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Page 19

“Maybe I wanted to catch you,” he said.

Maggie made a nervous sound of amusement, betraying how thoroughly she’d been caught off guard. He felt the subtle kneading pressure of her fingers, like a cat testing a new surface. But she gave no indication of what she wanted, made no movement toward or away, just stood in helpless waiting.

He moved back and guided her off the step, and led the way into the warm glow of the kitchen.

Sam had finished his wine and was pouring another. “Maggie,” he said fondly, as if they had known each other for years. “My wingman.”

She laughed. “Can a woman be a wingman?”

“Women are the best wingmen,” Sam assured her. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

She shook her head. “Thanks, but I have to get back home. My dog needs to be let out.”

“You have a dog?” Mark asked.

“I’m fostering him, actually. I have a friend who runs an animal rescue program on the island, and she talked me into taking care of him until she can find him a forever home.”

“What breed is he?”

“A bulldog. He’s got everything that can go wrong with a bulldog—bad joints, an underbite, skin allergies, wheezing…and to top it all off, Renfield has no tail. It was an inverted corkscrew and had to be amputated.”

“Renfield? After Dracula’s bug-eating henchman?” Mark asked.

“Yes, I’m trying to make a virtue of his ugliness. In fact, I think there’s something sort of noble about it. Renfield has no idea how hideous he is…he expects to be loved anyway. But some people can’t even bring themselves to pet him.” Her eyes sparkled, and a rueful grin crossed her face. “I’m getting desperate. I may end up being stuck with him.”

Mark stared at her in fascination. She had a quality of uncalculated niceness that was as seductive as it was endearing. She wore the look of a woman who was meant to be happy, who loved generously, who would care for a dog that no one else wanted.

He remembered Maggie telling him that after what she’d gone through with her husband’s death, she had nothing left to give. But the truth was, she had too much to give.

Sam had gone forward to drape an arm around her shoulders. “You saved a life tonight,” he told her.

“Holly’s life was never in danger,” Maggie said.

“I meant mine.” Sam grinned at Mark. “You realize, of course, that one of us is going to have to marry her.”

“Neither of you is my type,” Maggie said, and a startled giggle escaped her as Sam dipped her, Valentino-style.

“You fill the empty void in my soul,” Sam told her ardently.

“If you drop me,” she said, “you’re toast.”

As Mark watched their clowning, he was suffused with jealousy. They were so at ease with each other, so comfortable—instant friends. And Sam’s playful faux-wooing seemed a mockery of Mark’s feelings toward Maggie.

“She needs to get home,” he told his brother curtly.

Hearing the edge in his tone, Sam shot him an astute glance, and his smile widened. He brought Maggie upright, gave her a quick hug, and retrieved his wine-glass. “My brother will walk you out to your car,” he informed her. “I would offer, but I don’t want to lose my drinking momentum.”

“I can find my own way out,” Maggie said.

Mark accompanied her anyway.

They went out into the November night, the black-violet sky smudged by clouds, the air crisp and cold-bitten. Gravel gnawed at the soles of their shoes as they walked to Maggie’s car.

“I have something to ask you,” Mark said as they reached the vehicle.

“Yes?” she asked warily.

“What do you think about dropping the dog off with us tomorrow morning? He could spend the day with Holly. Maybe run a few errands with me. We’d take good care of him.”

It was too dark to see Maggie’s expression, but surprise laced through her voice. “Really? I’m sure Renfield would love it. But you wouldn’t want to be seen with him.” They stood beside the car, facing each other in the ghostly smudge of light that came from the kitchen windows. Mark’s vision adjusted to the shadows. “Honestly, it’s embarrassing taking Renfield anywhere,” Maggie continued. “People stare. They ask if he had a run-in with a weed whacker.”

Did she think he was intolerant? Narrow-minded? That his standards were so high that he couldn’t handle, even for a day, the company of a creature who was less than perfectly attractive? Hell, had she gotten a good look at the house he lived in?

“Bring him,” Mark said simply.

“Okay.” A little puff of amusement, and then Maggie sobered. “You were supposed to spend the weekend with Shelby.”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t she come back with you?”

“She wanted to stay for her cousin’s engagement party.”

“Oh.” Her voice lost its underpinnings. “I…I hope there’s no problem.”

“I wouldn’t call it a problem. But it’s not looking good for us right now.”

An unfathomable silence passed. Then, “But you’re so right for each other.”

“I don’t know that being right for each other is always the best foundation for a relationship.”

“Being wrong for each other is?”

“Well, it gives you a lot to talk about.”

Maggie chuckled. “All the same, I hope it works out for you.” Turning to the car, she opened the door and tossed her handbag inside. She faced him again, her hair backlit from the interior lights of the dash.

“Thanks for taking care of Holly,” Mark said quietly. “It means a lot to me. I hope you know that if you ever need anything, I’ll be there for you. Anything at all.”

Her expression was soft. “You’re very sweet.”

“I’m not sweet.”

“Yes, you are.” Impulsively she stepped forward to give him a hug, the way she had with Sam.

Mark’s arms went around her. At last he knew the feeling of Maggie pressed all against him, br**sts, hips, legs, her head against his chest, her weight balanced on her toes. They stayed together, compact and close, and began to let go at the same time.

But there was a shock of stillness, no longer than a heartbeat. And then in a motion that seemed as natural and inevitable as the inrush of a tide, they pulled together in another, even fuller embrace, securing more pressure, more heat. Every part of him strained for deeper contact. He pressed his face into her hair and filled his arms with her.

Her face was partially tucked against his neck, her breath a hot feathery caress on his skin, awakening dormant impulses, irresistible needs, unwelcome in their fierceness. Blindly he searched for the source of heat, the soft seam of her lips. He let himself kiss her, just once.

Maggie was shaking, urging herself against him as if seeking respite from the cold. Furtively he pressed his lips into the hollow behind her ear, drawing in her scent, her softness. Urgency made him clumsy at first, his parted lips dragging along the line of her neck, down to the collar of the pink sweater and back again. The thin skin of her throat lifted against his mouth as she gasped. Finding no resistance, he took her mouth in the full, deep kiss he craved. He searched her, tasted her, letting the sensation blaze into something raw and unrestrained.

Her response was hesitant at first, her mouth moving upward in a questioning stroke. Her body was light and pliant, molding tentatively against him. Feeling her balance faltering, he slid a hand low on her hips to bring her closer. His mouth found hers again. He kissed her until her throat was resonant with small pleasure-sounds and her fingers had climbed delicately into his hair.

But in the next moment she was pushing at him. The word “no” ghosted between them, so softly that he wasn’t entirely certain she’d said it.

Mark released her at once, a sharp thrill of protest running through his body at the effort it took to let go.

Maggie staggered back a step, and leaned against her car, so clearly aghast that Mark might have found it amusing, had he not been violently aroused. He drew in deep passion-roughened breaths, willing his tortured body to calm down. And he forced himself not to reach for her again.

Maggie was the first to speak. “I shouldn’t have…that wasn’t…” Her voice faded, and she gave a despairing shake of her head. “Oh God.”

Mark strove to sound normal. “You’re coming back tomorrow morning?”

“I don’t know. Yes. Maybe.”

“Maggie—”

“No. Not now. I can’t…” There was a strain in her voice, as if her throat had constricted against the threat of tears. She got into her car and started it.

As Mark stood on the graveled drive, Maggie maneuvered the car onto the main road and drove off without a backward glance.

Ten

The alarm clock awakened Maggie with indignant beeps, starting at a measured pace and then increasing in frequency and volume until it reached a series of voltaic shrieks that forced her out of bed. Groaning, stumbling, she reached the clock on the dresser and turned it off. She had deliberately set it far away from the bed, having learned in the past that when the alarm was on the nightstand, she was capable of repeatedly hitting the snooze button while still mostly asleep.

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