The stars were dull tonight, set against a backdrop of smoky gray. A thin slice of moon scarred the dark underbelly of the sky, casting elongated shadows on the walls. Rebecca softly padded down the stairs, careful not to wake the children. She’d quickly come to appreciate these precious hours between dusk and midnight. An unnatural hush hovered over the house, a lulling mist, almost loud in its stillness.
She found Zach in the den, which Liam had converted into a home office. He sat at the desk, his face illuminated only by the flicker of the computer screen and the pale, silver sheen of moon and stars. For a moment she absorbed the sight of him. Admired the way the fluorescent light caressed him, the way it softened the creases around his mouth and dulled the worry lines permanently etched between his brows. In that instant before he realized she was there, the years fell away. He looked exactly like the boy she’d fallen in love with a lifetime ago.
Then he turned to gaze at her, and the illusion of innocence faded into the night as surely as did any remnants of the dying sun. Before her sat a man hardened by life, no stranger to loss or pain, yet somehow graced with the strength to rise above it.
“I thought you’d gone to bed,” he said.
“It’s barely nine o’clock.”
His glance darted back to the screen. “Is it? It feels later.”
“Probably because you’re exhausted.” She fought the urge to bridge the distance between them and massage his shoulders as she would have done so effortlessly in the past. She no longer had the right to touch him, and that only heightened her desire to do so.
“What are you up to?” she asked instead.
“I told Noah I’d put a photo album together. Have some prints made. I’ve already sent some shots off to Wal-Mart. Now I’m downloading the files onto Noah’s iPod. I figure he’ll like having access to them whenever he’s missing his parents, which I’m guessing is pretty much all the time.”
A warm, languid feeling unfurled silky wings beneath her breastbone. “That’s a great idea. I’m sure it will please him.”
“He’s hurting, Becca.” His eyes fastened onto hers, deep and dark and troubled. “He’s hurting but he refuses to let it show. And it’s killing him.”
“Why does he keep it all inside?” If anyone could answer that question, it would be Zach.
He shook his head. “I wish I knew. Something’s eating him up—I can tell. But he doesn’t trust me enough yet to tell me what it is.”
“Give it time.” She walked toward him, buried her hands in her pant pockets to keep from sliding her palms over his wide shoulders and down the length of his sinewy arms. “He just lost his parents.”
“I know.” He bent his head forward and rubbed his eyelids to wipe the stress away. “Damn it, I know. I just feel so useless.”
“You can’t fix everything, Zach.” Losing the battle, she brought her fingers to his temple. Spiky threads of black twined with silver to scrape her fingertips. Something sparked in his gaze, dark and hot and gripping. It shocked her, branded her flesh with the force of an electrical charge, and she withdrew her hand.
“Some things just have to run their course,” she added in an effort to distract herself. “There’s no magic cure for grief. Every heart heals at its own pace.”
She took a step away from him, but he clasped her hand. The heat of those long, strong fingers wrapped around hers seeped into her system, a startling surge that flooded her chest.
“Has yours healed, Becca?”
She tried to pry her hand from his, but he refused to release her. She had no choice but to look into his beautiful face as her traitorous heart continued to tap-dance against her ribcage. Pretense fell away. All that remained was honesty. “I don’t know. I didn’t believe it ever would. But today I did something I never thought I’d have the courage to do. I shopped for the kids.
“I walked into the children’s section, looked at all those adorable little outfits, and you know what? I didn’t fall apart. So who knows? Maybe it will. Maybe it already has.”
He wanted to believe her. She could tell by the flicker of interest in his eyes, by the glimmer of hope that struggled to break through.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he whispered.
Oh, that was low. So low. Those simple words tangled up her insides until she felt as if a contortionist had crawled into her abdomen to perform his tricks. She’d never been very good at resisting him, but when he looked at her that way, when his voice took on that silky quality, all her defenses collapsed and left her needy, completely at his mercy.
He leaned forward, drew her closer. His thumb stroked the underside of her wrist. For one thunderous heartbeat she forgot herself and narrowed the distance between them. She still remembered the intoxicating feel of his mouth on hers, secretly hungered to taste it again. And here he was, so close, glazed by starlight and watching her with a glittering intensity that flattened her resolve and made her belly ache.
Then, like a sudden draft sweeping in to banish the heat, he severed all physical contact, and the insanity melted away.
“The kids need a woman around.”
She was a fool. An honest-to-God fool. How many times did she have to get rejected before she learned her lesson?
She walked to the window, desperate to place a safe distance between her and the man who’d been toying with her heart ever since she’d been unlucky enough to grow boobs. “Glad to help.” She sounded bitter, but she didn’t care. She was tired of pining after Zach Ryler.
“Did you get the dog settled in?” He stood, placed his hands on his lower back, and stretched. The thin cotton fabric of his black T-shirt reached across his chest, outlining every delicious muscle. Long, lean, jean-clad legs just begged to be noticed.
Refusing to give them the satisfaction, she looked away. “I made a nice little area for him downstairs, but I think he prefers my bed.”
“Can’t say that I blame him.”
She pinned him with a startled gaze.
“Who wouldn’t prefer a soft mattress to a hard floor?” he clarified.
“For your information, I made him a bed. He’s just being difficult. Luckily, I’m used to dealing with difficult males.”
“You’ve known quite a few of them, have you?” Was that a note of jealousy she caught in his voice? Had he spent the last two years wondering, the way she had, who was warming her bed at night?
She was tempted to put him out of his misery and tell him Bolt was the first since he’d left her, but revenge was far too sweet. “Wouldn’t you just love to know?”
A cryptic smile curved her lips at the proprietary look that fell to darken his features. Maybe he did care after all. Or maybe he didn’t like the idea of someone else taking what was his. Some men were like that. Even though they didn’t want a woman, they hated the thought of anyone else having her.
She glanced past the glass at the hazy sky. Boiling clouds smothered the stars, bringing with them the promise of rain. Come to think of it, the air itself smelled musty, cool and damp as it trickled in to fill her lungs.
“Looks like it’s going to rain,” she said, hoping to pierce the sudden silence that enveloped them.
He came to stand behind her, leaned over her shoulder and stole a glimpse of what lay beyond the window. Energy surged between them, made her skin prickle and a shiver glide along her spine. Swallowing a sigh, she embraced herself and rubbed away the stubborn goose bumps that had risen to pebble her flesh.
He moved in closer and slid his hands up her arms. “Are you cold?” His touch enfolded her like a pocket of sunshine, set off tiny explosions along her nerve endings. She closed her eyes and sank into it, powerless to resist its lure. Her back sought support from his chest as a thrilling current swept in to fuse their bodies together. He was hard and warm and familiar. He was everything she’d ever wanted and everything she could never have.
The sharp pain that lanced through her brought her back to her senses. She jerked out of his arms and nearly sped out of the room. “I should get some work done now that the kids are asleep.” She sounded winded.
“Don’t stay up too late. I know how you get when you start writing.”
She edged to the door, reluctance pulling at her heels. It would have been so easy to stay here with him and let the memories devour her. So easy to fall right back into that old destructive pattern, full of fire and quiet desperation, rapture and heartache.
His loneliness sang to her, beat in perfect tune with her own, but she didn’t allow its lovely strains to seduce her. She left him standing at the window, surrounded by navy blue shadows, with only the suffocating moon to light his face.
The harbor shivered, and from its depths a figure sprang. She walked toward him, bathed in starlight, her body glistening, her hair streaming wet and wild down her back.
Zach’s next breath snagged in his throat.
A siren, he thought. A mythical creature rising from the sea to seduce him.
His lungs felt crushed, deprived of air. The walls of his throat narrowed as an electrical charge pulsed across his nerve endings.
Then he realized the siren was Becca. She’d gone for an evening swim. She loved swimming at night because the water was always warmer then. Shadows played along her curves, making her hips rounder, her stomach flatter, her breasts fuller. Her hair was a deep bronze, her skin a translucent ivory in the pale light of the moon.
His body instantly responded to the sight of her, hardening, aching, until he couldn’t remember why he’d vowed to keep his hands off her. None of it seemed to matter anymore.
She grabbed a towel from the porch railing and swathed it around her figure, and it took all of his self-control to bite back the protest that scratched at his throat.
“I was wondering where you disappeared to,” he muttered instead. His voice sounded gruff.
“After I tucked Noah and Kristen in, I decided to go for a swim. You were busy with Will, and I can always use the exercise.” She lowered her body next to his, smelling of the sun and the sea. Water dripped from her hair. Rivulets trickled over her shoulders and slid down her arms.
Unable to stop himself, he captured one of the drops with the back of his index finger. It was cool against her warm skin, silky. Their gazes locked, and awareness sizzled between them.
“Did Will go to sleep okay?” Her question pierced the cloud of lust enveloping him.
“Yeah.” He let his hand fall away before he was tempted to explore more of her. “He was exhausted after all that crying.”
“Not to mention all that fun in the sun.” A hazy smile ghosted across her lips. “We had a pretty full day. The kids were really excited, weren’t they?” The tenderness on her face shook him. It was the same look Lindsay always used to get whenever she spoke of the kids.
He eyed her steadily. An image of her playing in the waves with the pack earlier today flashed through his mind. “You’re really something with them.” He couldn’t suppress the note of wonder in his voice. “I never expected it.”
She gave a self-deprecating chuckle. “Half the time—correction, most of the time—I feel like I’m in way over my head.” Bolt ambled onto the porch to sit beside her, and she stroked him absently. Zach’s gaze was drawn to the gentle rhythm of her fingers as she threaded them through the dog’s lustrous coat. He remembered how those hands had felt on his body when she’d massaged him last night, the way they’d twined in his hair and chased the tension from his limbs.
“But I understand them. Understand how they feel,” she added, oblivious to the dangerous path his thoughts were taking. “I get Noah’s anger, Kristen’s totally delusional hope, Will’s tantrums.”
Zach made a sound that was half laugh, half snort. “At least one of us does.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself as usual. You’re great with them. I can see how much they look up to you.”
“That’s because I’m tall.”
Her heartfelt laughter filled the night. God, he’d missed hearing her laugh. The sound of it made a strange energy pulsate in his pores and burrow deep within the marrow of his bones. It took all his self-control not to reach out and touch her again. Instead, he clasped his hands together and let them hang between his knees.
“Can you answer a question for me?” He stared at his joined fingers, unable to look her in the eyes for fear of what he would see there.
“When I suggested adoption, why did you refuse? I thought maybe you believed you couldn’t love a child that wasn’t biologically ours. But now that I see you with these kids I can’t help but wonder—”
“You thought I couldn’t love a child I didn’t give birth to?” She sounded offended.
He ventured a glance in her direction. Even in the dark he couldn’t miss the indignation that flamed in her cheeks.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he answered honestly. “You were so set against it.”
“Because I was angry. Because if I couldn’t have what I wanted, then I wanted nothing at all. It was the injustice of it, the unfairness. Why should I be deprived the joy of feeling my child grow inside me when it came so naturally to everyone else? Adoption felt like acceptance, like throwing in the towel.”
“Would that have been so bad?”
“At the time, yes.”
She hesitated. The light breeze lifted her wet curls from her shoulders, sent them rioting around her face. “It doesn’t really matter anymore,” she whispered. “The choice is no longer mine to make.” He barely heard her past the whoosh of the waves.
“That sounds oddly like acceptance.”
“Maybe it is. Even I have to give up sometime.” Her inflection held a hint of amusement, but he wasn’t buying the flippancy.
“Is that what this feels like to you, giving up?”
She was quiet for a long time. The waxing moon haloed her head and made her eyes sparkle like liquid gold.
“No,” she answered with more conviction than he’d expected. “It feels like family.”
Vulnerability sparkled in her eyes, more potent than her glistening skin, her clingy swimsuit, the small towel wrapped around her breasts and hips. Zach lost the battle and extended his hand to cup her face. Her skin was soft, an odd blend of velvet and satin. It tickled his palm as a strange current traveled up his arm and thrummed along his flesh.
He never should have allowed himself to touch her. Now the need to kiss her blinded him. It was a physical ache, sharp and insistent. She turned her cheek into his palm, moved closer…