Chapter 4

LILY WAS PANTING IN ABSOLUTE FURY BY THE TIME she closed the door at her back. He was a pig ! A pig, a pig, a pig ! Where did he get off treating her like that?

Well, he won. She’d pack her bags and start looking for another place this afternoon. It just chapped her hide to let him run her off this way, but she couldn’t take it any more. She simply wasn’t built for this kind of confrontation.

Unlike last night, when she’d thrown everything she owned into her case, she began gathering together only the nonessentials she could live without for a while, so she’d be ready to move at a moment’s notice. But she made a face as she retrieved her luggage from the closet. This was way too reminiscent of her life growing up, when a year rarely went by without her restless parents telling her to pack her things because they were moving on. She’d learned at a young age never to get too comfortable in any one place, so heaven knew she had a decent grasp on what was necessary in order to get by for a day or two, and what were just extras.

She’d really thought all that was finally behind her, though. Until her apartment went condo, she’d lived in the same place for seven years, a record for someone who had gone to eleven different schools in six different states—and that wasn’t counting two culinary schools. When Glynnis invited her to stay in this lovely ocean-front home, she’d appreciated it more than she could say and had truly hoped her next move would be her last. Ideally, when she found her restaurant, it would combine a living area with the commercial space. She’d planned to search for the perfect spot as soon as she got back from her next cruise.

Lily gave herself a mental shake. Well, sometimes things didn’t work out; no one knew that better than she. That didn’t mean she intended to go off half-cocked and storm out without a plan. Mimi would undoubtedly let her camp out on her couch for a few days, but she wanted to reserve that option as a last resort. First, she’d check out the ads to see what was available without a lease.

Merely thinking about it made her tired, though, so she flipped open her luggage on the bedspread and began filling it. She’d start with something a little less stressful.

She was piling most of her collection of pretty lingerie into one corner of the case, thinking she really ought to rummage through the three-car garage for some boxes, when her gaze was caught by an envelope sticking up out of one of the suitcase’s little gathered pockets.

Her hands stilled for a moment over the heap of silkies and lace. Funny, she didn’t remember tucking anything away in there. Then she shrugged. It was probably an old greeting card that had gotten swept up and tossed wily-nilly into the case when she was snatching up stuff last night. Since she rarely hung on to things— a habit left over from her days of keeping extras to a minimum—it was likely not even hers.

She was just reaching for it to check it out when a knock sounded at the door. She whirled to face it, the card promptly forgotten. “Go away,” she snapped, her heart renewing its pounding rhythm as if it had never slowed down. “I’m through talking to you.”

“It’s John Miglionni, ma’am. Please. I won’t take up much of your time, but I’d like to speak to you for a moment.”

She crossed the room and yanked the door open. Folding her arms militantly beneath her breasts, she glared up at the man on the other side of the threshold. “What makes you think I’m interested in anything you have to say?” Then she blinked. She’d been so furious with Zach earlier she’d barely gotten more than a quick impression of his friend. Seeing John clearly for the first time, she murmured, “What is this place, anyhow, Testosterone Central?”

Then she gave him a second, closer inspection and wasn’t sure where that first impression had come from. He didn’t look so tough. He was an inch or two over six feet, and aside from muscular shoulders, looked as lean and lanky as a young Jimmy Stewart beneath his pricey silver-gray silk T-shirt and impeccably pressed black slacks. Even the brawny shoulders appeared somehow less powerful than she’d first thought when she looked at him slouched against the doorframe.

He was dark-skinned and had hair so black and shiny it contained blue highlights even in the dim hallway. He wore its thick length pulled back in a ponytail, a style that accented his high cheekbones, hawklike nose, and the spare angularity of his face. But it was his dark eyes and smile that grabbed her—both were as bashful and self-effacing as a monk’s.

“I don’t know about the testosterone,” he said softly, “but I do want to apologize for Zachariah. He’s been under a lot of pressure lately, and he’s worried sick about his little sister, but that’s no excuse to treat you so rudely. He was completely out of line, and I told him so.”

His soft-spoken apology was balm to her offended sensibilities, and her combative pose eased. “That’s very gallant of you.”

He ducked his head. “Not at all, ma’am. Zach’s insinuations were insulting, and I wanted you to know that although he’s my friend I don’t endorse his behavior.” Thrusting his hands in his pockets, he hunched his shoulders and shot her a glance full of shy, male interest. “Are you from around here?”

The movement starkly defined the sinews of his arms for a moment, and Lily realized there was more muscle to him than she’d thought. Silky black hair feathered his forearms, and a small patch of color on his left one caught her attention. “I guess you could say I’m from everywhere,” she admitted slowly, shooting what was undoubtedly a tattoo a covert glance to see if she could figure out what it depicted. “But for the past seven years I’ve lived in—” Sudden comprehension chopped her sentence in two.

Oh. He was good. She should have remembered the quick impression she’d gotten in the kitchen of intelligent, watchful eyes, but his polite, soothing manners and low-key interest had suckered her completely.

“Well,” she continued smoothly, flapping a dismissive hand. “You don’t care about that.”

“Of course I do. I’d love to hear everything about you.”

“You’re awfully kind. It’s just so nice to talk to a gentleman after dealing with that horrid—” She grimaced. “I’m sorry. I forgot for a moment he’s your friend.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He dug a shoulder into the doorjamb and smiled that monk’s smile at her. “You were going to tell me about all those places you’ve been and how the last seven years you’ve lived in… ?”

“Oh, let’s not talk about me.” She gave him an aren’t-you-just-the-sweetest-thing look. “Where are you from?”

“I’ve been all over, too.” He leaned a little closer. “Maybe we’ve been to some of the same places.”

“Gee, do you think? That would be something, wouldn’t it?” With a glance up from under her lashes, she murmured, “John is such a nice, strong name. What’s your sign?”

“Aries. How about you?”

“Oh, dear, not one that’s compatible with yours. And you seemed so perfect, too.” With a regretful sigh, she started to close the door.

“Wait!” Straightening, he gave her a self-deprecating smile. “You can’t hold that against me. Heck, you don’t even know what house my moon is in, or anything. It could make all the difference.”

“Why, that’s true. What time were you born?”

He told her and she gave a thoughtful, “Hmm,” then reached out to touch his wrist. “What do you do for a living, John?”

“I’m an accountant.”

Her brow furrowed. “Oh.”

“And a financial planner.”

” Really . Oooh, I just love money.” Leaning against the edge of the open door, she slid her hand up the smooth wood until her arm curved overhead, her palm flat against its interior panel. “So tell me,” she said, watching him eye the outside curve of her breast that the pose exposed. “When it comes to long-term investment, what mix of high, medium, and low caps do you recommend for a stock portfolio? And what’s your take on index mutual funds?”

His gaze snapped up to meet hers. “Uh…”

“Don’t,” she admonished gently, “confuse blond hair and breasts with stupidity.”

He gave her a perplexed look. “Ma’am?”

“At least Zach’s up front in his enmity. The next time you try out your aw-shucks-golly routine, I suggest you cover up that.” She nodded at the mostly red tattoo on his arm, which his change in position had made clearly visible. Outlined in black, it contained the words Swift, Silent , and Deadly on three sides of a white skull with black and yellow markings, and 2d Recon Bn inscribed across the bottom. Looking up into eyes gone abruptly hard, she assured him crisply, “It truly does detract from the image.” Then, giving the panel beneath her hand a push, she closed the door in his face.

She had a feeling her blood pressure was in the red zone. As if things weren’t bad enough already, the lousy ratfinks were double-teaming her! Too restless to go back to her packing, she paced her room for several tense moments.

Then she abruptly stopped in the middle of the room. She had to get out of here before she did something stupid like scream her head off. A walk on the beach would cool her down, but if she wanted to kill two birds with one stone she should probably grab a newspaper and head up the coast highway to the Koffee Klatch, where she could read the apartment listings in peace. A nice, nonhostile environment sounded like just the ticket. She grabbed her purse from the dresser top where she’d tossed it a short while ago and let herself out of the room.

When she let herself back in several hours later, the sun had disappeared over the horizon in a blazing ball of orange and red, and she was calmer—if no closer to having another place to stay than when she’d left. There had only been one apartment in the ads worth pursuing, and by the time she’d gotten over to check it out someone else had already snatched it up.

Well, there was always the internet, but she’d get to that later. The walls of her room were already closing in, and unwilling to act as if she had anything to hide, she marched down the hall, braced to brave the duel condemnation of Zach and his underhanded friend. But the kitchen was empty and the entire house had a deserted feel. She dished up a bowl of ice cream and took it into the den, where she settled into a chair and turned on the news. A short while later, she turned it off again. Beyond a fleeting impression of an impending air-traffic controllers’ strike and a murder-suicide inNewport Beach, she had no idea what she’d just viewed. She cleaned her dish in the kitchen, then went out on the terrace to listen to the surf.

Usually she found the susurrus of waves against sand a hypnotic lullaby, but tonight it failed to soothe her, and she decided to call it a day. Tomorrow would be soon enough to log on to the internet to see what it offered in the way of rentals. At the moment she desperately needed the oblivion of sleep.

It wasn’t until late the following morning, as she was transferring most of the items she’d packed the day before into some boxes she’d found in the garage, that she remembered the envelope in the suitcase. She dug it out and extracted a single sheet of stationary. Unfolding it, she began to read.

Nooo! She abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, and for one of the few times in her life, she wished she were a swearing woman. Her few, pitiful expletives simply didn’t cover the depth of her feelings. But, poop!

The note was from Glynnis. Lily didn’t know how she’d missed it but that wasn’t the issue. What mattered was Glynnis’s specific request that Lily tell Zach where she had gone, with whom, and why.

Poop, poop, poop, poop, poopl Why was that her job?

But there was simply no help for it; she had to honor Glynnis’s wishes. Hating not only that necessity, but the knowledge that Zach was going to blow it all out of proportion, she girded her loins and went looking for him.

She didn’t quite do the cha-cha upon discovering he wasn’t home, but it was a near thing. Well, that’s a crying shame , she thought insincerely, and dug a package of phyllo dough out of the fridge to make herself a nice veggie turnover to go with that apple chutney she’d made the other day. And after lunch , she decided, I really should hit the real estate agents .

When the back door rattled open a short while later as she was still eating, however, she sighed in defeat, knowing she could kiss a clean getaway good-bye. Rats.

Zach closed the door behind him and looked at Lily, who gazed back at him calmly for a moment before returning to her lunch. Like yesterday, she was dolled up right down to the spike-heeled shoes on her feet—this pair open-toed and blue to match her top, which she had no doubt chosen to match her eyes. He watched her rosy lips close around a bite of something with a wonderful fragrance, and jerking his gaze away, he looked at the steam rising off a flaky pastry-looking thing full of wild rice, vegetables, and what looked to be cranberries. His stomach immediately protested that a single piece of peanut-butter toast was no kind of breakfast for a grown man. “I’ll say this for you, lollipop. You sure can cook.”

“Yes, I can.” She hesitated, then jutted her chin toward the stove. “There’s another one in the oven, if you’d like it.”

She didn’t have to ask him twice. He grabbed a plate, singed his fingers grabbing the goodie out of the oven, then got a fork from the drawer and poured himself a glass of milk. Carrying everything to the table, he pulled out a chair and sat down across from her. She passed him a little bowl of some spicy-smelling sauce with chopped apples in it, and he dumped a spoonful on top of his turnover. Before he dug in, though, he shot her a suspicious glance. “Why are you being so accommodating all of a sudden?”

“For exactly the reason you think,” she said with a shrug that had him struggling not to watch the resultant jiggle of her breasts. “To soften you up, of course.” She waved at his plate. “Don’t let it get cold.”

Knowing he wasn’t likely to get more than that, he took a bite. One taste was all it took, and he was a goner. “Damn,” he breathed when he came up for air half a turnover later. Forgetting who he was dealing with for-an instant, he gave her a genuine smile. “This is good .” He immediately forked up another bite, savoring the rich textures and the flavors that exploded on his tongue.

“So was my nefarious plot successful?” Lily asked when he finished. “Did my cooking turn you into Mr. Mellow?”

“Yep.” And surprisingly, it was true. He’d spent the morning atCampPendletongetting the South American contingent situated for their training program, and he was now officially on leave. Add to that a stomach full of exceptional food, and he really did feel pretty damn mellow.

“Good.” Lily passed him a sheet of paper that had been folded in half.

“What’s this?” He took it and shook it open. Recognizing his sister’s handwriting, his eyebrows furrowed. Then he read it, and his head snapped up. He didn’t like the sound of this at all, and he pinned the curvy little blonde sitting across the table in his sights. “Okay, spill it.”

Lily drew a breath and then released it in a long sigh. “The reason that Glynnis isn’t here is that she’s gone up toWashingtonstate… to meet her fiance’s family.”

Zach reacted every bit as badly as Lily feared he would.

He cursed succinctly as he pushed to his feet with such force his chair tumbled over. Slapping his hands on the tabletop, he leaned his weight on his splayed fingers and thrust his face forward until they were nose to nose. “I don’t believe you, lady. You’ve known exactly where she is all this time and you’re just now getting around to telling me?”

They were so close she could smell the chutney on his breath, hear the clicking pop of his TMJ joint as his teeth clenched and unclenched. His tension was contagious, but she forced herself to meet his furious eyes serenely. “I only just discovered the note.”

“So if you hadn’t found it, you wouldn’t have ever told me?”

She lifted her chin. “Your sister is an adult, Taylor. It isn’t up to me to tell you her business. If she’d wanted you to know, she would have said so—and considering what a control freak you are, I wasn’t exactly bowled over when she didn’t.” She gave him a level look. “As it turns out, you’re still a control freak, but apparently one she wants kept informed, so here’s the scoop. The young man’s name is David Beaumont. They met when he was down here on business, and they’re driving up to his home inWashingtonstate so Glynnis can meet his family. Then they plan to get married.” A corner of her mouth crooked up in a faint smile. “I’m sure you’ll be invited.”

“The hell you say.” Pushing off the table, Zach straightened and glared down at her.

“Then again, maybe not, if that’s going to be your attitude.”

“Hell, yes, it’s my attitude. Damned if I’ll allow some two-bit hustler break my baby sister’s heart!”

“For Pete’s sake!” She stared at him in exasperation. “You haven’t even met David. He loves her!”

“Loves her money, you mean.”

“No, Rambo, loves her . I’ve seen them together, and—” She found herself abruptly talking to thin air when Zach turned on his heel and strode from the room. She followed him to the den, where he was flipping through an address book.

He made a sound of satisfaction and picked up the telephone. Seeing her standing in the doorway he gave her a smug smile. “I knew I could trust Glynnis to jot down his ‘cell phone number.” He punched out the numbers.

Then the smile dropped away and he banged down the phone. “Shit. Out of the service area.” He shot her one of his my-wish-is-your-command looks. “What’s theBeaumonts’ phone number?”

“I have no idea. The only thing Glynnis gave me was his address.”

He dialed information, and she watched his face turn grimmer yet as he tried unsuccessfully to talk the operator into giving him an unlisted number. He then reached for the yellow pages, pausing only long enough to glare at her. “I want that address,” he snapped. “I’ll book a flight toSeattlefor now, but I expect the exact address in my hand before I leave.”

The impending air-traffic controller’s strike popped into Lily’s mind. She opened her mouth to tell him about it, then pursed her lips closed. As if he’d believe her anyway. But judging by his language when he slammed down the phone a short while later, she’d say the strike was no longer imminent.

“The hell with it,” he suddenly declared. “I’ll drive.” He looked at her. “Get me that address.”

“Yes, master,” she said as he stalked away—presumably to go pack for his trip.

As she headed down the hallway to her room, Lily fully intended to get Zach his address, and then get the heck out of his way. The threat he posed to Glynnis and David’s wedding plans was none of her business. Glynnis was a big girl; if she was old enough to get married, she was certainly old enough to stand up to her brother regarding her choice of husband.

This is actually a good thing for me, she assured herself as she tried to remember in which box she had just packed her address book. Heck, it’s a reprieve, extra time to find a new place to live without Mister Personality breathing down my neck .

She pushed aside the guilt that tickled the edges of her conscience. She and Glynnis had hit it off, and she truly thought David was good for the younger woman. But Glynnis’s problems with her brother were her own, and none of Lily’s.

“Lily!” The impatient shout came from outside, and she crossed the room to snap open the shutters. Zach stood on the parking apron outside the garages, glaring up at her window. As soon as he saw her, his hand slapped down on the roof of a black SUV with tinted windows. “Hurry up with that address!” he yelled.

Irritation shot through her as she stared down at his hard, belligerent face. He really was a bulldozer. She thought again of Glynnis and the fragile happiness she’d had the past couple months with David. He was wonderfully gentle with her—and the two of them would be no match at all for Zachariah Taylor. It was a crying shame, really. True love was hard enough to find without GI Joe roaring around smashing everything apart.

She glanced at her open suitcase and made a decision. Probably the worst decision of her life, but one she knew she would follow through on just the same.

“Oh, poop!”

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