Hot Touch

Hot Touch

Deborah Smith

August 2017 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-774-8



 
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Back Cover Copy


They shared a love of all living things.
He needed money to protect his sanctuary.
She needed a soulmate who could accept her extraordinary secret.


"I can’t concentrate if you look at me that way, chere,” Paul warned.
"What way?” Caroline asked innocently.
"Don’t the men in Beverly Hills tell you how sexy you look when you dance?”
"Oh, yes,” she said, teasing him. "Lots of men. All handsome and wealthy.”
"So what are they doing while you’re in Louisiana?”
She smiled wickedly. "Crying.”
"Why? Afraid you’ll come back?”
"Oh, you’re mean,” she said, tapping his cheek playfully.
Paul turned his head and caught her thumb between his teeth and nibbled for a moment before he turned her loose. Caroline’s lashes fluttered, and he was irresistibly tempted. He knew she wanted him, and that he could win her over, but he needed time. And the band was starting to play a slow dance . . .


Deborah Smith is the New York Times and Number One Kindle bestseller of A Place To Call Home, The Crossroads Café, and many other romance and women’s fiction novels.

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Excerpt

One

PAUL BELUE slammed both large, sinewy fists onto the tabletop with a force that sent a shiver through the crowded trailer. He was happy to note that everyone from the producer to the script girl jumped.

"Nobody works with Wolf but me! He doesn’t need another trainer, no! He doesn’t need stress reduction or better vibes! Look, I’ve had enough! I let you film in my house, and you’ve turned the whole bottom floor into an obstacle course! I nearly kill myself going to the kitchen! Enough! You’re not bringing some silly woman in here to use some sort of silly California techniques on my timber wolf!”

"Dr. Belue, you’re yelling again. We agreed that you wouldn’t yell,” the director said firmly.

Paul glared at a spike-haired young woman, then at Frank Windham. "Cajuns yell!” he bellowed, waving his hands. The crowd of people leaned back, their faces chalk white.

Their silent reaction was what he’d come to expect. Movie people, poo-yie! They didn’t know how to have a good, loud, soul-satisfying fight. That’s why Frank, the producer, suffered from tension headaches. Even now Frank was rubbing his fingers against the silver-streaked brown hair at his temples.

"We have a contract, you prickly s.o.b.,” Frank reminded him smoothly. "And I’m losing thousands of dollars every day that your mutt refuses to work. You have no choice. If you don’t let me bring a professional trainer here, I’ll sue you up one side of the bayou and down the other.”

Paul leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and eyed the producer lethally. "I see.”

"A lot of producers swear by this trainer. She’s worked with the biggest names in the business—Spuds MacKenzie, Benji, Morris the Cat. Her effect on animals is almost eerie.”

"Bien,” Paul retorted dryly. "A Beverly Hills witch.”

"You’ll like her. I promise.”

Frank was proud of his skill in diplomacy, but he knew he’d just told a whopper of a lie. Inside her small circle of friends Caroline was respected and adored. Outside that circle she was merely respected. He’d seen her reduce troublemakers to shreds, and she was already in a foul mood over this job.

Paul Belue commanded respect in general and something more where women were concerned—slavelike devotion. Every female on the set thought he was part Clark Gable, part Cajun Gypsy, and all stud.

But Caroline wasn’t a typical woman. When she got through with him, he’d carry his hide away in little pieces.

"Wolf won’t obey anyone but me,” Paul informed him.

"Then why won’t he pay attention to your commands anymore? You’re a veterinarian. Why don’t you give him an antidepressant or something?”

Paul rose to his feet slowly, his exuberant anger turning quieter, more deadly. "I’d rather stuff you with antidepressants. Wolf doesn’t need them. Just give me time to figure him out. He’s not as simple as a dog.”

"He’s half Labrador retriever. Figure that half out while the trainer takes care of the rest.”

"Or you’ll sue me for breach of contract?”

"Does an alligator have fins?” the producer retorted sarcastically.

"No. It doesn’t.”

"Whatever. I want Wolf back to peak performance as soon as possible. Come on, Paul, he’s going to be a star. He’s going to make a bundle of money for you. Don’t throw it all away because of pride.”

Defeat and frustration coiled inside Paul’s chest. He needed Frank’s money too badly to argue. Damn, the money problem was like a sharp knife always jabbing at him. His temper was frayed because of it.

"All right, mon ami,” he said in a low voice, his jaw clenched. "Bring on the lady trainer, but you be responsible when Wolf chews one of her hands off. And if she causes any trouble, Wolf will be the least of her worries.”

Hell would have been cooler.

Caroline Fitzsimmons stared out the limousine’s window at steam rising off the ghostly, moss-draped forest from a recent rain. How could a state be so ethereally beautiful and so hot at the same time? She tapped the intercom button imperiously.

"Driver?”

"Yes’m, what can I do for you?” The chauffeur had a thick drawl that grated on her nerves. It was actually a pretty accent with all those lazy vowels and dropped g’s, but it stirred up odd sensations that disturbed her because she couldn’t quite recall the memories behind them.

"Is everything here covered in some sort of growing vegetation?” she demanded. "If I stand outside too long, will I sprout leaves?”

"Ma’am?”

He had missed the joke. "Spanish moss, vines, etcetera. Is it all like this?”

"Oh. Yes’m. The Cajun country’s semitropical. That’s why it’s a great place for growing sugarcane and rice.”

"Lovely,” she muttered under her breath. "Sweets and starch.” To the driver she said, "What’s the temperature this morning?”

"Only seventy degrees. Perfect fall weather.”

"What’s the humidity?”

"About eighty percent.”

"Perfect fall weather if you like to live in a sauna,” she muttered. "Thank you.”

Caroline flicked the intercom off, slipped a Walkman headset over her ears, and listened to a tape of soothing ocean sounds. Here she was, three hours from the civilization of New Orleans, speeding through a moody, junglelike land of swamps and marshes, while her permanent went limp even in the air-conditioned limousine.

If the wolf didn’t respond quickly, she’d bite him.

Big Daddy regularly wandered out of the swamp that adjoined Grande Rivage to nap in the plantation’s long gravel driveway. Paul suspected that he enjoyed the warm gravel and the shady canopy of oak trees. Or maybe he just liked to hear colorful Cajun curses.

"Lousy ’gator, I should have you stuffed and mounted out here,” Paul threatened.

"Where does a twenty-foot alligator sleep?” Ed Thompson asked as they circled the big reptile carefully. "Anywhere he wants to.”

"Let’s grab his tail. On the count. Un, deux, trois.

They latched onto Big Daddy’s tail and spent the next two minutes hopelessly trying to budge the alligator. Paul glanced up at the wiry young black man pulling beside him. Sweat streamed down Ed’s bare chest and soaked the waist of his khaki shorts. His face was contorted with effort. "Ed, this is like a pair of flies trying to drag the Loch Ness monster. Let’s go get the tractor.”

Ed nodded. "They never told us about this in college. Zoology was supposed to be glamorous.”

"Nothing glamorous about ’gator rasslin’, mon ami.”

Paul heard the sound of a car in the distance. He looked down the driveway, and after a stunned moment cursed loudly.

It must be the animal trainer. In a limo. A limo. Even the brat-pack types in the movie had come down from New Orleans in a chartered bus.

"Definitely impressive,” Ed commented.

"Ridiculous.”

An idea occurred to Paul, and he perused Big Daddy thoughtfully. "Leave him, Ed. Go feed the panthers. I’ll take care of this.”

"Fine.” They dropped Big Daddy’s massive tail and danced away as the alligator flipped it from side to side. "Are you just going to let him stay here like an ugly speed bump?”

"I’ll think of something.”

Ed nodded again, then headed for the trail to the wild animal compound.

Caroline looked up from reading Vogue as the limousine came to a stop. She peered out the window and gasped in awe at the magnificent trees that lined the drive. Their massive, gnarled trunks proclaimed great age. She could almost picture Rhett and Scarlett driving past them in a horse-drawn carriage.

She drew her earphones off and punched the intercom button. "Is this the Grande Rivage plantation?”

"Yes’m. The driveway, anyhow.”

"It’s magnificent. But why are we stopping?”

"There’s a man and an alligator in the middle of the road.”

Caroline lifted her brows drolly. "They’ve been run over?”

"No, ma’am. At least—I’m not sure about the alligator, but the man’s okay. He waved for me to stop.”

"Well, please tell him to move his walking handbag out of the way. I’m in a hurry.”

"Yes’m.”

She returned to reading. A minute later the driver came to her door and opened it. Caroline sniffed delicately as warm, muggy, sweetly scented air flowed into the car.

"Ma’am, the fellow says, ‘De ’gator, he’s not moving, moan amee.’ You’ll have to walk the rest of the way.”

"How far is it?”

"Ohhh, couple hundred yards. Picture two football fields end to end.”

Caroline lowered her chin and gazed at him solemnly. "I’ll consider walking when it’s two tennis courts.” She paused, grimacing. "Is the man Cajun?”

"Yes’m.”

She hoped fervently that this plantation wasn’t staffed entirely with Cajuns. If her mother’s family was any indication, their down-home nobility was one of the biggest media-created myths of the last decade.

Caroline nodded to the chauffeur. "Tell Frenchy that de ’gator, he is moving.”

"Uh, yes’m, I’ll see what I can do.”

He shut the door. Caroline shifted anxiously against the limo’s seat. She just wanted to get to the plantation house—Frank had described it so lovingly—unpack her things, and stretch out in a cool room.

"Sir, the lady says you’ll have to move the alligator.”

Paul stared down at the sweating, uncertain chauffeur. "The lady refuses to get out and walk, yes?”

"Uh, yes. She’s not dressed for walking, see. And she doesn’t like the heat.”

Paul inhaled slowly, his fists clenching and unclenching. "Let me make certain before I do anything. This is Caroline Fitzsimmons, yes?”

"Uh, yes.”

Narrowing his eyes, Paul looked at the limo and smiled. No Beverly Hills prima donna was going to meddle with his wolf. "I’ll talk to the lady.”

Caroline fidgeted, wondering what kind of crude, backward man blocked their way. To distract herself she fished through her Louis Vuitton travel bag and selected a pair of wraparound sunglasses with sleek silver frames. She put the glasses on and retrieved a gold compact from the bag.

She was checking her lipstick when her door was jerked open so hard that the limo rocked. Startled, Caroline dropped her compact and twisted quickly toward the invader.

"Haul your butt out of this car, chère!”

He had an incredibly deep voice. It was the voice of doom, if doom had a Cajun accent. Her mouth gaping, Caroline stared up at him.

He blocked the sun. He was big, or maybe he just seemed that way because he was so close. He wore only faded jeans and muddy, laced-up work boots, one of which he placed jauntily on the edge of her door like a challenge.

Caroline blinked rapidly and swallowed. Her mind took control of her gaping mouth and snapped it shut. She reached behind her on the seat, clasped a white umbrella with black polka dots, and brandished it at him like a club.

"I don’t know what swamp you crawled out of, but go back to it,” she ordered. "I’m here on business. You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who enjoys the odor of sweat and dirt.”

Muscles flexed in his brawny arms as he leaned forward. He flashed her a startlingly white smile. It had all the warmth of a dog’s snarl.

Thank goodness he was backlit by the sun so that she could hardly see his features. He was overwhelming enough as it was.

"Caro-line Fitz-simmons,” he said with slow emphasis. "I know who you are. And you’ve come to the wrong place if you think you’re going to pull a princess routine. Get out of that car and walk.”

Caroline tried to peer past him. Her chest rose and fell swiftly. "Driver! We’re leaving now!”

The hulk threw a gaze over his shoulder at her slack-jawed chauffeur. "Don’t move an inch, friend.”

Mad and more frightened than ever, Caroline jabbed the tip of her umbrella into the invader’s stomach. She might as well have poked a brick wall. An angry brick wall.

He glared down at her in amazement. "You just lost all your Brownie points, and you didn’t have many.”

"Get your boot off my door,” she ordered in a grim voice. "Or I’ll poke something soft.”

The subtle, preparatory tightening of his body should have been a warning, but she missed the clue. She aimed the umbrella at the bulge in the front of his snug jeans.

"Lady, you’ll spend a long time looking for anything soft on me,” he retorted. Then he snatched the umbrella from her grasp, threw it onto the grassy roadside behind him, and reached into the car with both hands.

Caroline’s palm connected on his cheek with a loud crack just before he got her by the wrists.

"Out of there!” he yelled.

She wasn’t certain how he did it, but he jerked her from the limo with so much powerful grace that it didn’t hurt.

Caroline tottered beside the car, the heels of her black pumps sinking into the gravel. He let her go and she nearly fell backward into the seat. Grasping the door frame on both sides of her, she gave in to blind fury.

"Who do you think you are, you backwoods cretin?”

She swung at him with one fist and caught his jaw squarely. Caroline heard his teeth click together with the force of her blow. Her cocktail ring left a tiny cut on his cheek.

Astonishment made his mouth drop open. He raised one hand to his jaw as if to confirm that she’d just hit him.

"I’ve been kicked, stomped, bitten, and spit on by everything in the animal kingdom,” he told her in a deadly tone. "Except a Barbie doll.” He planted his hands on the hood of the car, effectively trapping her between his arms.

Caroline kept her fist raised but stared at him in a daze of horror. This anonymous bully was now going to kill her, she was certain. He looked totally uncivilized. His hair was Indian black with only a hint of softer shadings. It hadn’t seen a comb recently. Although layered, it was long enough in back to brush the tops of his broad shoulders.

He had a chest full of tightly woven muscles covered in a thick black pelt. At the moment she could imagine him pounding that chest like an angry gorilla.

She drew her fist back. "Step away, you bastard,” she warned. "I don’t know what you’re after, but you’ll be sorry you wanted it.”

Though he didn’t budge, his eyes narrowed lethally. Caroline winced. Why couldn’t she have said step away, please, you bastard?

"You’re going back to California on the next plane!” he shouted. Then he shook both fists in the air and began calling her names in French. They were undoubtedly as unpleasant as they sounded.

He was so dramatic and so thoroughly mesmerizing that she watched him in silent awe. His face was strong-featured and handsome, but hardly pretty. His nose was rather large. But his eyes—his eyes were amazing, such a light blue that they stood out like translucent sapphires against his deeply tanned skin.

"Who are you? I don’t care what you think! Shut up!” she interjected. That only provoked him more.

In the midst of yelling Paul realized that he couldn’t drag his gaze away from her. She looked upset, but not frightened... maybe that was the attraction. Maybe it was her damned calculated aura of mystery. He could see very little of her face.

She wore dark sunglasses and a black scarf with fine white dots. The scarf was wound under her chin and around her neck in a style reminiscent of the fifties. A smooth, straight strand of strawberry-blond hair peeked out decoratively on one side of her forehead.

When he stopped yelling she simply stared at him for a moment. Her driver still stood in the distance, his mouth hanging open.

"Finished?” she finally inquired.

Her skin was flushed with anger underneath a golden tan. Her nostrils flared rhythmically at the end of a short, aquiline nose. Despite the deadly way she had her lips clamped together, they looked luscious.

She smirked at him. "Whoever you are, I’m going to kick your sweating hulk off this place so fast that you’ll feel like gumbo in a hurricane.”

"You will, eh, chère?” Paul raked her up and down. "You’re not dressed for anything so physical.”

She was the epitome of fashion in a white dress with enormous padded shoulders and a skirt that barely came to mid-thigh. Skin-tight pants extended from under the skirt and stopped just below her knees, outlining extremely pretty legs. The legs, cased in white hose, continued in the same curvaceous way all the way down to her high-heeled black shoes.

"Okay, Tarzan, seen many women lately?” she inquired in a tone that could have frozen a volcano.

"Not any dressed for the circus.”

He gazed disdainfully at her knee pants. They had a tiny polka-dot print that matched her scarf. A wide black belt made her waist look too small for her height—she was only a few inches shorter than he was. Paul smiled at the indignant way her lips pursed.

Her chin came up. "A fashion critique from a wild boar is hardly worth considering.”

"You look like a piece of candy wrapped up in too much paper. By the time a man got you unwrapped, he’d forget that he was hungry.”

"I’m here on business with the producer of a movie. You couldn’t possibly work for him. He has good taste. So you must be some sort of hired help at the plantation. Consider yourself out of a job. Now get your lizard out of the road and your face out of my sight.”

"Ol’ ’gator, he doesn’t move for man nor circus woman.” Paul turned toward the chauffeur and gestured grandly. "Get her luggage out. Let her carry it. She looks capable, like she takes aerobics classes and lifts weights. With her tongue.”

"Pal,” she interjected, "you can take your attitude and put it where the sun—”

"The sun shines everywhere down here,” he finished dryly. "And it gets beaucoup hot for a woman who runs her mouth when she should be carrying her luggage to the big house.”

Caroline crossed her arms over her chest. Perspiration was already beading on her scalp. The scarf itched. "Move the alligator,” she ordered.

Paul stepped back and waved her toward the front of the limo. "You move him.”

The tension inside Caroline’s chest lightened as she considered that offer. She smiled at him in a condescending way. "All right.”

They walked to where the monstrous, muddy thing lay dozing in the center of the driveway. Her tormentor threw out a protective arm to halt her. Surprised, Caroline bumped into the muscled barrier at breast height.

Tarzan might be sweaty, dirty, and bad-tempered, but he was also a walking catalogue of perfect male parts. The pressure of his arm against Caroline’s bosom drew primitive requests straight from her hormones. We’ll take one of those, and two of those, and lots of that...

"How gallant,” she muttered, and stepped back. She feigned interest in the alligator. "Well, well, an Izod emblem with teeth.”

"Big Daddy likes to chase women. You’re not wearing any alligator skin, are you?”

"Oh, just my underwear.”

"Seems appropriate.”

Her face burned with more than the external heat. Watch this, Mr. Macho.

"Beat it, alligator, before mother nature notices that you flunked the quiz on evolution,” she said aloud for effect.

Caroline peered at the reptile with a twinge of performance anxiety. She’d never dealt with a mind quite so primitive. Even frogs were sharper than this.

Big Daddy’s large, dark eyes opened slowly. He rose to all fours. He waddled off the road, his body swinging from side to side. She exhaled in relief. Caroline smiled sweetly at the shocked man beside her.

"I’m a professional animal trainer,” she explained. "It’s all in knowing how to pitch your voice.”

Disgust flooded his expression. "Dumb luck.”

"No, that’s how you get a girl.”

His eyes flared with amusement and he whistled softly under his breath. "Hinting for some fun? Can’t take you up on it. Might get frostbite.”

Caroline grimaced. This was hopeless. "I’m not going to ask you to tell me your name. Primitive organisms don’t have names. But I assure you that you’ll hear about this from the owner.”

"Already heard.” It was obvious that he’d been waiting for this moment. He bowed and smiled with grand satisfaction. "That’s me. The owner.”

Her back stiffened slowly. Then one corner of her mouth drew up in sardonic amusement.

Watching, Paul gave her credit for having a sense of humor.

"Dr. Belue, I presume,” she said flatly.

"Blue to my friends.” He paused. "But you can call me Dr. Belue.”

"Oh, I intend to.”

Even behind the dark sunglasses he could tell that her eyes were wide with astonishment over his identity. What color were those eyes? He had an overwhelming need to find out. With a quick, catlike flick of his hand he slipped the glasses off her face.

He’d never forget her reaction as long as he lived. Her eyes—he didn’t even notice their color—narrowed in distress. One hand flew toward the left side of her face, then wavered as if she were ashamed of her reaction, and dropped back to her side.

She glared up at him, knowing that he couldn’t help staring at the jagged white scar that ran from the corner of her left eye back into the hair at her temple, hating the fact that the good, honest challenge in his gaze softened with pity.

Caroline jerked her sunglasses out of his hand and nearly stabbed herself in the eyes putting them on again. Then she turned the air blue with invective. She’d do anything to make him fight again. Anything was better than sympathy.

He cocked his head to one side and gave her a rebuking look that was even more upsetting because she sensed that he understood her defensiveness.

Shaking, Caroline withdrew behind her icy facade. Her voice dropped to a low level that was at least formal, if not calm. "You’re about as likable as a bad fungus, and I’d rather spend time in hell than in this sweltering little backwoods Eden. But I’ll survive. I want a room. Your best room, with air-conditioning. It better have a telephone. And I’ll give your cook a grocery list. I’m a vegetarian.”

Anger clouded his gaze again. "You’re a pain in the ass, Mademoiselle Fitzsimmons,” he corrected her.

"Precisely. I’ve had years of practice and the best teachers.”

She turned on one heel and went back to the car. She slammed the door and sat in the dim, quiet interior, staring straight ahead, tears glittering in her eyes.

Her triumphant return to Louisiana didn’t feel that way at all.


 

 

Two

HER VISIONS OF Scarlett and Rhett faded as soon as she saw the main house. This was Tara after the war.

"This is a punishment,” she said numbly. "I’ve been cursed.”

The driver set her luggage on the patio and waited expectantly. Caroline dabbed at her dewy face with a pink tissue and tried to forget what Dr. Belue had just done to her emotions.

Grande Rivage hadn’t been grand for at least fifty years. She leaned against the limousine, staring up at large columns devoid of paint and an upstairs gallery that sagged slightly on one side. Dingy, torn curtains fluttered in the windows. Peeling white shutters hung askew from the dormer windows on top.

But the ghost of majesty was still evident, and she couldn’t deny that it appealed to her. A parade of tall doors fronted the house on both stories, and most of them were open to let the breeze through.

The house was sturdily built of handmade red brick; the years couldn’t ruin such craftsmanship. A beautiful filigreed iron balustrade decorated the gallery, and huge azaleas nestled against the red-tiled patio that skirted the bottom story. The first floor opened directly onto that ground-level patio.

Thick honeysuckle and jasmine climbed the trunks of overhanging oaks that must have been planted when the house was built. The paddlelike leaves of giant magnolias fluttered in the sultry air. Caroline searched for descriptions that would do the old home justice. Provocative. Romantic.

Then she tried to shrug off such whimsy. At least the lawn was cut—well, in the spots that still had grass.

"Caroline!”

She turned toward Frank’s relieved voice. He came across the lawn from a camper’s nightmare of trailers, vans, and utility vehicles clustered among a grove of trees in the distance. Beyond the grove she saw white outbuildings, fences, and pastureland dotted with tiny, striped ponies. What?

Near the trailers a few members of the crew had set up a volleyball net and were sweating through a vigorous game. Frank trotted up to her, clapping happily, his sandy brown hair ruffled by a warm breeze. But he looked tense, like the movie producer he was, conscious of the minutes ticking his money away.

"Caroline, how was your trip?”

She smiled and returned Frank’s hug. Then she held him at arm’s length and didn’t mince words. "I just met Dr. Belue. He hates me. And I hate him.” She quickly told him about the encounter.

Frank’s happy expression fell ten feet. Then he shrugged. "I’m surprised it took so long.”

"Why does he want to get rid of me?”

"He thinks you’re a waste of time. He thinks his wolf will eat you alive. You’ll have to tread lightly.”

"I’m not worried about the wolf. I’ll get wolfie back to work for you, Frank.” She patted his back. "Just relax and stop having those migraines. Gretchen’s concerned about you.”

"I know. I’m overreacting. It has something to do with ten million dollars of investors’ money.”

"The wolf won’t be a problem,” she emphasized. "But I can’t stay in the same house with the mad doctor. Are you sure there isn’t a trailer available?”

"Sweetness, I had enough trouble getting the ones we have. We’re not exactly in the middle of civilization, you know.”

"An understatement. The road signs to this place ought to read Nowhere and Oblivion.

"Very funny.”

She gestured toward the house. "You said it was charming. So are the ruins of Greece, but I wouldn’t want to live in them.”

"The torn curtains and peeling paint are our doing. The house was presentable before we dressed it for the film.”

"Haunted-house theme?”

"My dear, you obviously haven’t read the script I sent. The Legend of Silver Wolf is a kiddie flick about a wolf who rescues two children lost in the swamp. He leads them to this spooky old house where a hermit lives. The hermit is really a sweet, lonely old man. Silver Wolf saves everybody from some villains.”

She arched one brow. "I met one of the villains a few minutes ago. Terrific casting.”

Frank laughed wearily. "I like Blue,” he told her. "And I respect him. He’s operating this place on a shoestring. He runs an endangered-species habitat, and except for a few government grants, he’s pretty much self-supporting.”

"Oh? He protects the declining population of male macho mutants?”

"Panthers, Caroline. He’s trying to save a rare species of panther. He also works with ferrets and birds, not to mention half a dozen other things. He’s a very private man and he doesn’t like having us around. But he needs the money.”

The sound of running hooves made them both turn quickly. The chauffeur hid behind a column. A half-dozen llamas trotted around the corner of the house and passed in front of them. A young man in khaki shorts trotted with them, waving a short stick.

He waved at Frank. Frank waved back. "Hi, Ed.”

Caroline brushed her hand in front of her face as dust rose in a cloud. "Who was that?”

"Ed Thompson. Zoologist. Works for Blue.”

"Llamas aren’t endangered.”

"Blue sells them as exotic pets. There’s good money in llamas. He also sells miniature zebras.”

Caroline looked toward the pasture. The striped ponies, of course. "This place has everything,” she added grimly, "Including one giant Cajun turkey.”

"Gobble-gobble,” a deep voice said behind her.

She turned slowly, gazed up into cool blue eyes, and smiled. The man was as provocative as his home. "Well, if it isn’t Dr. Dolittle.”

If she sniffed one more time, he’d throw her out of his house on her designer-clad fanny.

She did it so delicately, barely making a sound. In fact, maybe the sniffing was his imagination. It was just the way she glided around beside him through the large, austere rooms, still wearing her sunglasses and scarf as if she were afraid of contamination. She kept her hands clasped behind her back.

She was conducting an inspection, and she made it obvious that his house wasn’t going to pass.

"Nice possibilities,” she said about the tall ceilings with their ornate molding.

"Great potential,” she said of the hardwood floors.

"Modern plumbing,” she noted of the kitchen. "Fascinating.”

That was the last straw. He turned toward her and uttered one earthy, concise word.

"I wouldn’t describe it as that bad,” she countered.

"If you don’t like it, get out.”

"There are cables and camera equipment all over the place. Every room but the kitchen is sprayed with fake cobwebs and dust. The furniture looks like rejects from a Victorian nightmare. Is the upstairs this way too?”

"The furniture was brought in for the movie. Upstairs is my domain. No one’s allowed up there. Especially you.”

She sighed elaborately. "And thus, where is my room?”

"Behind the kitchen.”

While she stared at his back in disbelief, he led her through the large, cheerful, amazingly clean kitchen to a tiny room with one window.

Caroline did a slow turn, taking in a twin-size metal bedstead and an ancient dresser.

"Is this the cook’s room? Is she on vacation, or did she break parole and go back to the comforts of prison?”

"There’s no cook.”

Her gaze stopped on the floor fan that sat atop the dresser. "There’s no air-conditioning!”

"Come back in five years. By then I might have a central unit installed.”

"There’s no phone!”

"Use the one in Frank’s trailer.” His blue gaze flickered down her body, pausing blatantly at her breasts and hips. "Since you and Frank are so close.”

Caroline had been considering setting fire to the drab little room in protest. Now she considered setting fire to Dr. Belue. His insulting once-over made her skin feel hot enough to scorch his throat when she strangled him. She pivoted on one heel and faced him, then whipped her glasses off and stared straight into his eyes. "Are you insinuating something?”

Blue smiled wickedly. The madder he made this Beverly Hills bunny, the sooner she’d leave. "You look like the type who wouldn’t have any scruples about married men.”

Her eyes narrowed. He was only trying to provoke her. He wanted to get rid of her. She had to keep remembering that. Caroline scanned his naked chest and all the territory below it with nonchalant approval. "Ah, yes, married men are what I crave. Too bad you’re single. Otherwise I’d seduce you.”

"You’d walk bowlegged for a week afterward.”

Caroline clasped a hand to her heart dramatically. She ignored the sensual loosening his words produced in her lower body. He was a volcano—unpredictable but fascinating. "How lovely. There must be dozens of bowlegged women around here.”

"Hundreds.”

"Hundreds of women with bad taste. Amazing.”

"Hundreds of women with dazed smiles.”

Caroline tsk-tsked, shaking her head. "You’ll have to forgive me for ignoring an opportunity to join their ranks. Nothing personal. It’s just that I prefer not to mate outside my species.”

"And you wouldn’t want to make Frank jealous.”

Her grim amusement faded and her voice became somber. "Frank respects you. How can you accuse him of cheating on his wife?”

He didn’t answer for a moment. Caroline felt bare as he looked deeply into her eyes.

"I’m not serious,” he admitted finally. "I just don’t understand why you took this job for him if you hate being here so much.”

"He’s been under a lot of pressure lately. Your manic-depressive wolf didn’t help his stress level any. He’s a good friend. He was almost my brother-in-law once upon a time.”

"Hmmm. In a lucid moment Frank’s brother realized his folly and broke the engagement?”

"He had severe diabetes. He died on his thirtieth birthday from a heart attack. Satisfied?”

He was silent for a moment, studying her shrewdly. "I apologize for doubting your sainthood.”

"Spare me the alligator tears.”

Her breath short, feeling a little light-headed from their intense conversation and her proximity to his half-naked body—didn’t the man own a shirt?—she twisted back toward the room and swung out a disparaging hand. "I really must have a bedroom upstairs. Something bigger. With air-conditioning.”

"You’re out of luck unless you want to sleep with me.”

"Perish the thought. I’d rather cuddle a tarantula.”

"I can get you one. I’ll leave it in your bed.”

Goose bumps scattered down her spine. She could feel him still gazing at her. At the scar, undoubtedly. "Seen enough?” she demanded, shifting with anger.

"The scar, yes? I think it’s interesting, yes. Dramatic. Not so ugly as you think.”

Shaken by his frankness and insight, she blinked quickly and retorted, "I’m not self-conscious about it. I’m twenty-six years old and I’ve had the scar most of my life. You startled me earlier, that’s all.” And for some insane reason, I wanted you to think I was beautiful, she added silently.

"So why do you try to hide it?”

"So that rude boobs won’t ask me how I got it.”

"I’ve already failed the rude-boob test, chère. How did you get it?”

"Look, doc, I’m not desperate to share my life story with you. I’m probably the first woman you’ve met who can’t be persuaded by your Cajun accent or your endearing little French terms. So cool the act.”

"This is the way I always talk, pichouette. You’re in Cajun territory now, and it’s nothing like the rest of the world. Get used to it.”

"Nothing like the rest of the world,” she echoed tersely. "Just clannish and backward.”

He grasped her forearms in a swift, angry attack, then lifted her to her tiptoes and stared down into her wide eyes. His expression was intense. "I’ll put you out of my house if I hear that kind of insult again.”

Her face pale, she pried his hands away and stepped back. "Apology offered. I’m not a snob. But just stay out of my way.”

With trembling hands Caroline jerked her scarf off and flung it on the bed. "I claim this barren territory in the name of civilization.”

She pointed to the door, giving him a stern look as she did. His eyes roamed over her hair and she knew it must be a crumpled mess from the scarf. Caroline resisted a near compulsive urge to straighten it. "Out, Dr. Dolittle,” she ordered. "Go get my luggage and leave it by the door. Don’t scratch it up. It cost a small fortune.”

He frowned at her imperious tone and started to make a pithy comment, but someone called his name at the front door. "I’ll be back,” he told her tersely.

"I shall alert the media,” she quipped in an English accent.

And the moment he got beyond the bedroom door, she slammed it.

Some people drank to forget their troubles, or ate too much, or developed other bad habits. Paul Belue played the accordion.

He sat on the edge of his bed in the moonlight, squeezing a somber tune, his large fingers pressing gracefully into the enamel buttons that substituted for piano keys. His music, like his heritage, was all Cajun. The button accordion was a well-loved part of both.

Dieu! Caroline Fitzsimmons would keep him up all night figuring out his emotions. She was a bossy, conceited, quick-tempered hellion, and he didn’t need to prove that he could tame that kind of woman.

He liked women; liked being friends with them, liked being nice to them and having them be nice in return. He was thirty-two years old and proud of the loving, long-term relationships he’d enjoyed thus far. There hadn’t been hundreds of women, or even dozens. In fact, he could count the number on his fingers and have fingers left over. Quality not quantity was his motto.

Nothing in his life had prepared him for this she-devil.

He’d given her the worst room in the house when he could have offered her something comfortable upstairs. He’d taken cruel delight in baiting her today.

Then she had removed her glasses and turned her fierce, mesmerizing gaze on him. Her eyes were green around the edges with sharply etched, nearly black perimeters. Near the pupils they were gold. He’d seen such strangely colored eyes in animals, but never in a human before.

And her hair, Dieu!Even disheveled and mashed from hours under the scarf, it was glorious. Straight and thick, it hung to her shoulders in a blunt cut. It drooped over her left brow in a provocative, sultry way. The color was like blush wine or rose-tinted gold.

He found himself feeling sympathy for her as he had the first time he saw the scar. His insinuation about Frank had really hurt her; the pain was obvious in her eyes. She wasn’t very good at hiding it. Perhaps that was another reason she favored sunglasses.

Now Paul uttered a few ugly descriptions of his own vulnerability. It was foolish to feel softhearted toward such a silly, self-centered dame. She had marched out of her room tonight to eat dinner with Frank and some of the cast members, pointedly excluding him from an invitation. She had looked like some sort of desert queen in a sensual dress of pastel silks.

She stopped by the kitchen table, stared rudely at his bowl of red beans and rice, then ordered him to have Wolf waiting for her first thing in the morning. She rolled her eyes when he told her that he’d turned Wolf loose in the forests for a day or two, as therapy. Wolf would come back sometime tomorrow, maybe. She called him irresponsible for letting Wolf roam.

She left hurriedly when he threatened to dump her into a bayou.

Paul shut his eyes and concentrated on his music until an odd thumping noise interrupted him. He paused to listen, tilting his head to one side. The old mansion was full of strange noises made by benign ghosts. But ghosts didn’t pound the ceiling downstairs.

He placed the location of the thumping and smiled broadly. The she-devil’s sticky, hot bedroom. She was undoubtedly having trouble sleeping, and his music didn’t help. She was sending him another of her orders: Be quiet.

Grinning, Paul played on, choosing a loud, raucous jig this time. Within a minute he heard footsteps on the long staircase to the second floor.

"Oh, no. Against the rules, chère,” he muttered aloud.

Carrying the accordion, he strode to his door, flung it open, and went down a wide hall. She crested the top of the stairs and stopped in the pool of light from a wall sconce. He stopped in the shadows.

"Quit playing that thing, will you?” she asked. "It sounds like a dying moose.”

Paul ignored her words and caught his breath at the smooth sensuality she radiated. Even in the dim light he could see her breasts moving swiftly against the thin material of her silky black pajamas. Her hair glistened with red and gold highlights. Her face was flushed with anger.

"I told you that upstairs is off limits to you Hollywood people,” he reminded her. "Don’t ever come up here again.”

"You have window air conditioners in three rooms up here,” she protested. "I walked around the house tonight and looked. "I want one of those rooms.”

"No. Not upstairs. You’re lucky that I let you stay downstairs.” He squeezed the accordion for emphasis. It produced a short, squawking, somewhat indecent noise. "Get back where you belong.”

"I’ll go when you put that damned accordion down.”

Smiling politely, Paul stepped into the light not more than five feet from her. He watched her eyes skim down his body. He watched them widen when she realized that he was wearing only the accordion, which he held at a crucial spot in front of him.

"Still want me to put it down, chère?” He pressed the accordion together slowly. It made a sound like a luscious sigh and revealed a good deal of his outer thighs and hips.

She lifted her chin and looked down her nose at him. She held her ground, he had to give her that.

"Oh, I see,” she noted sardonically. "This is a sexual fetish peculiar to Cajuns. Pardon me.”

He played several scales on the accordion, pressing and releasing it languidly between his large, sinewy hands while he gave her a lecherous smile. "Heh, heh, heh,” he chortled. "Us Cajuns call this a squeeze box. You have anything as good?”

"Not with pleats in it.” Looking unsettled, she grasped the front of her pajama top as if she were afraid he might burn it off with his gaze, then pivoted and stomped back downstairs.

Paul listened carefully until he heard her bedroom door slam shut. Then his rugged face contorted in discomfort. Reaching carefully between himself and the accordion, he began to disengage a thatch of curly black hair caught in the instrument’s brass trim. He’d nearly crushed a hard part of his anatomy that desperately wanted to like Caroline Fitzsimmons, even when she was meddling and giving orders.

This woman was going to cause him pain in more ways than one.

Frank and the movie’s director cranked up the cast and crew that day to shoot an outdoor scene that didn’t require Wolf’s presence.

Free to roam, Caroline investigated the plantation, meeting the staff and petting the animals. Ed invited her to play with the black-footed ferrets, a species that conservationists had barely rescued from extinction and were now trying to return safely to the wild.

She sat down in the middle of a large outdoor pen with a screened top, and immediately a dozen half-grown ferrets scampered over to her. Caroline laughed delightedly and spread her hands. Come, babies. I won’t hurt you.

The ferrets climbed up her arms and stretched out on her legs. One hung from the back of her oversize tangerine-color blouse, and another draped himself over the crown of her voluminous yellow sunhat.

Laughing, the sunhat mashed around her face like a collapsed buttercup, she didn’t notice when Paul walked up and gazed at her with astonishment.

This couldn’t be the same glitzy babe who’d showed up in a limo yesterday, he thought. But yes—even covered in ferrets she looked chic, clean, and cool, untouched by human hands. Her blouse was orange; her flared shorts were yellow, like her sandals and the silly hat she wore and the scarf she’d twisted around her throat as a necklace. He could almost drink her; she was a tequila sunrise, sweet with a punch.

Paul rubbed a grimy hand across his sore jaw. What a punch. He listened to her soft, carefree laugh and wondered what kind of magic the animals wrought on her. He couldn’t imagine her laughing like that around people.

She spotted him watching her, and her laughter faded. She lifted the brim of her hat, ferret and all, and squinted at him.

"You’re filthy,” she noted cheerfully, sweeping a jaunty gaze over his dusty jeans and T-shirt. His face and arms were streaked with dirt and sweat, and his hair was plastered to his head. She clucked her tongue in reproach. "Have you been wrestling with your conscience again?”

He was too tired to fight the she-cat, and the sound of her laughter had softened him in some way he didn’t understand. He shrugged and smiled at her. "Been wrestling with an injured antelope.”

"What happened to it?”

"Got its leg twisted in a fence. Tore ligaments. I operated on her a few days ago. She’s not doing too well. We can’t keep her off the leg without sedating her. If we sedate her, she won’t eat or drink. Today we moved her into a smaller stall, where she’d be forced to rest.” He paused, frowning distractedly at the scuff mark his work boot was making in the thick sawdust around the ferrets’ cage. "She’s one of only a dozen of her kind left in the world.”

"Dr. Bluebeard, Frank said that you traded a fancy racehorse practice in New Orleans for this hard-luck life. Why?”

"Priorities, chère. The world has enough racehorses. It has enough doctors who want to take care of them.” He gestured around him with one hand. "When I heard that this place was for sale in the parish where I grew up, I came back. It’s where I belong.”

"And you’ll do anything to keep the place running. Even put up with a movie crew.”

"You got it, orange blossom.”

"Frank said your wolf was doing great, and then one morning he just refused to cooperate.”

"He’s not used to so many people, that’s all.” Paul grimaced in disgust. "One of the actors bit him on the ear.”

"Kids can be—”

"Hell, I’m talking about the old guy who plays the hermit.”

"Frederick?”

"He was supposed to whisper in Wolf’s ear. In the script it says, ‘Silver Wolf listens with great concentration.’ Ol’ Fred, he used to be on some soap opera or something and he says he would bite actresses on the ear to make them pay attention. Before I could stop him he bit Wolf.”

"Oh, Lord. He bit a wolf? Did Wolf bite back?”

Paul looked proud. "Wolf’s too well trained for that. No, he got revenge later, though. It was classic. Bien!”

She cocked one elbow and pantomimed a leg raising and lowering. Paul chuckled. "Exactly. Fred the fireplug.”

They both laughed. Paul realized that he wasn’t supposed to like her enough to laugh with her, and she seemed to have the same thought. They stopped awkwardly. She cleared her throat.

"How did Frank hear about you and Wolf?”

"One of the networks did a feature about the wildlife preserve here. Frank saw Wolf when I was being interviewed. When he came up with a script and movie deal, I didn’t know how complicated it would make my life. I wish I didn’t need the money.”

Paul watched her pull the ferret off her hat and cup him in her arms, stroking his head. She was covered in the little animals, and they nuzzled her as if she were a long-lost friend. He’d never seen anything like it.

"What did you do?” he demanded, pointing at her. "Hide nuts in your clothes?”

She shrugged and looked away. "They probably just like my perfume or something.”

"Ah. Parfum de Nut.”

She glanced at him and smiled, her head tilted to one side. Damn, the woman almost looked sweet. "Can I see the antelope?” she asked abruptly. That snapped him back to reality. "No. No visitors.”

"I could help her, I’m sure.”

He bristled at her self-confident words. "You have a degree in veterinary medicine, yes?”

"Medicine can only go so far, doc. I use massage on injured or tense animals. They like it just as much as humans do.”

He stood hip-shot and leaned against the ferrets’ cage, eyeing her sardonically. "You have a license to massage antelopes, yes? You have training?”

"I’m self-trained, doc. There aren’t any schools for what I do.”

"Let me guess. Mommy and Daddy bought you a liberal arts degree at college, and you couldn’t get a real job with it.”

"Wrong, doc. My parents died when I was five. I was adopted by my father’s cousin and his wife. To put it mildly, we Weren’t the happiest family in the world, and I left home when I was seventeen. I never went to college.” She hesitated. "I didn’t even graduate from high school. But I’m damned good with animals. If you don’t let me help your antelope, you’re an idiot.”

His curiosity over her turbulent background was lost in annoyance. Paul bowed with mock gallantry. "Your lack of charm is exceeded only by your bad temper.”

Caroline watched him walk away and mentally rebuked herself for being so undiplomatic. He limped a little. Obviously the antelope had put up quite a battle with its three good legs. She told herself that she felt sorry for the antelope.

She left the ferrets’ cage and went in search of Ed. She found him inside the plantation’s aviary supervising two college interns in the feeding of baby birds.

"Quill sparrows,” Ed explained. "Development in the Florida Everglades has almost destroyed them.”

"Blue wants me to take a look at the injured antelope. He said you’d show me where she is.”

"Sure.”

An hour later Caroline walked out of the antelope’s stall, smiling. Her subterfuge had been worth it. The delicate little creature was calmly curled up in a plush bed of straw, munching from a pile of alfalfa hay. Miss Antelope understood what Paul was trying to do for her now. She’d cooperate. Dr. Blue had better appreciate that fact.

Caroline frowned. Even the antelope had air-conditioning.

Thank goodness for moonlight. It turned his dark bedroom into sharply etched shadows. She found her way to the air-conditioner easily.

Caroline knelt beside the humming unit and glanced fearfully at the large bed where Paul lay under nothing but a white sheet. He made a disturbing sight—large, prime, and extremely masculine, sprawled on his stomach with the sheet pulled low on his back and one long leg angled out.

He was a wild man. He undoubtedly slept naked.

Keep sleeping, she urged silently as she took a second to scan his room. The furniture was antique, and sparse; old rugs covered the hardwood floor; the tall windows were covered with thin white curtains. A set of doors opened onto the back balcony.

His bedstead was a huge, ornately carved contraption set high off the floor. How regal, she thought, a majestic antique befitting a barbarian king. Her throat dry, she stared at his sleeping form for a long moment. She was treading in the barbarian’s lair, and he was one savage beast who couldn’t be soothed by the psychic music of her mind. That realization was wildly challenging.

Caroline turned quickly to the air conditioner. She latched a hand around its electrical cord and worked her way down to the plug. She wiggled the plug away from the wall outlet and held her breath as the unit went silent.

Sweat, Dr. Doolittle, she ordered grimly but silently.

A few determined sawing motions with a kitchen knife neatly cut the cord in two. Caroline tucked the severed end into the waistband of her pajama bottoms and stood up.

Tiptoe like crazy, her nerves urged. Don’t look back. Go!

She had just reached the foot of the bed when his low, sinister voice floated off the pillow. "What do you think I should do in revenge, chère?”

Caroline jumped. The knife clattered to the floor. The cut electrical cord slithered down to the crotch of her pajamas. "Nothing, if you’re smart,” she answered as boldly as she could, considering that her knees were weak.

He turned over languidly, his broad torso looking very dark and imposing against the white sheets.

"Agree to give me an air-conditioned room and I’ll apologize,” she told him.

"You’ll apologize anyway.”

He swung his legs off the bed and tossed the sheet back. The moonlight covered him with teasing shadows, and he was definitely naked. He stood up and came around the corner of the bed toward her, his steps relaxed. He cleared his throat like a man just rising from a good night’s sleep, ran a hand through his hair, then held out his hand palm up. He was close enough to touch her if he wanted.

"My cord,” he demanded.

"My air conditioner,” she countered.

The sudden explosion of movement caught her off guard. He leapt forward, snagged her around the waist with one arm, and anchored a hand in the neck of her pajama top. Caroline felt the button straining under his grip.

"I’ll find my cord,” he explained.

Then the button and all its fellow buttons went flying into the darkness. Her top hung open, baring a swathe of her naked skin to the room’s cool air.

Caroline burst into action, stamping on his toes and swinging at him wildly. He grabbed her in both arms and pinned her against his body. "The cord, mademoiselle,” he said calmly.

"Bastard! This is assault!”

"I’m holding you, not assaulting you. You’re a trespasser. You’re also a thief.”

She grew still, her chest heaving with anxiety and the humiliation of being intimately clamped against his naked body. Her shirt had fallen back so that her breasts were against him, her nipples burrowing into his thick chest hair. His face was a mysterious shadow above her, but she could imagine the gleam of satisfaction in his eyes.

"Well, chère, at least I know where the cord is not. Let’s see if it’s down south.” He rotated his hips against her slowly, and his growing hardness was unmistakable. "Ah! I feel something unique. Have you ever considered joining a freak show?”

"All right, you win,” she whispered hoarsely, her body burning. At the moment she wanted nothing more than to get away from the scent and heat of him. It was impossible to feel him against her and not want him. The thought was a basic admission of the sexual energy that had tinted every word, gesture, and look between them since the moment he’d opened the limousine’s door.

She had known all along that she wanted him. She just hadn’t known it so desperately.

"Take it out,” he ordered. "Drop it on the floor.”

Caroline swallowed harshly. Her nipples were stiff against his chest; his shallow breathing gave evidence that he felt the contact as much as she did.

"You mean the cord, I assume,” she taunted.

"Anything else you find will be much bigger.” His voice was a low rumble. "And it’ll be connected to me.”

"I’ll be certain not to bother it.”

"No bother.”

She wedged her hand between their stomachs and worked it into her pajama bottoms. Caroline was so preoccupied with her mission that she leaned forward without noticing, and her forehead brushed the tip of his nose. She turned her face to one side, her breath rattling in her throat.

"Keep that thing out of my way,” she muttered.

"Big nose, big... ”

"Okay, okay, I believe the analogy.”

Oh, how she believed it. The back of her hand pressed against him as she grasped the cord trapped between her thighs. She trembled and shut her eyes. Even more disastrous, he trembled.

"I don’t know why I want you, you hellion,” he whispered, "but I do.” Despite his words his voice was gentle.

Caroline groaned. Trembling and gentleness were unfair weapons. She made her voice hard. "A little gratuitous sex, doc?”

"Shhh. I wouldn’t take you to bed even if you asked me to.”

Her head tilted back. She gazed up at him, open-mouthed. "That’s the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

"Our circumstances don’t make for much friendship, eh, chère?”

"Eh, no.”

"Well, as much as I’d enjoy sharing my bed with you, I won’t do it. I don’t like to be used by strangers, no.”

She was fascinated. It was either the best line in the world or she’d stumbled upon an incredible man. "I don’t like to be used by strangers either,” she murmured, her voice catching. "I’ve spent most of my life avoiding it.”

"Poor Caroline.” He brushed his lips across her scar.

The gesture was so disarming that a soft sound of anguish escaped from her throat.

"Poor Caroline,” he whispered again, pulling her tighter against him.

With movements that made them both shiver again, she drew the electrical cord from her pajama bottoms and dropped it on the floor. "I don’t want your pity,” she said in a raspy voice. "I hate it.”

"Shhh. So defensive.” He nuzzled her face and kissed her on the mouth.

It was a slow, easy kiss, as erotic as the warm night and full of promise. But there were no promises between them. There were only differences, distances, and a past that she couldn’t forget. Yet he was so incredibly desirable.

Tears slipped down her face even as she kissed him back, touching the tip of her tongue to his. Then choking sobs rose in her throat and she had to twist her mouth away in order to breathe.

He continued to hold her, his breath warm on her face while she cried with jerky little coughs.

"Maybe we could be friends, eh?” he offered by way of sympathy, and she heard the bewilderment in his voice. "We could try, yes?”

"No. Oh, n-no. We’re safer as enemies.” She pushed against his hold. "Let me go, Blue. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

He nearly released her, but his hand snaked around one wrist and kept her from backing away completely. He reached out and pulled her torn pajama top closed. Then he stroked her hair for a moment and ran his fingers over her scar.

"Don’t touch it,” she protested, whipping her head away.

"You’re vulnerable there,” he said gruffly. "It makes you feel helpless. But you confuse pity with compassion. Here. Feel.”

He took her hand and drew it to the back of his neck. Caroline’s fingers slipped across his warm, smooth skin until they reached a horrible swathe of raised tissue.

"Oh, God, Blue, so that’s why you keep your hair long. What happened?”

"You tell me about yours, I’ll tell you about mine.” He glanced down at himself. "But first I’ll cover the happy warrior here with a robe.”

Caroline couldn’t resist looking down too. Her eyes were attached to a willful part of her brain that had to see what she was going to miss.

She was going to miss quite a lot.

"No, don’t,” she said quickly, stepping farther away from him and fixing her gaze on his face. "I mean, I’m going back to my room. I really don’t want to talk about my scar.” She inhaled raggedly. "I don’t want to be friends with you. It’s too complicated.”

"Life is simple at Grande Rivage, chère. You have only to give it a chance.”

"No.” Shaking her head almost desperately, she made a wide arc around him and headed to the door. She opened it and paused, looking back at him. He was a tall, inviting mixture of shadows.

"Get some sleep,chère,” he called. "Tomorrow I’ll put an air conditioner in your window. Then you won’t have to sneak into my room and pretend not to like me.”

Strangling on self-rebuke for all the misery and confusion she’d brought on herself through a dumb prank, she stepped into the hallway and slammed his door shut.







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