That certainly got David's attention. He looked from one of us to the other with indiscreet interest.
"I'm afraid all I'm going to be able to do," I said to Hardy briskly, "is take you on an initial walk-through so you can get an idea of what the apartment looks like. I'm not a leasing agent, so Samantha's the only one who can answer your questions definitively."
"I'm sure you'll be able to answer any questions I've got."
We went to the elevator, and a pair of women walked out, one older, one around my age. They looked like a mother and daughter heading out to do some shopping. As I got into the elevator and turned to face out, I saw that both women had glanced back for a better look at Hardy.
I had to admit, the man looked amazing in jeans. The ancient denim clung lightly to his h*ps and followed the long lines of some remarkable thigh muscles. And although I made a point of not checking out his rear view, my peripheral vision was having a very good day.
I pushed the button for the eighteenth floor. As the elevator whooshed up, we occupied separate corners.
Hardy studied me with frank interest. His blue cashmere sweater lay softly over the hard lines of his torso. "I appreciate you taking some time out for me today, Miss Travis."
I decided we had to go on a first-name basis. He'd started to say "Miss Travis" with a touch of overdone respect that bordered on mockery. "You can call me Haven," I muttered.
"Haven," he repeated. The sound of my name in that melted-tar drawl gave me a pang of uneasy pleasure.
"What are you doing here?" I asked tersely. "Are you really interested in this condo?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"I saw your address on the prequalification form. You're at Post Oak right now. I don't see why you'd want to move from there."
"I'm only leasing that place," he said evenly. "I haven't bought it. And I like this location better."
I narrowed my eyes. "You know who used to live in this apartment, right?"
"Your brother and sister-in-law. So what?"
"So I think there's something weird about you wanting to move into Gage and Liberty's old place."
"You got another apartment available, I'll look at that one too."
We stepped out of the elevator into the H-shaped layout of corridors, all serene in varying shades of cream and gray. I turned to face Hardy, the air between us nearly crackling with challenge. "Eighteen hundred Main isn't that much better than Post Oak," I said. "In fact, in terms of bang for the buck, you're probably better off staying where you are."
Hardy lifted a brow, looking amused. "Are you trying out some new kind of sales tactic on me?"
"No. I'm wondering what your ulterior motive is."
"What's your best guess?"
I stared straight into those fathomless eyes. "I think you've got some leftover hang-up about my sister-in-law."
Hardy's smile fled. "You're way off on that one, honey. We never even slept together. I wish Liberty all the best, but I don't want her that way." He stepped closer, not touching me, but I felt like he was just about to . . . well, I didn't know what. I felt a nervous chill chase down my back. "So take another guess," he said. "You can't keep me out of here if you can't come up with a good reason for it."
I stepped back from him and took a shaky breath. "You're a hell-raiser," I said. "That's a pretty good reason."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "I got all that out of my system in my twenties."
"You look like you've still got some left in you."
"No, ma'am. I'm completely tame."
I had an inkling of what he must have been like as a naughty schoolboy, trying to convince his teacher of his innocence. And his sneaky charm was so irresistible that I had to turn away to hide a smile. "Sure you are," I said, leading him to the apartment.
Stopping at the door, I began to punch numbers into the combination touch pad. I was suffused with an intense awareness of Hardy, so big and solid beside me. There was that scent again, insanely distracting.
I punched the last button, barely aware of what I was doing. Although I had used the combination pad a thousand times while I'd stayed there with Gage and Liberty, I must have hit a wrong number. Instead of clicking open, the lock emitted a series of beeps.
"Sorry," I said breathlessly, trying to look anywhere but at him.
"I pushed the wrong buttons. When that happens, It takes a few seconds to clear and reset. You can change the combination to any number you — "
"Haven," he said quietly, and waited until I could bring myself to look up at him.
I gripped the door handle as if hanging on for dear life. I had to clear my throat before I could make a sound. "Wh-what?"
"Why do I make you so nervous?" His voice was soft, reaching inside me to a raw, tender place. A mocking smile touched his lips. "You afraid I'm going to make a move on you?"
I couldn't answer. I can't stand this, I thought desperately. Heat washed over me, color layering on color. My heart worked in painful beats. All I could do was stare at Hardy without blinking, my back pressing against the door while he bent over me. He moved closer, imparting the pressure of his body until I felt the touch of hard muscle in several places at once. I closed my eyes, mortified by the rapid gusts of my breathing.
"Then let's get it over with," Hardy murmured, "so you'll stop worrying."
His dark head bent. He eased his mouth over mine. I put my fists between us, my arms clasped over my chest in a tight blockade. I couldn't make myself push him away, but neither could I let him hold me full-on. His arms went around me, the embrace firm but gentle, as if he were being mindful not to crush me. Our breath mingled, heat surging in restless rhythms.
His mouth shifted, catching at my top lip, then the lower one, opening them. Every time I thought the kiss might stop, it went on longer, deeper, and the back of my throat tingled as if I were being fed something sweet. I felt the silken stroke of his tongue . . . a soft taste . . . another . . . I went weak against him, dissolving in sensation.
His tenderness disarmed me until I almost forgot about the knot of fear in my stomach. I stood there breathing him, feeling him . . . but he was all around me, he could overpower me so easily if he chose. I couldn't handle feeling that defenseless, no matter how gentle he was. Turning my mouth away from his, I broke the kiss with a whimper.
Hardy's lips grazed the top of my head, and he released me slowly. He looked down at me, blue heat in his eyes.
"Now show me the apartment," he whispered.
Purely by luck — I couldn't yet pull a coherent thought from my brain — I managed to dial the right combination and open the door.
Since I wasn't certain how far I could walk without staggering, I let Hardy do his own exploring. He wandered through the three-bedroom apartment, checking out the finishes, the appliances, the views from every room. In the main living area, a wall of nothing but windows revealed a spectacular view of Houston, the unzoned city sprawling outward in a mix of offices and strip malls and mansions and shacks, the cheap and the great mingling freely.
Watching Hardy's long, lean form silhouetted against those windows, I thought the apartment suited him. He wanted to show people he'd arrived. And you couldn't blame him for that. In Houston, if you wanted a place at the table, you had to have the clothes, the cars, the high-rise apartment, the mansion. The tall blond wife.
Needing to break the silence, I finally found my voice. "Liberty told me you used to work on a drilling rig." I leaned against the kitchen counter as I watched him. "What did you do?"
He glanced at me over his shoulder. "Welder."
No wonder, I thought, and I didn't realize I'd said it aloud until he replied.
"No wonder what?"
"Your . . . your shoulders and arms," I said, abashed.
"Oh." He turned to face me, his hands still tucked in his pockets. "Yeah, they usually get the bigger guys to do the onboard welding, the stuff they can't do in shore-based shops. So I had to carry a seventy-pound power-con all around the rig, up and down stairs and ladders . . . that whips you into shape real fast."
"A power-con is some kind of generator?"
He nodded. "The newer models are built with the handles farther apart, so two people can carry them. But the older version, the one I had to lug around, could only be carried by one guy. Hell, my muscles would get so sore . . ." He grinned and rubbed the back of his neck, as if recalling long-ago discomforts. "You should have seen the Other rig welders. They made me look puny."
"I honestly can't imagine that," I said.
His smile lingered as he approached me, coming to lean on the other side of the counter.
"Did you like being a rig welder?" I asked hesitantly. "I mean, was it what you wanted to do?"
"I wanted to do anything that would get me out of Welcome."
"That's the town you grew up in?"
He nodded. "Blew out one of my knees playing football — so no chance of a scholarship. And in Welcome, if you don't make it to college, your options are limited. I knew how to weld, from my fence work. It didn't take much to get certified. And I had a buddy who worked as a rig roustabout he told me the welders made-eighty bucks an hour."
"Did you ever think you'd go on to . . . this?" I gestured at the gleaming, pristine apartment around us.
"No," Hardy said at once. " I never imagined I — " But as he stared into my eyes, he paused. It seemed as if he were weighing the consequences of his words, wondering how I'd react if he told me the truth. "Yeah, I knew," he finally said, his voice soft. "I always knew I'd do whatever it took. Living in a trailer park, running in a pack of barefoot kids . . . my whole life was already set out for me, and I sure as hell didn't like the looks of it. So I always knew I'd take my chance when I got it. And if it didn't come, I'd make something happen."
As I began to comprehend what a tremendous drive he possessed, I was surprised by the hint of something like shame or defensiveness secreted deep in the quiet admission. "Why does it make you uncomfortable to admit you're ambitious?"
He gave me an arrested glance, as if it were a question he'd never been asked before. A wary pause, and then he said, "I learned to keep quiet about it early on. Folks make fun of you otherwise."
"It's like crabs in a box." Seeing my incomprehension, he explained, "You can keep a bunch of crabs in a shallow container, and none of them will escape. Because as soon as one of 'em tries to climb out, the others pull him back in."
We faced each other directly, our forearms resting on the counter between us. It felt too close, too strong, as if some incinerating current had opened between us. I pulled back and looked away, breaking the connection.
"What did you do in Dallas?" I heard him ask.
"I worked at a hotel for a little while. Then I stayed at home for about a year."
Hardy's eyes held a mocking glint. "Doing what? Being a trophy wife?"
Since I would have died before ever letting him know the truth, I said casually, "Yes. It was pretty boring."
"Is that why your marriage ended? You got bored?"
"More or less." Reading his expression, I said rather than asked, "You think I'm spoiled, don't you?"
He didn't bother to deny it. "I think you should have married someone who could have done a better job keeping you entertained."
"I should never have gotten married at all," I said. "I'm not cut out for it."
"You never know. You may want to give it another try someday." I shook my head. "No man will ever have that power over me again."
The barest trace of contempt crept into his voice. "You had all the power, sweetheart. You're a rich man's daughter."
Of course. That was how it looked from the outside. No one could know that I'd had no power at all, over anything.
"The entire subject of marriage is boring," I said. "Especially mine. And I'd rather you not call me 'sweetheart.'" I walked out from behind the counter, my arms folded across my chest. "What do you think about the apartment?"
"I like it."
"A lot of space for a single guy, isn't it?"
"I grew up in a family of five living in a single-wide. After that, I can handle a lot of space."
I tried to remember what Liberty had told me about his family. "Two brothers and a sister, right?"
" Yes. Rick, Kevin, and Hannah." A shadow crossed his face. "My sister died last year from breast cancer. Fought it real hard. Double mastectomy, four months of chemo. She went to M. D. Anderson . . . I 'd have taken her anywhere in die world, but everyone said that was the best place. Near the end they put her on Arimidex, which she said was worse than the chemo. Nothing stopped the tumor markers from going up."
"I'm sorry." I wanted to convey how much I understood, even the things he hadn't said. I found myself moving toward him, now leaning on the same side of the counter as he was. "I know what it's like to lose someone that way. My mother died of breast cancer too. Except she never went through the chemo. They caught it too late. She was at stage four with lung dissemination. Mother chose to have a shorter, better quality of life, as opposed to dragging it out and going through all the surgery and treatments, which wouldn't have worked anyway."
"How old were you?" he asked gently.
Staring at me, he reached out to stroke back my bangs, which had fallen over one eye. "Haven . . . tell me not to take the apartment, and I won't. Otherwise, I want it. It's up to you."
My eyes widened. "I . . . I . . . your decision has nothing to do with me. Don't make me part of it."
"Would it bother you if I lived here?"
"Of course not," I said, a little too quickly.
He smiled lazily. "I'm not a man of many talents . . . but the few I've got are good ones. One of them being, I can always tell when someone's lying to me."
I had no choice but to admit the truth. "Okay. It might bother me a little."
He was good at throwing me off balance. I could feel my pulse kicking up with agitation. I didn't know what it was about Hardy that broke through my defenses. Damn, he was wily. Aggressive, pushy, but smart enough to cover it with easy charm. He was ten times the man Nick was, and he was just too much, too much in every way. If I ever let him close to me, I would deserve whatever I got, and the results wouldn't be pretty.