandwiches and containers of soup from a paper bag.

His gaze took inventory of me from head to toe. “I had the restaurant send up some food,” he said.

“Thank you. I’m starving I don’t think I’ve ever been this hungry.”

“That happens sometimes after a trauma. Whenever there was a problem on the rig — an accident or a fire — we all ate like wolves afterward.”

“A rig fire would be scary,” I said. “How do they start?”

“Oh, blowouts, leaks . . . ” He grinned as he added, “Welders . . . ” He finished setting out the food. “You start eating. I’ll run down to your apartment and get some clothes for you, if you’ll tell me the combo.”

“Please stay. I can wait for a while. This robe is comfortable.”

“Okay.” Hardy pulled out a chair for me. As I sat, I glanced at the television, which was showing the local news. I nearly fell off the chair as the anchorwoman said, “. . . and now more on the flooding. We’ve just learned that earlier this evening an unidentified woman was pulled from a flooded elevator in Buffalo Tower. According to security personnel on the scene, rising water in the lower level of the garage caused the elevator malfunction. Building employees said the woman seemed to be in good condition after the rescue and did not require medical treatment. We’ll let you know more on this story as it develops . . . ”

The phone rang, and Hardy glanced at the caller ID. “It’s your brother Jack. I’ve already talked to him and told him you’re okay. But he wants to hear it from you.”

Oh, hell, I thought. Jack must have been just thrilled to find out I was with Hardy.

I took the phone from him and pressed the talk button. “Hi, Jack,” I said in a cheerful tone.

“The thing you never want your sister to be,” my brother informed me, “is an unidentified woman on the news. Bad things happen to unidentified women.”

“I’m fine,” I told him, smiling. “Just got a little wet and dirty, that’s all.”

“You may think you’re okay, but you’re probably still in shock. You may have injuries you’re not even aware of. Why the hell didn’t Cates take you to a doctor?”

My smile disappeared. “Because I’m fine. And I’m not in shock.”

“I’m coming to get you. You’re staying at my apartment tonight.”

“No way. I’ve seen your apartment, Jack. It’s a pit. It’s so bad my immune system grows stronger every time I visit you.”

Jack didn’t laugh. “You’re not going to stay with Cates after you’ve been through something this traumatic — ”

“Remember our talk about boundaries, Jack?”

“Fuck boundaries. Why did you call him when you’ve got two brothers who work just a few blocks away from Buffalo Tower? Gage or I could have handled everything just fine.”

“I don’t know why I called him, I — ” I darted an uncomfortable glance at Hardy. He gave me an unfathomable look and went to the kitchen. “Jack, I’ll see you tomorrow. Do not come over here.”

“I told Cates if he touches you, he’s a dead man walking.”

“Jack,” I muttered, “I’m hanging up now.”

“Wait.” He paused, and his tone became cajoling. “Let me come and get you, Haven. You’re my baby sis — ”

“No. Good night.”

I hung up as the sound of swearing came through the receiver. Hardy returned to the table, bringing me a glass filled with ice and fizzing liquid.

“Thanks,” I said. “Dr Pepper?”

“Yes. With some lemon juice and a splash of Jack Daniel’s. I thought it might help steady your nerves.”

I gave him a quizzical glance. “My nerves are okay.”

“Maybe. But you still look a little strung out.”

It was delicious. I drank a few sweet, tart gulps, until Hardy touched my hand. “Whoa, there. Sip it slowly, honey.”

There was a pause in the conversation as we ate vegetable soup and sandwiches. I finished the drink and exhaled slowly, feeling better. “May I have another?” I asked, nudging the empty glass toward him.

“In a few minutes. Jack Daniel’s has a way of sneaking up on you.

I turned sideways to face him, hooking my elbow over the back of my chair. “There’s no need to treat me like I’m a teenager. I’m a big girl, Hardy.”

Hardy shook his head slowly, his gaze holding mine. “I know that. But in some ways you’re still . . . innocent.”

“Why do you think that?”

His reply was soft. “Because of the way you handle certain situations.”

I felt a wash of heat over my face as I wondered if he was referring to how I had behaved in the stairwell. “Hardy — ” I swallowed hard. “About last night — ”

“Wait.” He touched my arm as it lay on the table, his fingers gently tracing the tiny lattice of veins on the inside of my wrist. “Before we get to that, tell me something. Why did you call me instead of your brothers? I’m glad as hell you did. But I’d like to know why.”

The heat went everywhere then, spreading over the na*ed skin beneath the robe. I was suffused with uneasiness and excitement, wondering bow far I would dare to go with him, what he’d do if I told him the truth. “I didn’t really think about it. I just . . . wanted you.”

His fingers moved in a lazy, warm stroke from wrist to elbow, and back again. “Last night,” I heard him murmur, “you were right to push me away. The first time shouldn’t be in a place like that. You were right to call it off, but the way you did it — ”

“I’m sorry,” I said earnestly. “I’m really — ”

“No, don’t be sorry.” He took my hand in his and began to play with my fingers. “I thought about it later after I’d cooled down a little. And I thought you might not have reacted like that unless you’d had some kind of . . . bedroom problems . . . with your husband.” He looked at me, those blue eyes taking in every nuance of my expression.

“Bedroom problems” was putting it mildly, I thought. I floundered in silence, wanting more than anything to open up to him.

“Was he really your first?” Hardy prompted. “That’s pretty unusual, this day and age.”

I nodded. “I think,” I managed to say, “in a weird way, I was trying to please my mother. Even after she was gone. I felt she would have wanted me to wait, she would have told me nice girls didn’t sleep around. And I had so much to make up to her for. I was never the kind of daughter she wanted — or the one Dad wanted either. I felt I owed it to her, to try and be good.” I had never admitted that to anyone before. “Later I realized that if I wanted to sleep with someone, it was my own business.”

“So you chose Nick.”

“Yeah.” My lips quirked. “Not a great idea, as it turned out. He was impossible to please.”

“I’m easy to please.” He was still toying with my fingers.

“Good,” I said unsteadily, “because I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to do it right.”

All movement stopped. Hardy looked up from my hand, his eyes bright with hunger. Heat. “I wouldn’t — ” He had to pause to take an extra breath. His voice was raspy. “I wouldn’t have any worries on that account, honey.”

I couldn’t look away from him. I thought of being under him, his body inside mine, and my heart started thrashing. I needed to slow it down. “I’d like another Jack Daniel’s, please,” I managed to say. “This time no Dr Pepper.”

Hardy let go of my hand, still staring at me. Without a word, he went to the kitchen and brought back two shot glasses and the bottle with its distinctive black label. He poured the shots in a businesslike manner, as if we were settling down for a game of poker.

Hardy tossed his shot back, while I sipped mine, letting the smooth, slightly sweet liquid warm the surface of my lips. We were sitting very close. The robe had parted to reveal my bare knees, and I saw him glance down at them. As his head bent, the light rippled over his dark brown hair. I couldn’t stand it anymore, I had to touch him. I let my fingers brush over the side of his head, playing in the silky close-trimmed locks. One of his hands closed over my knee, engulfing it in warmth.

His face lifted and I touched his jaw, the masculine scrape of bristle, laying my fingers against the softness of his lips. I explored the bold shape of his nose, one fingertip drifting to the tantalizing crook at the bridge. “You said you’d tell me someday,” I said. “How you broke it.”

Hardy didn’t want to talk about that. I could tell by the look in his eyes. Except that I had risked alot by confiding in him, by being honest, and he wasn’t going to back down from that. So he gave me a short nod and poured himself another shot, and to my regret, removed his hand from my knee.

After a long pause, he said flatly, “My dad broke it. He was a drinker. Drunk or sober, I think the only time he ever felt good was when he was hurting someone. He cut out on the family when I was still young. I wish to hell he’d stayed away for good. But he came back now and then, whenever he wasn’t in jail. He would beat the hell out of Mama, knock her up, and light out again with every cent he could steal from her.”

He shook his head, his gaze distant. “My mother’s a tall woman, but there’s not much to her. A strong wind could knock her over. I knew he’d kill her someday. One of the times he came back, I was about eleven — I told him don’t even try, he wasn’t going near her. I don’t remember what happened next, only that I woke up on the floor feeling like I’d been stomped by a rodeo bull. And my nose was broken. Mama was beat up nearly as bad as I was. She told me never to go against Dad again. She said trying to fight back only made him mad. It was easier on her if we just let him have his way, and then he’d be gone.”

“Why didn’t anyone stop him? Why didn’t she divorce him, or get a restraining order or something?”

“A restraining order only works if you handcuff yourself to a cop. And my mother thought it best to take her problems to her church. They convinced her not to divorce him. They said it was her special mission to save his soul. According to the minister, we should all make it a matter of prayer, that Dad’s heart would turn, that he’d see the light and be saved.” Hardy smiled grimly. “If I’d had any hopes of being a religious man, they disappeared after that.”

I was floored by the revelation that Hardy had been the victim of domestic violence too. But in a worse way than I had, because he’d only been a child, I restrained my voice to a careful monotone as I asked, “So what happened to your dad?”

“He came back a couple of years after that. I was a lot bigger then. I stood at the door of the trailer and wouldn’t let him come in. Mama kept trying to pull me aside, but I wouldn’t budge. He — ” Hardy stopped and rubbed his mouth and jaw slowly, and wouldn’t look at me. I was filled with the electrifying awareness that he had been about to tell me something he’d never told anyone before.

“Go on,” I whispered.

“He came after me with a knife. Caught me in the side with it. I twisted his arm and made him drop the knife, and then I beat him until he promised to clear out of there. He never came back. He’s in prison now.” His face was taut. “Worst part about it was, Mama wouldn’t talk to me for two days after.”

“Why? Was she mad at you?”

“I thought so, at first. But then I realized . . . she was scared of me. When I was going ape shit on Dad, she couldn’t see any difference between us.” He looked at me then, and said quietly, “I come from bad stock, Haven.”

I could tell he meant it as a warning. And I understood something about him, that he had always used this notion of being from bad stock as a reason to keep from getting too close to anyone. Because letting someone in close meant they could hurt you. I knew all about that kind of fear. I lived with it.

“Where did he cut you?” I asked thickly. “Show me.”

Hardy stared at me with the glazed concentration of a drunken man, but I knew it had nothing to do with the Jack Daniel’s. A flush had crossed the crests of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He tugged at the bottom of his T-shirt until it revealed the taut flesh of his side. A thin scar showed white against the silky tan. And he watched, transfixed, as I slipped out of my chair and knelt before him, and leaned between his thighs to kiss the scar. He stopped breathing. His skin was hot against my lips, his leg muscles so tense they felt like iron.

I heard a groan above my head, and I was plucked from between his knees as if I were a rag doll. Hardy carried me to the sofa, laid me out on the velvet upholstery, and knelt beside me while tugging at the belt of the robe. His mouth covered mine, burning and whiskey-sweet as he pulled the front of the robe apart. His hand was warm as he touched my breast, cupping beneath the soft curve, plumping it high for his mouth.

His lips covered the tight peak, and he drew his tongue over it in tender licks. I squirmed beneath him, unable to hold still. The nipple budded almost painfully, sensation darting to the fork of my body with every stroke and swirl. I moaned and put my arms around his head, my spine dissolving as he moved to the other breast. My fingers tangled in the silk of his hair, shaping to his skull. Blindly I urged his mouth back up to mine, and he took it savagely, as if he couldn’t get deep enough.

The weight of his hand settled low on my stomach, spanning the soft curve. I felt the tip of his little finger resting on the edge of the dark triangle. Whimpering, I nudged upward. His hand slid lower, and as his fingertips played in the springy curls, my insides began to throb and close on the emptiness. Until that moment, I had never felt as if I could die from raw need. I moaned and pulled at his T-shirt. Hardy’s mouth returned to mine, licking at the sounds I made as if he could taste them. “Touch me, ” I gasped, my toes curling into the velvet cushions. “Hardy, please — ”

“Where?” came a devil whisper, while he stroked the damp curls between my thighs.

I parted my knees, shaking all over. “There. There.”

He gave a sigh that was almost a purr, his fingers nudging me open, finding heat and syrup, centering on the place that drove me wild. His mouth rubbed over my swollen lips, dragging gently. His hand slid from between my legs, and he gathered me in his arms as if he meant to lift me, but instead he just held me in a bundle of smoothness and trembling bones and gasping dampness. He dipped his head, kissing the arc of a knee, the plush give of a breast, the tight strain of my throat.

“Take me to bed,” I said hoarsely. I caught one of his earlobes between my teeth, drew my tongue over it. “Take me . . . ”

Hardy shuddered and released me and turned to sit on the floor facing away from me. He rested his arms on his bent knees and lowered his head, his breath coming in deep, harsh gusts. “I can’t.” His voice was muffled. “Not tonight, Haven.”

I was slow to understand. Trying to think straight was like pushing past layers of filmy curtains. “What is it?” I whispered. “Why not?”

Hardy took an unnervingly long time to answer. He moved to face me, kneeling with his thighs spread. He reached out to cover me with the sides of the robe, the gesture so careful that it seemed even more intimate than what had gone before.

“It’s not right,” he said. “Not after what you’ve just been through. I’d be taking advantage of you.”

I couldn’t believe it. Not when everything had been going so well, when it seemed like all my fear had gone. Not when I needed him so badly. “No you wouldn’t,” I protested. “I’m fine. I want to sleep with you.”

“You’re in no shape to make that decision right now.”

“But . . . ” I sat up and rubbed my face. “Hardy, don’t you think you’re being a little high-handed about this? After getting me all worked up, you — ” I stopped as an awful thought occurred to me. “This is payback, isn’t it? For last night?”

“No,” he said in annoyance. “I wouldn’t do that. That’s not what this is about. And in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m as worked up as you are.”

“So I’m not part of the decision? I don’t get a vote?”

“Not tonight.”

“Damn it, Hardy . . . ” I was aching all over. “You’re going to let me suffer just so you can prove some completely unnecessary point?”

His hand slid over my stomach. “Let me finish you off.”

It was like being offered an extra appetizer when the entree wasn’t available. “No,” I said, red-faced with frustration. “I don’t want a halfway job, I want a full, start-to-finish sex act. I want to be regarded as an adult woman who has the right to decide what to do with her own body.”

“Honey, I think we just proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that I think of you as an adult woman. But I’m not going to take someone who’s just been through a near-death experience, bring her up to my apartment and give her alcohol, and then take advantage of her while she’s feeling grateful. It’s not happening.”

My eyes widened. “You think I would sleep with you out of gratitude?”

“I don’t know. But I want to give it a day or two to wear off.”

“It’s worn off already , you big jerk!” I knew I wasn’t being fair to him, but I couldn’t help it. I was being left high and dry, just at the point when my body was about to go up in flames.

“I’m trying to be a gentleman, damn it all.”

“Well, now’s a fine time to start.”

I couldn’t stay in his apartment another minute — I was afraid I’d do something to embarrass us both. Like throw myself on him and beg. Struggling off the sofa, I retied the belt of the robe around my waist and headed for the door.

Hardy was at my heels immediately. “Where are you going?”

“Down to my apartment.”

“Let me get your clothes first.”

“Don’t bother. People wear robes when they’re coming up from the pool.”

“They’re not na*ed underneath.”

“So what? Are you afraid someone will be so overcome with lust he’ll pounce on me in the hallway? I should be so lucky.” I charged to the door and went out into the hallway. I was actually grateful for the surge of invigorating rage — it didn’t leave much room for me to worry about the elevator.

Hardy followed, and waited beside me until the elevator doors opened. We went in together, both of us barefoot. “Haven, you know I’m right. Let’s talk about this.”

“If you don’t want to have sex, I don’t want to talk about our feelings.”

He scrubbed his hand through his hair, looking confused. “Well, that’s for damn sure the first time a woman’s ever said that to me.”

“I don’t take rejection well,” I muttered.

“It’s not rejection, It’s a postponement. And if Jack Daniel’s makes you this ornery, I’m never pouring you another shot.”

“It has nothing to do with the whiskey. I’m this ornery all on my own.”

It seemed Hardy realized that no matter what he said, it was only going to aggravate me further. So he remained strategically silent until we reached my door. I entered the combination and stepped over the threshold.

Hardy stood looking down at me. He was disheveled and appetizing and sexy as all get out. But he wasn’t apologetic.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said.

“I won’t answer.”

Hardy slid a long, lazy glance over me, the folds of his own robe wrapped around me, the tight clench of my bare toes. A hint of a smile deepened one corner of his mouth. “You’ll answer,” he said.

I closed the door smartly. I didn’t need to see his face to know there was an arrogant grin on it.

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