Chapter 11

A chef! Zach stalked across the foyer and up the graceful central staircase, taking the stairs two at a time. And not just a line cook giving herself a fancy title, either, from the sound of it, but a highly trained professional . He swore with inspired creativity beneath his breath. Because, as much as he’d love to scoff at the notion, it made an awful sort of sense.

Nothing like having your fuck-ups come home to roost. All of a sudden he couldn’t even convince himself that, in spite of having a career, the possibility still existed that Lily was the golddigger he’d repeatedly accused her of being. For, too late, he figured out the fault in his logic that had bothered him the other day when he’d demanded to know if she was worried his stopping Glynnis from marrying David would lose Lily her meal ticket. He smacked himself in the forehead. It never occurred to you, genius, that if a meal ticket had been her big concern she would’ve been all for you breaking up the big romance? Once Glynnie has a husband to monitor her finances, chances of wriggling money out of her are pretty much shot.

Zach blew out a breath and squared his shoulders. So all right, big deal. He’d been wrong, and as a consequence he’d leveled a bunch of unfounded accusations at her. What the hell—he’d apologize.

Even if he still did wonder what was in it for her. There had to be something. Gainfully employed or not, no one put herself out to the extent that Lily had for someone she’d known as short a time as she had his sister. No one outside of the Corps, anyway.

“Zach.”

He spun around at the sound of her soft voice and watched her jiggle down the corridor with that hip swiveling, feminine walk of hers, looking like every Marine’s wet dream as she perambulated toward him on yet another pair of her ubiquitous high heels. He marched over to meet her. “Well, you really got me good, didn’t you? I’m sure you’re pretty damned pleased with yourself.”

She had the brass to laugh. “I gotta admit, not being regarded for once as the Slut of Golddigger Gulch is a nice change of pace.”

Grasping her upper arms, he backed her against the nearest wall. “Just who the hell are you, lady?”

She didn’t pretend confusion. Palms pressed flat against the wainscoting at her back, she tilted her chin up and looked him straight in the eye. “Exactly who I claimed to be right from the start, Soldier Boy. Glynnis’s friend.”

“Right. And you just ditched your career out of the goodness of your heart so you could come along and keep me from wrecking the so-called love match of the century?”

“I’m not ditching anything. I’m a chef for a corporate yacht, and my next trip doesn’t leave port until the last week in May. But, yes.” She shrugged. “That’s precisely why I came along. I tried to tell you David was different, but you refused to listen.”

The firm feel of her shoulders shifting beneath his hands reminded him that touching her—especially right now when his feelings were so screwed up—wasn’t the wisest idea in the world, and he released her like a hot spud. “I might have been more inclined to pay attention if you’d bothered to let me know you actually worked for a living.” Then he mentally winced. This is your big apology ? As bad-tempered and burdened as he felt this morning, it didn’t escape him that he was being unreasonable. And the real pisser was, his mood didn’t even have all that much to do with the revelation that Lily wasn’t the little money grubber he’d accused her of being. Discovering he’d been acting like a jerk toward her was merely the sprinkles on his cupcake.

Somehow Lily seemed to know it, too. “I don’t feel a burning need to justify myself to people who make idiotic assumptions,” she said with a commendable lack of rancor for someone who had every right to be dancing around taking pokes at him and singing na-na-na-na-na . “I have a feeling that’s not your biggest beef, anyhow,” she said, staring up at him. “What is this really all about, Zach?”

Gut churning, he stepped back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do. You were already tense when I came down to breakfast. Does it have anything to do with Mrs. Beaumont?” She reached out and touched his arm, a sudden anxiety scudding across her eyes. “Did she say something? Discover something about Glynnis and David’s situation?”

The ire that had been eating him alive all morning came boiling to the surface, and he slapped his hand down on the wall next to her shoulder. “Finally. Someone who acknowledges that Glynnie, too, is at risk.”

Her eyes widened. “Well, of course she is.”

“No one else around here seems to think so! They’re all so friggin’ worried about their precious David —but I have yet to hear a single word of concern for my sister. Jesus, Lily. It’s as if she doesn’t exist.”

“I’m sure it’s just because they don’t know her, Zach.”

Incensed, he leaned into her. “I don’t know Darling David either, but at least I have the decency to pretend I care.”

Lily’s lips twitched, but she merely said, “No, what I mean is, I imagine Glynnis probably doesn’t seem quite real to them, since none of them has ever actually met her.”

“I don’t want to hear any lame excuses—there’s no justification for their behavior!” Bracing both forearms on the wall on either side of her head, he bent his knees and leaned into her so closely they only escaped a full body press by a hair’s-breadth. Such close proximity had him sucking in the warm, lemony-sugary scent of her, and suddenly all his pent-up agitation veered off in a brand new direction. Or maybe not so new. Either way, feeling jumpy and restless and in need of a safe outlet to blow off some steam, he found himself dipping his nose until it almost touched the contour of her neck, where he inhaled deeply. Her fragrance seemed to emanate from her skin rather than any one particular pulse point, but he wasn’t fussy about the source. He merely breathed her in, then had to slick his tongue across lips suddenly gone dry. “Ah, man. I want to kiss you.”

She froze. “What?”

He pulled his head back far enough to look down at her, aware of the heavy drumming of his heart against his ribs. “I want to kiss you. Have wanted to kiss you since practically the first minute I laid eyes on you.”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “My tush , you have.”

“Hey, it’s no lie. But since I have this ironclad rule about never making time with women out to steal my sister’s inherit—” He trailed off. Oh, good going, Romeo. Be sure to remind her of all the insults you’ve hurled at her — that oughtta put her in a lather to jump your bones . “What I mean to say is, I couldn’t act on it.”

“Uh-huh,” she said neutrally. “So, I’ve officially been cleared, then, of only wanting to be friends with Glynnis for her money?”

“Yes. I guess I owe you a pretty big apology for some of the things I’ve said.”

“Gee, ya think?” She regarded him with those brilliant blue eyes. “Have I been cleared of the slut charges, too? Or, wait. Maybe it’s the fact you do still think I’m one that’s fueling this sudden desire to kiss me.”

“No—I mean, yes. Shit.” He looked down at her and shrugged helplessly. It was exactly this sort of female doublespeak that drove him up the wall, and by rights, having to deal with it now on top of everything else going on ought to banish his hard-on right into soprano country.

But it didn’t seem to be working that way. “Let me try this in English. No, that’s not the reason I want to kiss you,” he clarified. “And yes, you’ve been cleared of that charge.” As if getting to kiss her was a likely prospect, anyway. Why the hell was he giving her the opportunity to get her rocks off by rejecting him? The smart money said he should just turn and walk away.

Lately, however, smart wasn’t exactly the first word he’d use to describe himself—so why start now? He stayed where he was, staring down at her in frustration.

“So let me see if I’ve got this straight.” She drew a slow, deep breath, and the action brushed her breasts against his diaphragm, sending him sucking for a breath of his own.

Then she ticked off the points on her fingers. “I’m off the hook for the charge of trying to lead Glynnis astray in order to get my mitts on her moolah. I apparently no longer top the Ten Tawdriest Sluts list. And you have a sudden urge to kiss me.” A small, crooked smile tugged at her lips as she looked up at him.

He lowered his head until his mouth was a fraction of an inch from hers. “There’s nothing sudden about it, Lil. But, affirmative. That about covers it.”

“Well, I’ve only got one thing to say to that, bud.” Her tongue stole out to moisten her bottom lip.

Watching the movement, he had to rein in the impulse to simply take what he wanted, and political correctness be damned. He dragged his gaze up to meet her eyes. “Let me guess. Get bent?”

“That’s two words, Taylor, and I only need one. It’s short; it’s sweet. It’s—” ” “No.Iget it .”

“—Okay.”

“The only damn service I provided your sister,” Christopher said, tugging Jessica into their suite, “was offering to jump-start the battery in her car.”

“Yes, so you said downstairs.” Jessica watched him as he set her loose and began pacing their bedroom. God, he was handsome. With his sculpted cheekbones, gold-streaked brown hair, and leaf-green eyes, he could have been a model, and she knew perfectly well what people thought whenever they saw the two of them together—how on earth had such a Greek God ever ended up with someone as plain and dowdy as she? Not that Jessica blamed them. She often wondered the same thing herself… and very much feared she knew the answer, that he’d married her for her connections.

They’d met two years ago at a thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraiser, the decorations of which had been designed by her committee. It was a night she’d never forget, because she’d never realized until then that a person could meet someone and feel such instant recognition, as if their souls spoke to one another. After just one conversation with the tall, unbelievably handsome guy in the perfectly fitted tux, she’d known he was the man for her.

Ordinarily someone with his good looks would have made her feel tongue-tied and self-conscious, but it was as if he didn’t realize how devastatingly gorgeous he was, and he’d made her feel pretty and witty, too. Then, in the days that followed, he’d given her a rush that had simply swept her off her feet. They’d gotten married four short months later, and Christopher had promptly given up his apartment in Bellingham to move into the Beaumont estate and had exchanged his job for a post in the family business.

He walked over to stare down at her now, and when his golden eyebrows gathered over his nose she thought for an instant that he’d read her thoughts. But apparently that wasn’t the case.

“So I’m repeating myself,” he growled with a shrug of one muscular shoulder. “So sue me—I know how easily you allow Cassidy to undermine your confidence. But I swear to you, Jess, the instant I concluded my business call, my intention was to head down to breakfast like I told you I would. I didn’t anticipate Cassidy waylaying me in the upstairs hall to moan about her dead BMW and an appointment she simply had to make.”

“Yet, there she was at breakfast, with all the time in the world to insult our guest.” And that didn’t even address the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that Christopher’s telephone call had given her. When he’d covered the mouthpiece and urged her to go down to breakfast without him, she’d had the uneasiest feeling that he didn’t want her overhearing his end of the conversation.

But her husband had a way of allaying all her fears, and he did so now. “What can I say?” he asked smoothly. “It was typical Cassidy bullshit. As soon as I determined her problem was only a rundown battery because as usual she hadn’t bothered to make sure the driver’s door was fully closed, I offered to jump-start the car. But no; all of a sudden she’s no longer in a big galloping hurry and decided she simply had to have breakfast.” He ran his fingertips down Jessica’s cheek as he gazed earnestly into her eyes. “We both know she’s just trying to cause trouble.”

And darned if it wasn’t working, too, Jessica thought unhappily. She could literally feel all her insecurities kicking in, but she drew a deep, quiet breath, then slowly eased it out again, refusing to let them get the better of her. Helping with the breakfast preparations this morning had made her feel good about herself, and she wanted to hang on to the sensation, to experience again that boost to her confidence. She looked up at Christopher and changed the subject. “Lily said she could teach me how to cook.”

“She did, huh? And that appeals to you?”

“Yes.” She laughed. “Isn’t that silly?”

“Hell, no. Not if it gives you pleasure.” He studied her face. “You like her, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do. She’s nice, and she makes me laugh.”

“There’s not many who can claim that distinction these days.” He sounded almost bitter, but before she could decide if she were imagining things or not, he asked, “What’s your take on her relationship to Taylor?”

She looked at him in surprise. “They’re lovers,” she said immediately. Then hesitantly, “Don’t you think?”

“Did she say as much?”

“Well, no, but look at her. Look at him. And there’s that… electricity when the two of them are in the same room. I simply assumed—”

Christopher shook his head. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t deny the chemistry, but he has a way of looking at her that makes me believe they haven’t actually done the deed yet.”

And just like that, Jessica’s feeling of well-being collapsed. “Well, perfect,” she said flatly. Stepping back, she pushed her hair out of her eyes with both hands and stared up at her husband in frustration. “Once again my sterling ability to read people and situations shines through.”

Bewilderment drew his golden eyebrows together as Christopher looked down at her. “Why would you feel an investment in their love life?”

She blew out a disgusted breath. “Because, helpful me, I arranged for them to be in adjoining rooms.”

Braced for rejection, Zach took a moment to change gears. “What d’you mean, okay ?” he demanded, shoving back in order to stare down at Lily. “Okay, as in that’s your response to my ‘I get the rejection’ comment? Or okay, as in yes?”

“Okay, as in yes. I’m curious, all right?” But even as bravado tilted Lily’s chin up, she wondered what the heck she was doing. This was sooo not smart and immediately she tried to backpedal. “Look, just forget it. It was one of those impetuous speak-before-you-think things, but it’s a dumb idea. An extremely dumb—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” he growled. “You said ‘okay.’ Too late to change your mind now.” And hooking a warm hand behind her neck, he pulled her away from the wall, lowered his head, and rocked his mouth over hers.

Pleasure splintered through her in amazing abundance, considering it wasn’t some deep, wet soul kiss.

Zach’s lips were slightly parted, and his mouth worked hers masterfully, but he kept his tongue to himself. Even without it, however— boy , the man could kiss! His lips teased, and then delivered on every promise. They brushed hers lightly… then not so lightly… then firmly rubbed her lips apart. When his mouth suddenly sealed itself over hers and lightly sucked, she came right up onto her toes. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she offered up her mouth for more and impulsively skimmed the tip of her tongue along the slick, inner curve of his bottom lip where it adhered to her own.

Making an uncivilized sound, Zach slanted his mouth over hers with just the slightest hint of roughness and pressed her back against the wall. He spread his thighs and bent his knees until he was on a more equitable level with her much shorter stature, then plunged his hands into her hair to hold her head firmly. His kiss grew more insistent but still remained relatively chaste. Until, with a rumble of frustration, his hot tongue suddenly slid past her teeth to probe her receptive mouth.

Lily fell as if she’d plunged her fingers into a live socket—electricity shot from the damp thrust of Zach’s tongue straight to her nipples, her fingertips, her toes. Muscles deep between her thighs tightened. She moaned and kissed him back for all she was worth, chasing the aggressive pump of his tongue with her own until the two slid and retreated from each other in a damp, fervent tango.

Lifting his mouth a moment later, he whispered a ragged curse, turned his head to come at her from another angle, then dove back into the kiss. His fingers tangled in her hair for a second, then slowly slid free to stroke down the sides of her neck, over the curves of her shoulders and along the hollows of her underarms. The heels of his hands lightly skimmed the sides of Lily’s breasts, but before she could fully inhale the breath she’d sucked in, his clever hands had already continued on to smooth along her ribcage, to trace the dip of her waistline, then slide onto the fullness of her hips. There his fingers sank in, and he suddenly lifted her up as he straightened to his full height.

With a startled exclamation, she pulled her mouth free and tightened her grip around his neck. But Zach obviously had no intention of letting her slip, and the next thing Lily knew, she was pressed between the hard wainscoting and his even harder body, her feet dangling a good foot off the floor as he recaptured her lips. Not about to hang there like a rag doll, she wrapped her legs around his narrow hips.

He made a satisfied noise deep in his throat, and his hands slid around to grasp the full curves of her bottom. Continuing to kiss her senseless, he made minor adjustments to her position. Then all of a sudden the achy notch between her legs aligned with the hard length of his erection. Nerves sang throughout Lily’s entire body, and involuntarily, her pelvis surged forward to maintain the delicious contact.

And control of the kiss abruptly went up in flames.

Zach’s mouth turned fierce, and the sheer pressure against Lily’s lips ground her head back against the wall. She barely noticed. All she was truly cognizant of was the taste of his kiss, the heat of his body, and the hardness of his sex rocking, rocking, rocking against hers.

Then, without warning, he ripped his mouth free and, his breath sawing harshly, whispered a foul word. A second later, Lily was dumped back on her feet. Blinking like a mole suddenly flung into the light, she leaned weakly against the wall and peered up at him. “Zach?”

Then she, too, heard what his sharper ears had obviously already picked up. Footsteps tapped rapidly up the stairs. Smoothing her hair back, then nervously running her hands over herself to make sure all her clothing was still in place, she watched as Jessica’s bitchy sister raced into view.

“Good, you’re here,” Cassidy said breathlessly. “The kidnapper just called.”

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