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Page 20

A scrabbling sound of claws on wood, and the bedroom door swung open to reveal Renfield’s massive, square face with its pronounced underbite. Ta-da! his expression seemed to say, as if the sight of a half-hairless, wheezing, dentally challenged bulldog was the best possible way to start someone’s day. The bald patches were a result of eczema, which antibiotics and a special diet had helped to calm down. But so far the fur hadn’t grown back. Bad conformation had given him an awkward appearance when he walked or ran, a kind of diagonal lurch.

“Good morning, weirdo,” Maggie said, bending down to pet him. “What a night.” Fitful sleep, tossing and turning, vivid dreams.

And then she remembered why she’d gotten no rest.

A groan escaped her, and her hand stilled on Renfield’s loose-skinned head.

The way Mark had kissed her…the way she had responded…

And there was no choice, she had to face him today. If she didn’t, he might draw the wrong conclusions. The only option was to go to Rainshadow Vineyard and act like nothing had happened. She would be breezy and nonchalant.

Trudging into the bathroom of her one-bedroom bungalow, Maggie washed her face and blotted it with a towel. And she held the towel against her eyes when she felt the unexpected sting of tears. Just for a moment she let herself relive the kiss. It had been so long since she’d been held in passion, gripped hard and sure against a man’s body. And Mark had been so strong, and so warm, that it was no wonder she’d given in to temptation. Any woman would have.

Some of the sensations had been familiar, but some had been entirely new. She could not remember ever having felt such pure hundred-proof lust, the astonishing heat shimmering all through her, and that seemed like a betrayal—and a source of danger. It was more than a little alarming to a woman who’d had enough upheaval for a lifetime. No wild, crazy, heart-wrenching affair for her…no more hurt, no more loss…what she needed was peace and quiet.

All moot points, however. Maggie had every reason to think that Mark would get back together with Shelby. Maggie had been a momentary diversion, a brief flirtation. There was no way that Mark would want to deal with the baggage Maggie carried; she herself didn’t want to sort through it. Last night had meant nothing to him.

And she had to convince herself, somehow, that it had meant nothing to her.

Setting aside the towel, Maggie looked down at Renfield, who was panting and snorting beside her. “I’m a woman of the world,” she told him. “I can handle this. We’re going over there, and I’m dropping you off for the day. And you’re going to try to be as nonweird as possible.”

After dressing in a denim skirt, low-heeled boots, and a casual fitted jacket, Maggie applied a light touch of makeup. Pink blush, mascara, tinted lip balm, and concealer all helped to soften the ravages of a sleepless night. But was that too much?…Would it appear to Mark as if she was trying to attract him? She rolled her eyes and shook her head at her own absurdity.

Renfield, who loved to go places, was overjoyed when Maggie lifted him into the Sebring. He strained to push his head out of the car window, but Maggie kept a firm hold on his leash, fearing that her top-heavy companion might accidentally fall out of the vehicle.

The day was clear and cool, the sky pale blue with a thin froth of clouds. Feeling her nervousness increase the closer she got to the vineyard, Maggie took a deep restorative breath, and another, repeating the process until she was nearly as wheezy as Renfield.

The figures of Sam and his workers were out among the harvest vines, pruning the growth of the previous year, shaping the vineyard before they put it to bed for the winter. Pulling up to the house, Maggie stopped the car and looked at Renfield. “We’re going to be casual and confident,” she told him. “No big deal.”

The bulldog pushed his head at her affectionately, demanding a petting. Maggie stroked him gently and sighed. “Here we go.”

Keeping Renfield on his leash, Maggie took him to the front door, pausing patiently as he lumbered up each step. Before she could knock on the door, it opened, and Mark stood there in jeans and a flannel shirt. He was so sexy, his shirt rumpled, his dark hair disheveled, that Maggie felt a responsive pang deep in her stomach.

“Come in.” His scruffy, early-morning voice was pleasant to her ears. She led the dog into the house.

A smile entered Mark’s blue-green eyes. “Renfield,” he said, and lowered to his haunches. The dog went to him eagerly. Mark petted him more vigorously than Maggie usually did, roughing up the rolls of his neck, rubbing and scratching. Renfield adored it. In the absence of a tail, he wagged his entire back end, managing something resembling a Shakira dance.

“You,” Mark told the dog conversationally, “look like a Picasso painting. In his Cubist period.”

Panting ecstatically, Renfield licked at his wrist and flattened slowly onto his stomach, his legs pointing in the four cardinal directions of the compass.

Even in her anxiety, Maggie had to laugh at the dog’s slo-mo collapse. “Sure you won’t change your mind?” she asked.

Mark glanced up at her with a lingering trace of amusement. “I’m sure.” He unfastened the leash from the collar, stood to face Maggie, and gently took the handle from her. As their fingers brushed, she felt her pulse quicken to hummingbird speed, and her knees threatened to wobble. She thought briefly about how good it would feel to slide bonelessly to the floor as Renfield had.

“How is Holly?” she managed to ask.

“Great. Eating Jell-O and watching cartoons. The fever spiked one more time during the night, and then it was gone. She’s a little weak.” Mark studied her intently, as if he was trying to absorb every detail of her. “Maggie…I didn’t mean to scare you last night.”

Her heart began to pump hard and fast. “I wasn’t scared. I have no idea why it happened. It must have been the wine.”

“We didn’t have wine. Sam had wine.”

Heat shot to the surface of her skin. “Well, the point is, we got carried away. Probably because of the moonlight.”

“It was dark.”

“And it was late. Around midnight—”

“It was ten o’clock.”

“—and you were feeling grateful because I’d helped with Holly, and—”

“I wasn’t grateful. No, I was grateful, but that isn’t why I kissed you.”

Her voice was strung with desperation. “Basically, I don’t feel that way about you.”

Mark gave her a skeptical glance. “You kissed me back.”

“As a friendly gesture. The way friends kiss.” She scowled when she saw that he wasn’t buying it. “I kissed you back out of politeness.”

“Like an etiquette thing?”

“Yes.”

Mark reached out and pulled her against him, his arms wrapping around her stiff body. Maggie was too stunned to move or make a sound. His head lowered, and his mouth was on hers in a firm, slow, devastating kiss that sent pleasure shuddering through her limbs. She went weak in a flush of heat, opening helplessly to him.

One of his hands wove gently into her hair, toying with the curls, shaping to her head. The world fell away, and all she knew was pleasure and need and a sweet, subversive ache that went all through her. By the time his mouth broke from hers, she was trembling from head to toe.

Mark looked directly into her dazed eyes, his brows lifting infinitesimally, as if to ask, Point made?

Her chin dipped in a tiny nod.

Carefully Mark eased Maggie’s head to his shoulder and waited until her legs regained enough strength to support her.

“I’ve got to take care of some things,” she heard him say over her head, “and that includes resolving my situation with Shelby.”

Drawing back, Maggie looked up at him anxiously. “Please don’t break up with her because of me.”

“It has nothing to do with you.” Mark brushed his lips over the tip of her nose. “It’s because Shelby deserves a hell of a lot more than to be the woman someone settles for. I thought at one time that she would be right for Holly, and that would be enough. But lately I’ve realized it won’t be right for Holly if it’s not right for me, too.”

“You’re too much for me to handle right now,” she said baldly. “I’m not ready.”

His fingers played in her hair, combing slowly through the curls. “When do you think you’ll be ready?”

“I don’t know. I need a transitional person first.”

“I’ll be your transitional guy.”

Even now, in her distress, he could almost make her smile. “Then who’s going to be the guy after that?”

“I’ll be that guy, too.”

A despairing laugh escaped her. “Mark. I don’t—”

“Wait,” he said gently. “It’s too soon for us to have this talk. For now, there’s nothing you need to worry about. Come inside with me, and we’ll go see Holly.”

Renfield lumbered up and padded after them.

Holly was in the parlor off the kitchen, snuggled on the sofa in a cocoon of quilt and pillows. She had lost the glazed, fever-fretted look of the previous day, but she was still wan and fragile. At the sight of Maggie, she smiled and held out her arms.

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