Kelsey Simmons assessed her appearance in the full-length mirror. She could swear the dress hadn’t looked quite so outrageous in the boutique. Held up with spaghetti-thin straps, it dipped low in the back, exposing a liberal V of honey-hued skin and rendering a bra infeasible. The bodice revealed an eye-popping amount of cleavage where it stretched taut and low across her otherwise unsecured breasts. The sensuous fabric skimmed her hips and the twin splits in the hem exposed her thighs.
She looked…available. Very available. She also looked like she was about to fall out of the damn dress.
“Remind me again why I bought this, Gabby,” she told her best friend.
Gabrielle Murray stepped forward to view the dress in the mirror, the bulge of her pregnant stomach forcing Kelsey to move over. Gabby combed her hands through Kelsey’s neatly styled hair, sending the thick locks into disarray. “Because it complements your coloring and makes you look like sex on legs. J-Lo,” she said with a click of her fingers, “eat your heart out.”
Kelsey smoothed a hand over her messed-up hair. “I don’t know. I’m not really sure what kind of reaction I’m going to get out of Stefan if I wear this.” As obvious as she thought the dress was, Stefan Henley hadn’t thus far shown himself to be a great interpreter of women’s signals—at least not hers.
“If there’s any hot blood pumping beneath that composed exterior of his, you’ll get just the reaction we’re looking for.”
Kelsey wasn’t convinced. Stefan had always been almost painfully reserved around her. Despite the enjoyable, although not steamy, kisses they had shared during their regular evenings out over the past six months, he often reverted to treating her more like a friend than a potential lover afterward. She couldn’t help but wonder at the reasons behind his hesitancy.
She believed Stefan’s assertion that he wanted to take things slowly with her—he had been raised by conservative parents and was innately shy. But occasionally insecurity raised its ugly head. Perhaps Stefan just wasn’t all that into her.
Gabby, ever Kelsey’s staunch supporter, had declared that nonsense and suggested Stefan might not believe in sex without serious commitment. That was why she had devised “operation seduction”, corny name and all.
“When Stefan sees you in this, one of two things will happen,” Gabby began, outlining the main objectives of her plan to spur Stefan into action. “He’ll either race you to the nearest bedroom or the nearest altar—and I suspect the latter. Both would be even better.”
“Agreed. I’m not in this just to…you know.”
Kelsey arched a brow at her friend’s blunt contribution. “Right. I want a relationship, Gab, in every sense of the word. I won’t settle for less.”
Despite her fervent words, Kelsey wondered what she would do if Stefan offered sex before commitment. Only to herself would she admit that the admirable restraint he had shown had started to get somewhat frustrating. Lord knows, it was years since she’d been with a man.
Determinedly, Kelsey shook off the thought. Her self-imposed state of celibacy was just that—self-imposed. Past disasters had given her good reason to steer clear of relationships, particularly the kind based on sexual attraction alone. Deprivation was not the reason she wanted to move things along with Stefan. Kind and sweet, he understood her dedication to her real-estate business and made no unreasonable demands on her time. He fit her lifestyle perfectly. He was perfect. Mr. Right, actually. Kelsey felt sure of it.
But did she look like Miss Right in this dress? “I don’t know Gab. I think it’s too much.”
“We need a man’s opinion. We’ll ask Frank when he comes,” Gabby said.
“Because he’s perfect. He’s happily married, an experienced, older man.” As though on cue, a knock came from the front door. “No time to argue, he’s here. I have to go to the bathroom, again. Meet me in the kitchen. I’ll put some coffee on.”
Frank Brevan had agreed to come around this morning and give Kelsey an estimate for the renovations she wanted done on her newly purchased house, a high-set, four-bedroom Queenslander that was structurally sound but had seen better days. Hiring Frank was a foregone conclusion. Reliable handymen didn’t exactly crowd the streets of Holly Hill. And she’d been more than happy with his work last time she bought an old house to renovate. Resale had produced a tidy profit and Kelsey expected this venture to be just as successful. Still, she needed to know how much she was up for before work began.
Kelsey supposed Gabby was right. Frank could give her a man’s point of view. Was the dress seductive or just plain slutty? If he wouldn’t want his daughter wearing it, if he had one, it might go back to the boutique.
That decided, Kelsey went to answer the door. Almost before she spotted him, Kelsey realized her caller was not the non-threatening, middle-aged Frank Brevan.
Where Frank was no more than medium height and rotund, this man was long, lean and limber. His back was to her as he rested his weight on the porch railing, surveying the view.
The house stood on a hill, the valley below carpeted in varying shades of green. The small Sunshine Coast town of Holly Hill was a cluster of buildings in the foreground, the sparkling Pacific Ocean a brilliant blue backdrop.
The outlook was spectacular, but for the first time Kelsey hardly noticed. Her attention snagged instead on an equally spectacular view of taut rear end and narrow hips encased in well-loved, faded denim. A broad back was nicely displayed by the fitted cotton of a light blue T-shirt she suspected was as old as the jeans. At the sound of the door creaking on its hinges, the man straightened and turned.
He opened his mouth as if to say something, but stopped in the process of dipping his battered hat to stare. His gaze roamed over her, from toe to head, and he took his sweet time about it. She felt the unmistakable heat of his perusal like millions of tiny pinpricks that raised goose bumps over her skin.
Unnerved, Kelsey wanted to say something icy that would put him and his roving eyes in their place, yet when she tried, all that came out was a rasped, “Yes?”
She detected the barest hike of his dark eyebrows and the glint of a smile as he stepped toward her, the heels of his worn boots thudding on the wooden planking of the porch. “Miss Simmons?”
“Yes,” Kelsey said again, her voice still not running on full power. He was tall, definitely over six feet. With the breadth of his shoulders and the wide-brimmed hat, she had the sense that he towered over her.
That, she didn’t like. At only a few inches taller than her five-feet-three-inches, Stefan suited her just fine. She was not into feeling dominated. Not even by easy-on-the-eyes and—Kelsey felt herself gulp as she struggled to keep her composure as steady as her gaze—sexy men.
“I’m here to give you an estimate for your renovations.”
Kelsey forced herself to concentrate on the man’s words and not on the softly spoken, yet masculine, sound of his voice. “Ahh…I’ve already hired Frank Brevan and I’m expecting him any minute. So…” So scram. She could still feel him openly assessing her with those eyes she couldn’t quite see and it made her nervous.
Okay, so she hadn’t intended to open the door dressed like a Las Vegas cocktail waitress to some unknown male, but really. He was gawking as if he hadn’t seen a woman in months—and he didn’t look like the Navy type, so she doubted that was the case. He was way too rough around the edges, with an air of unruliness.
Before her manners got the better of her, Kelsey said, “Well, sorry you wasted a trip. Goodbye,” and soundly shut the door in his face.
Letting out a breath, Kelsey leaned her back against the solid timber. When he knocked again Kelsey felt it vibrate through the wood. For some strange reason her knees went wobbly at the sound of his voice. “I’m here because Frank asked me to come. I’m KD McKinley.”
“Good for you. Are they supposed to be the magic words, like open sesame?”
“No. Ah…I’m Laura’s son. Does that help?”
It took Kelsey a moment or two to process the information. “You’re Frank’s stepson?”
Oh, it was yes, ma’am, was it? She knew Laura McKinley-Brevan came from a small town in Texas, but she hadn’t detected much of an accent when her son had first spoken. “The accent’s not an open sesame either,” she told him, picturing the female conquests that had likely fallen at his feet at the sound of that drawling molasses lilt.
“Funny, it’s served me well in the past. But I’m not here to open your…sesame. I’m here to do the estimate on Frank’s behalf. Are you planning on letting me in?”
No, I’m planning to stand here all day with my back pressed to the door as though you’re going to break in. Lord, he must think she was an idiot. She looked down at herself. Changing would draw too much attention. Besides, he’d already seen her in her ready-to-seduce-her-boyfriend outfit. And this was her house. He could just put his eyes right back in his head, thank you very much.
When the door opened, KD forced his eyes to remain trained above the brunette’s neck. She was stunning, soft and delicate in some features—the finely arched eyebrows, the pertly upturned nose—and strong in others—the indomitable line of jaw and the bold, level stare of golden hazel eyes. She had a hell of a face. Hell of a package, really, though he’d be burned at the stake before he got caught gawking at her like a randy teenager again.
But what kind of woman answers the door on Sunday morning dressed like that? The dress didn’t exactly look like church wear.
“I thought you lived in the US.”
“On and off,” KD said vaguely to address her implied question. He’d spent some time in the US working in construction and had lived there until his mother had moved them to Australia to marry Frank when KD was eleven years old. Despite that, his accent was subtle to the point of unnoticeable unless he was angry or employing the good ol’ boy routine that often opened an otherwise resistant woman’s door. Not that it had made an impression in this instance. “Right now, I’m here to give you that estimate.” Was she going to make him stand out here and suffer an interrogation?
He thought perhaps she was when she inquired haughtily, “Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t. Are you well-qualified?”
KD bit back an exasperated sigh. The last twenty-four hours had been hard enough without this. He wasn’t about to stand here reciting his qualifications, beg for a job any able-bodied man with a tool kit could complete. “I think I can handle a little paintin’ and hammerin’, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Well, if it were just paintin’ and hammerin’, I could do the job myself. I have bigger plans.”
KD let his gaze rove over her again, this time doing nothing to mask the intent of his perusal. So much for professionalism. She was petite, yet lush and feminine. She looked like the type to be more interested in painting nails than hammering them, the type that’d let out a horrified squeal should she get a spot of paint on her impeccably stylish outfit. “Whatever you say,” he said with the barest tilt of his lips.
Her eyes narrowed. For a second she looked like she wanted to sock him one and KD had to struggle to keep his grin from widening. She might not be cut out for manual labor, but she was no shrinking violet either.
Apparently she decided not to start an argument about women and their home renovating abilities, but her voice remained cool. “Well, if Frank sent you, I guess he must know what he’s doing. You might as well come in and take a look around.”
He paused to wipe his boots on the welcome mat, ducking his head to remove his hat as he did so. He caught a whiff of perfume, something flowery and exotic. Probably French, definitely expensive. The kind that teased a man like him into noticing what he was never likely to have.
The scent, and the sentiment, suited Kelsey Simmons to the ground.
KD followed her along the hall and registered the condition and style of the house. Exposed timber floorboards needed a buff and polish, wooden latticework needed repainting, skirting boards needed replacing. The central hallway provided entry to a sparsely furnished main living area and four well-sized bedrooms. Only one was furnished with a queen-sized bed and an old timber wardrobe. Narrow windows framed the view of leafy trees set against the backdrop of a perfect blue sky that met the rugged outline of the Glass House Mountains at the horizon. The windows were all open and a cooling spring breeze blew the distinctive aroma of blooming gardenia into the house to mingle with the smell of fresh-brewed coffee.
Kelsey Simmons stopped at the largest bedroom, the one with the bed. “I had the idea that I could make this bedroom a real feature. Being as it’s right next door to that small second bathroom, I thought I might open up that wall and create an ensuite. Do you think that could be done?”
She looked at him with those wide hazel eyes, waiting for him to say something. “I’d have to check the foundations,” he finally answered, willing his mind to stay on business. The way they were both wedged in the narrow doorway, her body slanted in his direction, made it difficult for him to control the direction of his gaze. Her—he had to say impressive—cleavage drew inviting shadows across her honeyed skin where it wasn’t concealed by the thick curtain of her dark brown hair.
You are not going to be caught ogling her breasts, KD told himself firmly, though his inner voice wasn’t the only thing firming up. Shit, not a good time for that to happen.
“If you could give me a definite on that before you leave today, I’d appreciate it. I have my heart set on an ensuite.”
“I’ll be sure and look into it.” He wondered what, besides an ensuite, the delectable Miss Simmons might set her heart on. He had the distinct impression she made a point of getting what she wanted and the notion incited his libido.
“The whole place needs a paint as well, as you can probably tell.” She pushed off down the hallway again. “And most of the skirting boards need replacing. I could do some of that myself, but I work so much that I might not be able to find the time.”
Right. She looked barely large enough to reach the top shelf of a kitchen pantry, let alone conduct home renovations. She couldn’t be much taller than five-feet-three. And she was done up like she was about to break out in the rumba, not break in to a toolbox.
Abruptly she stopped and turned. KD just managed to pull up before he ran into her. From the less-than-impressed look on her face, KD figured she had guessed at the direction of his thoughts. “I am perfectly capable of wielding a hammer. I’m not useless.”
“Did I say you were?” KD had already thought of more than one use for her in the five minutes since she had opened the front door. Quit thinking like that, jackass!
“Oh no, you didn’t say anything. Very shrewd.”
“Look.” KD felt the urge to sigh mightily. “I’m sure you’re capable of achieving whatever you want, a woman can do whatever a man can do, etcetera, etcetera. But if you could renovate this place yourself, you wouldn’t need me now, would you?”
No question, that annoyed her. The change in her stance telegraphed that clearly. The way she put her hands on those flaring hips also urged her luscious flesh to press invitingly against the fitted neckline of her little red dress. The top of her head barely came level with his collarbone, so the view was quite impressive from his vantage point.
I will not stare at her breasts. I will not stare at her breasts. He was here representing his stepfather, so he had better behave. That meant going out of his way not to notice the way the outline of her pebbled nipples was clearly visible against the clingy fabric.
Lord, have mercy.
“Who says I do need you?” she challenged with faux sweetness. “After all, my verbal agreement is with Frank. Perhaps I’ll just make another appointment with him.”
“You might be waiting a while.” Lack of sleep and stress made his voice gruff. “The doctor has him on bed rest.”
“Frank had a heart attack yesterday. That’s why I came up from Brisbane—to take over his workload while he recovers.”
“A heart attack?” Her hand fluttered to her throat. “I had no idea. How awful.”
“Yeah, well,” KD said, her obvious distress quelling his momentary annoyance. “The attack was mild, so he’ll be fine with rest and the change in his diet he was told to make after his last checkup.”
“He was told… He should have been watching his diet?”
“The doctor has been telling him to for years.”
Kelsey’s face paled. “I guess strenuous activity is out of the question, too.”
“He’s supposed to be taking it easy, yeah.”
“Oh, God. I feel terrible about this. I shouldn’t have… Poor Frank. Gabby!” She rushed toward the kitchen, leaving KD standing in the hall. Mystified, KD followed her, and could easily hear her conversation with another woman.
“It’s Frank. He had a heart attack last night.”
“Oh no! Is he alright?”
“How can he be? He’s in the hospital. And get this. He’d had warnings from the doctor. He should have been dieting, avoiding strenuous activity. I didn’t know he had a bad heart. He never said anything. If he had I certainly would never have—”
“Of course, you wouldn’t have,” Gabby rushed to assure her. “I know what you’re thinking and you can just stop it. It was up to Frank to resist. This has nothing to do with you.”
“But I feel just terrible. I tempted him.”
“That’s just silly, Kels. Frank’s a big boy and responsible for his own actions. You can’t give a man heart failure.”
KD couldn’t believe the ideas racing through his head. Hell, he could barely fathom the concept. If any man in the world was reliable, faithful, it was Frank Brevan. He had been an emotional rock for KD and his mother for going on twenty years.
But Kelsey Simmons was one hell of a gorgeous woman. He had himself been blindsided by her luscious curves, the silken swing of her thick, shiny hair. And why not? She had opened the door to him draped in that dress, the one she had apparently donned for Frank’s benefit. His stepfather’s sense of fidelity and honor wouldn’t have stood much of a chance against this woman hell-bent on full-tilt seduction.
And she thought she’d caused Frank’s heart attack. Only one way KD figured she could come to that conclusion, and that was that she’d seduced him half to death.
The thought of their sordid little affair made him sick to his stomach. The contempt was clear in his voice. “What do you have, a father fetish?”
Both women jolted as though they’d forgotten his presence entirely. Of course Kelsey had dismissed him from her mind. He was way too young for her.
The blonde woman, who looked like she’d swallowed a beach ball, frowned at him. “Just who are you?”
Kelsey took care of the introductions with a distracted air. “Gabby, this is KD. Laura’s son.”
“Oh.” As comprehension dawned, the scowl dropped from Gabby’s face. Immediately she jumped to Kelsey’s defense. “Don’t listen to her, she didn’t know Frank had a bad heart. Frank’s a grown man.”
“A bad heart would have stopped her? What a saint.”
“Come on, it’s not like she’s the only one in town Frank’s been coaxing sweets from.”
KD’s mouth fell open. Frank must be going through a midlife crisis. None of this was in character and he was having a hard time digesting the information. He might have come close to hitting a note only prepubescent choirboys could reach when he demanded, “You mean—he’s done this before?”
“Sure. With Mrs. Flannery when he goes to mow her lawn. Ms. Edgar when he painted her house last month.”
“Sweet Jesus, I don’t believe this.” Did everyone in town know about his stepfather’s indiscretions? Did his mother know?
He didn’t realize Kelsey was approaching him until she rested her hand in what she probably thought was a soothing touch on his arm. His bicep flinched beneath the unexpected contact. “I do hope your mother won’t be angry with me. Although I suppose she has a right to be.”
“No shit.” He uncrossed his arms, forcing off her hand. “I should think my mother has a right to be angry. I should kick your tempting tush from here to Sunday myself. Good God, Frank didn’t stand a chance against you and what you offered.”
A guilty flush rose up to color her cheeks and she recoiled, looking contrite. “I know, I know. My buns are pretty spectacular.”
“Oh, they’re spectacular alright. Not to mention the rest of you. Jesus your—” Even in his agitated state, KD balked at using the word that first sprang to mind to a woman’s face, so he gestured toward the vicinity of her chest. “I mean, what a fantastic set of…you-know-whats. Hell, woman, what man could resist you dressed like that?”
Kelsey regarded him in utter bewilderment. “You don’t think you’re overreacting, just a little maybe? And what has any of this got to do with my”—the way she shuffled her feet hinted at discomfiture, but she still managed a lofty demeanor as she finished—”set of you-know-whats?”
“If you’ve been walking around advertising them in front of Frank, they have everything to do with this.”
“Advertising?” Kelsey gasped. She tugged at the neckline of her dress, seeming as embarrassed as she was indignant. Never taking her blazing glare off KD, she said, “Gabby, I think we can conclude that the dress is too much after all.”
“Or too little,” KD muttered.
“Umm, Kelsey,” Gabby injected tentatively.
“No, it doesn’t matter what you say now, Gabby. This”—Kelsey narrowed her eyes at him—”person obviously thinks I look like a…a…”
KD detected glistening beneath the woman’s lashes and wondered how in the hell she managed to make him feel like sack of dirt with her pretense of fighting tears. It was possible she had no idea what kind of effect she had on men. Her big gold brown eyes and lush, trembly lips didn’t look like those of a ruthless homewrecker.
Wake up, KD. She was having an affair with Frank.
The sound of barely suppressed laughter made them stare at Gabby, who was covering her mouth with one hand in a vain attempt to stifle a fit of giggles. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing.”
“Damn right,” KD concurred.
“I’m so sorry about Frank. Really. It’s just that I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Well, I’m certainly not understanding any of this,” Kelsey said. “I don’t know why this…man would be so angry over a few cakes and a bit of manual labor.”
“Cakes?” KD had the terrible premonition that he was about to end up looking like a complete jackass.
“I think,” Gabby began, no longer hiding her amused grin, “KD has gotten the impression you’re having an affair with his stepfather.”
“Yes, I think so. Isn’t that what you thought, KD?” Gabby asked.
Kelsey turned on him again. “What on earth—How could you think that?”
“How could I?” KD repeated, incredulous. “How about the way you’re dressed? And you felt guilty about causing Frank’s heart attack. What am I supposed to make of that?”
“Kelsey likes to bake.”
KD flicked Gabby an irritated glance. “What?”
“You know muffins and stuff like that.”
He gritted his teeth and enunciated, “I know what baking is.”
“Righto. Well, she used to bake her special chocolate mud muffins for Frank. That’s Kelsey’s specialty. Mrs. Flannery’s is passionfruit cheesecake and Ms. Edgar’s is… Well, Ms. Edgar doesn’t actually bake anything very well, but I suppose that’s beside the point.”
The feeling that he was about to end up looking like the biggest idiot in town intensified. But KD crossed his arms over his chest, refusing to admit defeat. “What about her buns?”
The gasped word came from Kelsey and KD turned back to face her. She looked like she wanted to throttle him and he couldn’t imagine her baking sweet treats for anyone at that moment. “Your spectacular buns. Your words, not mine,” he pointed out. Although, from what he had seen when he had followed her down the hall, he agreed. His opinion of her delicious rear aside, KD added a little feeling to his sneer. “A little stuck on yourself, aren’t you?”
Her eyes narrowed. Her lips pursed. KD could practically hear her seething. “You…insulting, contemptuous…rude…”
When she paused, KD cordially inquired, “You need a thesaurus?”
“What I need,” she began, breathing heavily, “is a frying pan. Or a stockpot. Something really, really heavy.”
Her breasts were rising and falling inside that inadequate bodice. KD sensed it viscerally, even as he managed with some inhuman will not to leer. “Alright, I’ll bite. Why?”
“To hit you over the head with, you unimaginable bastard.”
“Well, you got me there, Miss Simmons.”
Recognizing the irony in his tone, Kelsey felt a stab of regret. Everyone in town knew the basics of Laura McKinley’s past. She was neither ashamed nor secretive about it. She had gotten pregnant young and by mistake. The father—KD’s father—refused to marry her and took off without a second look back.
She couldn’t have picked a more apt—or cutting—word than ‘bastard’.
But Kelsey fought the urge to apologize. He hadn’t yet apologized for calling her—by insinuation if not words—a husband-stealing slut. “What I got, Mr. McKinley, is a mind not to hire you.”
“Fine.” His shrug was not an affectation, Kelsey realized right away. He was as happy to wheedle his way out of this job as she was to have him gone. “I came here as a favor to my stepfather, because I owe him that much, and more. You don’t want me to do the job? No skin off my nose. I’m not gettin’ down on my knees, lady.”
Kelsey was shocked to the point of breathlessness at the image that flashed, vivid and utterly sexual, through her mind. She wouldn’t mind having Mr. KD McKinley down on his knees, where she could be in control of him, where she could have him doing things to her that no man had done in longer than she cared to recall.
Oh. My. God.
She knew only enough to find him detestable and she was thinking like that? Oh Lord, Stefan better respond to this dress the way she wanted him to, because deprivation was finally catching up. It had been four long years since she had made her vow to stay celibate until she found Mr. Right. In the view of some—well, in the view of one Gabrielle Murray—that practically made her a virgin again.
She wondered if KD McKinley’s opinion of her would change if he knew that.
“Fine,” Kelsey agreed, her voice breathy. His eyebrow moved, almost infinitesimally, making her wonder if her thoughts had been telegraphed. She felt suddenly, frighteningly naked. Not much of a stretch, considering what she was wearing. It didn’t exactly scream virginal.
She had to get this man out of here.
Pulling herself together, she gave her hair a haughty toss and walked, deliberately casual, by him. “Don’t let the door hit you on the butt when you leave, Mr. McKinley.”
* * * *
“Do you suppose he worked out that you were talking about cinnamon buns?”
Kelsey held the cordless phone between her shoulder and cheek as she spread strawberry jam on a slice of wholemeal toast. “I told you not to mention him again.”
“Oh, come on. That little exchange between you and Laura’s prodigal son was the highlight of my week,” Gabby said unapologetically. “Paul laughed his head off, too.”
“You told Paul?” Kelsey groaned.
“Of course. It’s this pesky ring on my finger. I’m contractually obliged to tell the man everything, whether he’s listening or not.”
“Funny, I don’t remember hearing that in the vows you spoke.”
“It’s in the fine print. Along with ‘I promise to squander my youth by remaining barefoot and pregnant for the majority of my twenties’. Thomas, stop pinching your sister!”
Kelsey waited until Gabby dealt with the altercation in the background before pointing out, “As I recall, you were the one who wanted children right away. A big family like your own and all that.”
“Yeah, yeah. That was before I had two and one more on the way. After this one, that’s it. Paul is getting the old snip-snip.”
Gabby hesitated. Kelsey could imagine her giving her rounded stomach an affectionate pat. “Well…maybe. Anyway, I didn’t call to talk about me. What are you going to do about hunky handyman?”
“I hear he’s a fully qualified carpenter and they aren’t exactly thick on the ground around here.”
Kelsey knew this. Her attempts yesterday to find an alternative replacement for Frank Brevan had proven fruitless. She’d even made calls to Brisbane, but no one had been keen to travel more than an hour to take on her small project.
Yet she said to Gabby, “So maybe I’ll wait until someone’s available. Or start on things myself.”
“You’re going to turn that poky toilet into an ensuite and install French doors?”
“Nooo.” Kelsey drew out the word. She took a bite of her toast, chewing and swallowing before she continued. “I’ll just have to abandon that idea and do the surface stuff.”
“You, abandon an idea? Miss See-things-through-to-the-end-if-it-kills-me? Don’t do it, Kels. The universe might shift off balance and we could all be doomed.”
“Ha, ha.” Kelsey took another bite just as there was a knock on the front door. Walking down the hall, her powder blue pumps clicking on the floorboards, she said into the phone, “I’ve got to go, Gab. Someone’s at the door.” Probably Mrs. Lipitz from the neighboring house, calling in for an ill-timed and much too lengthy chat. She could think of no one else who considered it appropriate to knock at seven-thirty in the morning.
“Okay. The last thing I’ll say on the matter is this. Why don’t you call a truce with hunky handyman and hire him?”
“Would you stop calling him hunky—” Kelsey swung open the front door and fell silent, gaping at the view of firm pectoral muscles that confronted her. Her eyes traveled upward, slower than she liked, to see broad shoulders before connecting with a pair of dark blue eyes the color of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean.
Speak of the devil and he shall appear.
“Why not? He is hunky. You’re not so wrapped up in Stefan that you didn’t notice.”
His voice was softer than she remembered, as soft as the white cotton of his T-shirt. It made Kelsey feel like his words caressed her.
Oh, stop it you fool. “Gab, I really have to go.”
“He’s there, isn’t he?”
“Gab, I’m hanging up.” Kelsey pressed the end button on the cordless phone. Fisting the implement, she rested it against her hip and gathered her wits with effort.
“Good morning, Mr. McKinley. Did you think of another insult you wanted to hit me with?”
KD made his expression neutral, while inside he warred between annoyance and outright lust. Which in turn fueled his annoyance. She wore a streamlined skirt suit in powder blue and a silky white blouse with the top three buttons undone. The sight of her dressed for business was a shock after the lasting impression that little red dress had left. The dreams he’d had…
Well, they didn’t bear thinking about when standing toe-to-toe with their star. He was not here to make matters worse between him and the irritatingly delectable Kelsey Simmons. Unfortunately, he was here to eat a healthy serving of crow.
“Not if you don’t give me any ammunition.” Damn. He was supposed to be ingratiating himself, not getting into it with her again.
“I don’t recall giving you any ammunition last time.” Her haughty demeanor only rankled his nerves further.
“I don’t know. My stepfather has a bad heart, as it turns out. You could have given him a coronary opening the door in that excuse for a dress you were wearing Sunday, whether you meant to seduce him or not.”
“Whether I meant… How many times do I have to deny that I want to get your stepfather into bed?”
KD shrugged in lieu of a response. Okay, so he figured Kelsey and Frank hadn’t been having any kind of affair. When he’d told his mother about the conclusion he had drawn, she had laughed for the first time since Frank had been taken to hospital. Then she’d reamed him out for losing Frank the job he had been so looking forward to, the job he would still want to be a part of, even if it was only in a consultative role.
That was when she’d demanded he come skulking back to Kelsey Simmons’s doorstep and beg forgiveness. Under the circumstances, KD couldn’t deny his mother the favor.
But damn, it was harder than he had imagined.
He cleared his throat. “Do you suppose I could come in?”
He put his hands on his hips, unconsciously mirroring her pose. “Do you suppose we could start over again? I’d like to offer you that estimate I never got around to.”
“If you’re here to apologize.”
KD felt his temperature shoot up about seven degrees. She was actually going to make him say he was sorry, when he shouldn’t have to. He had drawn a perfectly logical conclusion the other day. And he hadn’t been completely kidding when he’d said that dress could have given Frank a heart attack.
Forcing himself to think of his mother and Frank, KD said, “Yeah, that’s why I’m here.”
She simply waited, arching an expectant brow. KD cleared the pride out of his throat. “I jumped to the wrong conclusion on Sunday. I should have known Frank would never cheat on my mother.”
“You should have known Frank would never cheat?” she repeated at a much higher decibel level. “What about me?”
“To be honest, ma’am”—KD forgot that his little accent trick didn’t work on this particular woman—”I don’t know you or what kind of person you are. I mean, you don’t like me based on one wrong assumption I made and you don’t know me either.”
That seemed to stump her. She straightened and stared, wide-eyed. She did have lovely eyes. A soft brown rimmed in gold. Eyes a man could spend a long time staring into as he lost himself in her hot, wet…
At last she spoke, dragging KD away from his lewd thoughts. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought she was struggling not to smile. “That’s the worst excuse for an apology I’ve ever heard.”
She heaved a weighty sigh and stepped back to allow him entry. “You might as well come in. I’ll let you give me your estimate—for Frank’s sake.”
“I’m here for Frank’s sake, too,” KD matched her not-so-subtle hint that she wasn’t doing him any favors. “He was looking forward to this job and he wants me to do it. I want to do it, as a favor to him and my mother.”
“I guess you’d better give me a good estimate, then.”
“Why don’t we just cut the crap, Miss Simmons?”
She stopped mid-stride and swung around to face him. Her lush lips were pursed and shiny with lilac-tinted gloss. Her dark mane of hair was clipped back at the sides, the rest of it hanging down her back in ribbons of chocolate brown.
She looked riled and imperious. Strong and sexy. And beautiful. Damn, but she looked beautiful.
“Yes,” she said at last. “Why don’t we? You’re here because Frank asked you to come, not because you want to apologize to me. He was angry with you.”
“It was my mother, actually. She didn’t tell Frank anything about our misunderstanding. And you haven’t been able to find anyone else interested in the job you want done.”
“What makes you say that?”
He showed her a knowing smile. “Because you wouldn’t have invited me in if you had.”
Very astute, considering he looked more like some ill-bred cowboy than a man of any depth of intelligence. Kelsey’s opinion of him shifted a little, before she got a hold of herself again. Just because he was smart didn’t mean he wasn’t also the ignominious blockhead she had originally thought. After all, he hadn’t apologized for his outrageous assumption about her interest in his stepfather. He’d only given a half-baked, man-style apology—one that allowed him to save face and that never actually acknowledged the malfeasance against her.
Still, he was right. She had no one else interested in renovating her house and she did need that ensuite. And those French doors. She could just about hear Gabby laughing at her earlier pronouncement that she would do without them. She had already decided what she wanted and, like it or not, KD McKinley was the only man around willing and able to give it to her.
Oh, dear. Did she have to arrange the facts quite that way in her mind?
“Alright, Mr. McKinley,” Kelsey said after a long pause during which images of the man giving her what she wanted—and what she hadn’t gotten in a long, long time—filled her brain to distressing capacity. She shifted her weight from foot to foot. This was just business. She would be at work whenever he was here and so she needn’t take into account the way he vexed her so. “If you can do it for the right price, you’ve got yourself a job.”
* * * *
Three days later, as she sat across a stained timber dining table from Stefan Henley, Kelsey realized she had never told KD McKinley she had a boyfriend.
They were at The Central, aptly and unimaginatively named for its location in the center of town. Its popularity as a lunch venue was due in large part to its status as the only pub in Holly Hill. In addition to this obvious advantage, The Central also had a lovely beer garden dotted with round oak dining tables and matching oak chairs. Couples could enjoy each other in the relative privacy and shade afforded by a lush canopy of rainforest trees.
Kelsey now found herself there, picking at her Caesar salad while Stefan concentrated on his grilled fish. Instead of the potential fiancé seated across from her, she thought about hunky handyman.
Damn that man KD. She hadn’t laid eyes on him since she had offered him the renovation job, but his assorted tradesman debris littered her house, reminding her that he occupied her space during the day. He’d moved her bed into one of the spare rooms, as requested, so he could work on knocking down the wall between the master bedroom and the bathroom. Just the thought that he had placed his hands on her bed made her shiver and she’d barely gotten a decent night’s sleep since.
Pathetic. She would turn thirty in precisely two months, so wasn’t some teenage ingénue. She’d known men and she’d enjoyed sex, for the most part. A bout of abstinence didn’t excuse her acting like a hormone-riddled schoolgirl at the merest thought of the man in her house. The man who would be in her house right now. Working. Sweating. Maybe taking off his shirt, revealing work-hewn muscles and silky, dark chest hair.
Dear God. Kelsey shifted in her seat, shocked to find herself aroused. This was what the man did to her when she didn’t even see him. God help her if she ever ran into him on the way home.
And today was Friday. She usually gave herself an early mark from work on a Friday, if she could manage it. But if she went home too soon she might see KD McKinley. And if he was in the state of half dress she had just been picturing…
Oh, dear. “Would you like to come to my place for dinner tonight?”
Stefan looked up from his plate, a forkful of fish halfway to his mouth. “Pardon?”
And well he should look shocked. She had just interrupted his one-way conversation on land ordinance twenty-six A. Or was it twenty-six B? Stefan was on the local council and he loved his work. He’d be stunned to discover Kelsey had tuned out the conversation for the last ten minutes.
She cleared her throat. “I asked if you’d like to come to dinner at my place.”
Kelsey usually appreciated Stefan’s adherence to his strict and busy schedule. She was a fan of the schedule. But right this minute his obvious reluctance to do something even mildly impulsive annoyed her. “Yes tonight.” I need you to stop me from leaping all over hunky handyman if I see him with his shirt off. “I could get a couple of steaks, a bottle of wine. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I have anything on…”
His hesitancy was giving her a complex. Didn’t he want to spend time with her, even if it wasn’t scheduled? Granted, he’d never been inside her house before—just as she’d never been invited into his. They had dated for almost six months, but they’d only ever been together in public places. Afterward, Stefan always dropped her at her door, giving her a measured kiss—not too heavy, not too chaste, with minimal tongue and some caressing, but no groping. Just enough to leave Kelsey wanting more. She’d invited him in a couple of times, but he’d never accepted.
For the first time she wondered if Stefan even wanted to have sex.
Her ego punctured, Kelsey found her voice turning peevish. “Well, if you don’t want to, I’m not going to beg.”
“Of course I want to, Kelsey,” Stefan rushed to say, soothing her ruffled feathers. “I always enjoy spending time with you. So yes, I will come to dinner tonight.”
She gave him a bright grin. “Excellent. Why don’t you come over at six or so?”
Stefan smiled. He really was handsome, with soft gray eyes and neatly styled blond hair. When he smiled, his left cheek dimpled and smile lines appeared around his eyes, lending him the character that didn’t always show when talking about work or giving a speech. He was five years older than she was, but that dimple made him look younger, approachable. He was sweet and gentlemanly and dedicated to making Holly Hill a better place for all who lived here.
What more could a girl want?
Take that, KD McKinley. I won’t be fantasizing about you tonight. Tonight I’ll have the real thing.
* * * *
As she carried her grocery bags up the front stairs, Kelsey wondered if she should wear the red dress. She’d bought it so Stefan would see her in it, but she didn’t want to shock the pants off him. His pants should come off voluntarily.
And tonight would be the perfect opportunity. They would be completely alone for the first time, with nothing to stop them from making love. She felt a surge of nerves. How would Stefan react if she made a move?
Instinctively, Kelsey knew he wouldn’t react well. Stefan was a man of the traditional variety. He thought it was the man’s responsibility to make the moves. If she wanted him to make love to her, she would have to let him think it was all his idea.
Which was where the dress came in…
Contemplating her options, she shuffled her grocery bags to reach for the doorknob, only to have it open from the inside. She always seemed to be meeting KD on her front doorstep.
Her heart gave a thump, and another until it was thumping all over the place. His jeans molded to his long muscled thighs with loving dedication, his black T-shirt did the same to his shoulders and well-shaped biceps. There was a streak of dirt on his cheek and rough stubble on his jaw. His hair was mussed and coated in dust, making Kelsey want to run her hands through it.
At least he was wearing his shirt.
His eyes swept over her, their ocean blue sparkling, and his impossibly sinful mouth curved in an appreciative smile that had her knees wobbling. “Hey, sugar.”
The endearment seeped into her, making her think of chocolate and cream and everything sweet, and what she would love to do if he were covered in the stuff. Lick it all off him, sweat, dirt and all.
“I didn’t know you were still here.” She meant to sound cool, not like she was having an asthma attack.
“My truck’s around the back. I’ve been loading up some trash to take away.”
“My bedroom wall?”
“Yup. Hope you’re not going to change your mind now. Let me grab those.”
He had stepped forward and relieved her of the bags before Kelsey could protest. He turned and walked down the hall to her kitchen as though he owned the place, placing her bags on the counter. “Want me help you put this stuff away?”
What was he doing—pretending to be a gentleman now? “No, leave it out. I’m cooking dinner tonight, for two.” He sent her a look she couldn’t read. Oh God, had he thought she was issuing him an invitation? She hurried to add, “My boyfriend’s coming over.”
“Your boyfriend, huh?”
Why did his tone sound dubious? “Yes. I have a boyfriend. And he’s coming over.” Could you say it again, Kelsey? Make it sound even more like a fabrication. “In fact, he’ll be here soon, so I have to shower and change.”
He leaned his butt on the kitchen counter and crossed his arms over his chest. Impressive arms, impressive chest. Why couldn’t she stop noticing? He made no move to leave. “Into that red dress of yours?”
“Why would you assume that? I have other clothes.”
He lifted a careless shoulder. “It’s definitely the kind of dress you buy for a man’s benefit. And since you say you didn’t buy it for Frank…”
“Yes, I say that,” she muttered crossly. Pulling the bottle of white wine out of the bag, she opened the fridge and put it on the shelf. At the risk of stirring his suspicions about her and Frank again, Kelsey allowed her genuine concern for his stepfather to show. “How is Frank?”
“You ought to know as well as I. He told me you’ve been to visit him twice.”
“Just to check on him, I swear,” she said wearily. “Nothing untoward about it.”
“I know.” To her surprise he ducked his head and examined his shoes, instead of regarding her with those openly daring eyes. “The thing is…I’ve acted like a jerk with you. I know you’re not after Frank. I should have said so on Tuesday. I’m…sorry.”
Kelsey stood in the middle of the kitchen, a plastic bag of steaks in her hand and her mouth hanging open. She hadn’t expected him to apologize. She had decided he was one of those men who just didn’t. But apparently she’d been wrong.
He raised his head and met her gaze. His level stare made her suck in a breath. “You…you’ve surprised me, Mr. McKinley.”
“Yeah, I see.” He stepped forward and took the package from her hand.
Only then did Kelsey realize she was dripping meat juices all over the hardwood floors and her expensive shell pink shoes. “My shoes!”
KD chuckled. “Women and their shoes.”
“Clearly you have no idea how hard it is to find shell pink sandals in a size five and a half.”
“Clearly.” He smiled at her.
Kelsey nearly lost her footing as she bent to take off the soiled shoes. The man had a smile on him that was positively lethal. When she looked about to fall, he shot out an arm to give her something to hang on to.
She felt the corded forearm muscles beneath her palm. Lightning heat shot out from the point of contact to her every extremity, shocking her so she nearly yelped. Her equilibrium took its time returning and she was forced to keep hold of his arm with her free hand while the one holding her shoes found its way to his abdomen.
God, he was hard there, too. Did he have a six-pack? She’d never actually seen a six-pack in the flesh. What would it be like to run her hands over the hard ridges, to travel lower to the waistband of his jeans and beyond? Would that be hard?
The realization that she was turned on had her pushing away from him. “I really have to go have a shower now.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
His voice was a low, ominous rumble, like approaching thunder. Kelsey met his eyes and saw they had turned dark and cloudy. Fear tingled along her spine. She felt as though she were about to be caught up in the fury of the wild storm that had apparently begun building inside him, just as it had inside her.
“Don’t worry. I’ll see myself out.”
His words brought her back to reality, the moment of ferocity dissipating. Perhaps her own out-of-control response to KD McKinley colored her judgment. Perhaps he hadn’t been as aroused as she in that moment.
Kelsey hoped so. Because if KD felt half of what she’d felt, she didn’t think he was the type of man to let it go.
Kelsey was in the shower and he really had to leave.
He wanted to toss that woman onto the nearest flat surface and have his way with her. But she was getting ready for her boyfriend to come over, so why was he hanging around? What kind of man was he? A sick man, that’s what kind. A sucker for punishment. A real sad case.
Time to pack up his remaining stuff and hightail it out of Kelsey’s house.
Just for a moment there, he’d seen something in her eyes, felt something go snap in the air between them. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he’d thought she wanted him as much as he couldn’t help wanting her. And that had felt too damn good.
But, as she’d told him, she had a boyfriend. Of course she did. Women like Kelsey Simmons didn’t hang around unattached just waiting for a guy like him to come along and pay them some clumsy attention. Women like Kelsey owned skimpy red dresses that they wore for any guy they chose. And she had already chosen someone.
Enduring the image of some other guy tossing Kelsey onto the nearest flat surface for an agonizing moment, KD grunted in disgust and threw the last of his tools in his battered red toolbox. He was just heading out when Kelsey’s phone rang. He hesitated in the kitchen doorway. Should he answer it?
Nah, he decided when the answering machine kicked in and a man’s voice, smooth and cultured, spilled into the room. “Kelsey, are you there? It’s Stefan.” A pause before the sound of a throat being cleared. “Ah, I guess you’re not home yet. Listen, I’m sorry but I won’t be able to make it tonight, after all. Something’s come up. Enjoy the steaks. I’ll call you over the weekend, alright? Bye-bye…darling.”
KD scowled as the machine clicked off. Something’s come up? Enjoy the steaks? Jeez, it was the lamest fob off he’d ever heard. And on her answering machine! The least the guy could have done was call back and talk to her in person. And he’d hesitated over that ‘darling’, like he’d been unsure about using it. How long had the two of them been dating anyway?
Barring an earthquake complete with tsunami, nothing would stop KD spending the night with Kelsey. Especially if she was wearing that dress.
Belatedly, he realized the shower had stopped running. Hell. He stood there in the hall, hanging on to his toolbox like a dummy, some Bob the Builder cardboard cutout, and Kelsey was going to stick her head out any minute and find him.
But what should he do? Leave without telling her about her lame boyfriend’s message? It might be ages before she checked her machine and realized the doofus wasn’t coming. Double Hell.
He had just resolved to knock on the bathroom door and deliver the message through the safety of two inches of solid timber when the door in question opened and Kelsey stepped out.
She had her arms up, twisting her damp hair into a ponytail. The action caused her breasts to jut against the silky damp material of the chocolate brown robe she wore, her puckered nipples an erotic impression against the thin fabric. The short robe exposed most of her thighs. Damp and dewy fresh all over, she smelled like lavender and good, clean woman.
It was a minute before she saw him. A minute KD spent immobile, staring like a dolt, his mouth drying out like the sun-baked earth in midsummer. He’d never wanted to just grab a woman and take her so much in his whole life.
At last she saw him. Her eyes shot open and her hands covered her mouth as she let out a scream and stumbled back against the bathroom door.
“Shit. Sorry.” He moved forward, making a conciliatory gesture. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Her hand moved to cover her heart. “You scared the shit out of me!”
He couldn’t help it. The sound of Kelsey swearing made him laugh. He’d bet she never swore, ordinarily. She might be tough, but she was also a lady.
“What’s so funny?”
“You saying shit.”
“Hilarious. That’s what happens when someone scares the…shit out of me. Shit, shit, shit!”
He laughed harder. Before long Kelsey’s mouth twitched and her answering chuckle rewarded him. It sounded warm and melodic and, despite her recent outburst, pleasantly ladylike.
It felt nice, laughing with her. “You should have seen your face.”
“You should have seen yours. What were you doing, just standing there like that?”
KD hadn’t blushed since he was fifteen and hadn’t been able to hide an inconvenient erection from Heather Winchester, his high school crush. “Ahh…I was, well…when a man sees a woman who looks like you, dressed like that”—he used a hand to encompass her form from head to toe—”staring is kind of involuntary.”
She gasped, suddenly realizing how uncovered she was. She crossed an arm over her breasts and used the other to pull the robe farther down her legs. “You were spying on me?”
“No, dammit. I hung around to let you know you got a message on your machine. Stanley’s not coming.”
She frowned in confusion. “Do you mean Stefan’s not coming?”
“Whatever his name is,” KD muttered. Whatever his name is was a complete idiot.
“Did he say why?”
“Something’s come up, he said.”
Her blush was telling. She thought it as lame a fob off as he had, and she’d just been humiliated in front of him. In her robe.
“Hey, I’m sure something did come up.”
“Sure. Something more important than me.”
“Aw. That can’t be right.”
But if it wasn’t more important than her, the guy would be here, wouldn’t he?
KD had the strong urge to step forward and gather her in his arms. Just to reassure her. Bad idea. Reassurance wasn’t the only thing on his mind and he couldn’t trust himself. Besides, she wasn’t likely to welcome such an act from him.
“Well, that’s a waste of a couple of rib fillet steaks, isn’t it?” Kelsey said, a little too brightly.
“The man’s a fool.”
She gave him a small smile of appreciation. “Thanks for saying that.”
He just shrugged, struggling for words that didn’t take the conversation to sexual areas. Why don’t you let me show you what a fool I think he is? I’d appreciate a woman like you more than he does. Let me take you to bed, for Crissakes.
“Well, I’d better go,” he said instead, proud he’d managed to get the words out.
But she went and ruined all his good intentions.
“Unless…you’d like to stay and eat with me?”
She’d taken leave of her senses, obviously. She must have left them in the car. Why on earth had she asked KD to stay for dinner?
Kelsey sat across from him at the small outdoor table on her back verandah, the warm twilight air creating the kind of intimate atmosphere that only those close to each other usually shared. The wooden table seemed an inadequate and easily surmountable barrier between them. Funny, when she’d been sitting across from Stefan at lunch this very day, she hadn’t been required to fight the insane urge to swipe their crockery off the surface, scramble on all fours atop the table and shove her tongue down his throat.
She had been fighting an ever-growing, frighteningly powerful sexual attraction to KD since the second she’d opened her front door to him almost a week ago. So why had she gone and consumed two glasses of Chardonnay—something sure to dull her sense of propriety and possibly get her into serious trouble if she couldn’t change the sexual orientation of her thoughts?
Because she’d been stood up and it depressed her, that’s why.
She had hastily changed into denim cutoff shorts and a perfectly boring white tank top. Then she’d put the steaks on the grill and opened the wine she had planned to share with Stefan while KD went to get cleaned up. Evidently, he’d stuck his head under the bathroom tap enough to wash his face and get most of the dust out of his thick auburn hair.
She liked the color, she decided as she stole a surreptitious glance at him. He wasn’t quite a redhead, not traditionally dark. His hair wasn’t straight, but wasn’t exactly curly either. Shaggy might be the word, with a little length so it brushed his collar. Up close, the faintest remnants of freckling could be seen across a nose a little too long and broad to be considered aristocratic. On the whole, he might not be considered a handsome man—at least, not in the traditional way that Stefan was handsome. But he had those sparkling blue eyes, a stunning contrast to his unique coloring, and a killer smile that promised satisfaction in the most elemental way.
And that body, of course. Muscles hard and rough-hewn from traditional manual labor, not gym workouts, in a long, lean and thrilling package.
“So do you have family here in Holly Hill?”
Recognizing his question for what it was—a conversation starter that might fill the awkward silence—Kelsey was glad for the opportunity to talk. Even about her family. “Not blood family, but Gabby’s always been closer to me than my real sister.” At his questioning look, she explained, “Genevieve is based in London. She’s a freelance travel writer. We don’t see much of each other. My parents are divorced. My mother’s still in Brisbane—that’s where I grew up—with husband number two. My father’s in Sydney with girlfriend number, I’m not sure, five, I think. And I’m here because…”
Kelsey shrugged. How could she explain? After Adam Scalia had made her the unwitting other woman in a triangle she hadn’t known existed and broken her heart in the process, she had lost her way and gotten on a merry-go-round of short, ill-conceived relationships. She could never admit to KD the humiliation of that alcohol-fuelled one-night-stand with a work colleague that had finally prompted her to take a look at her life and change it. Too deeply ashamed of herself, she hadn’t even told Gabby. She had simply changed her job and stopped dating altogether, stopped going out, limited drinking. She had been determined not to sleep with another man on impulse. With another man who wasn’t The One.
“I got sick of the rat race in the city and the opportunity to take over the real-estate practice here came up a couple of years back.” She gave as much of the truth as she was willing to. “This is Gabby’s hometown and I fell in love with it long ago, so it seemed like fate. Especially as I’d just gotten my real-estate license.” You’re babbling, Kelsey.
“How did you meet Gabby, if you’re from Brisbane and she’s from here?”
“Boarding school. Gabby’s parents sent her so she could get the best education and mine sent me…well, because they were getting divorced, I suppose. Made things easier for them with me and Gen not around.”
“Easier for them,” he noted quietly. “Not for you.”
His eyes searched her face and she felt them trail warmth wherever they touched. “I didn’t think so at the time, but who knows? Maybe it was better than being in the house with the two of them fighting like the proverbial cat and dog. And I met Gabby there.” Had she already said that?
She cut off a slice of steak and popped it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Your mother lives here, and Frank. They’re planning to stay for good, aren’t they?”
“Seems that way. Ma always liked it down this way. It’s sure a lot nicer than the outback mining towns we lived in most of my adolescence.”
“That’s right. Frank mentioned he used to work in mining.” Kelsey picked up her wine and took a long sip.
“Yeah. Not much excitement in those towns for a teenager, at least I never thought so. I took off as soon as I secured an apprenticeship in Mackay, stayed there until I finished and then”—he made a movement like an aircraft in flight—”I decided to see the some of the world.”
“Have you seen enough of it yet?” Kelsey asked curiously. He sounded just like Genevieve—always looking for the next interesting place to visit, a whole host of new people to meet. No moss gathered on her sister either.
KD just shrugged. “That remains to be seen, I suppose.”
“Ever think of moving here?” Why had she asked that?
His laugh made her regret her question even more. “Oh, my mother would love that, but it’s never appealed. I prefer moving around, anyway.”
All the better not to get tied down, Kelsey deduced. She’d known it already—that he lived like a nomad. He was only staying here now because of Frank’s heart attack. Yet hearing him confirm his intention to leave again as soon as he could had a peculiar effect on her heart. It sank. Suddenly she felt very, very tired.
What had she been thinking? That one look at her and KD might change his mind about settling down with a good woman? Please. She wouldn’t want that anyway. He was so far removed from the type of man she saw as a permanent fixture in her life that it wasn’t funny. And despite tonight’s letdown, she still had Stefan Henley in her sights.
Stefan. Goodness, she’d forgotten all about him.
“That was delicious. Thanks.” KD had finished his steak and was now leaning against the backrest of his chair. She hadn’t finished hers, but she’d had as much as she wanted. Of food. And nothing else was on the menu.
“No problem.” She stood to collect the plates. A wave of dizziness hit and she swayed, clutching the table edge for support.
KD was beside her in a split second, gently easing her back into her chair. Kelsey giggled. “You don’t have to treat me like your grandmother, KD.”
“Believe me, you don’t remind me of anyone’s grandmother. Why don’t you sit and let me clear the table?”
A man—a macho, man’s man at that—who offered to clear the table? She was hardly going to knock back that offer. She spread her hands wide. “Be my guest. I’ll just sit here, have another glass of wine and enjoy the night air.”
She moved to pick up the half-empty bottle, but KD grabbed it first, holding it out of reach. “I think you ought to slow down on this stuff.”
“Because, Miss Simmons.” He smiled. “You’re a little drunk.”
“Oh, that.” Kelsey flopped back in her chair and pushed out a sigh. “I think, since we’ve shared a meal and all now, you should start calling me Kelsey.”
Leaning over the table, hands flat on the surface, he looked at her steadily with those dreamy blue eyes. She went all warm inside, from more than the wine. It would be so easy to tilt her head and offer her lips, urge him to kiss her. So easy and so good and so very, very wrong.
“I’ll be right back.” KD cleared the dishes without a further word and disappeared inside.
Kelsey closed her eyes and rested her head on her crossed arms. What was she doing, thinking about kissing KD? Was she nuts, as well as intoxicated?
“Here, drink this.”
Lifting her head with a start, Kelsey saw a mug of steaming black coffee in front of her and wondered how it had gotten there. “Did I fall asleep?”
“Seems that way.” He took his seat again and drank from his own mug. He surveyed her face with those keen eyes. “Want to talk about why you’re in such a drinking mood?”
She lifted a careless shoulder and sipped her coffee. Black and strong, no sugar. As if he had known how she liked it. Her eyes flicked back to him. “Tell me what it means when a man doesn’t want to be alone with a woman.”
“If it’s with you? He’s gay.”
His unequivocal tone made her laugh.
“You think I’m joking?”
Her gaze strayed back to him. He simply continued to look at her, steady and sure. His question wasn’t rhetorical and Kelsey shook her head. “But Stefan’s not.”
“If that’s true, he’s mighty stupid.”
“Wrong again.” Kelsey leapt to Stefan’s defense. “He has a degree in town planning and a masters in political science. He’s a very intelligent man.”
KD put his mug down and leaned forward to drill her with a hard expression. “A piece of paper isn’t always a good measure of a person’s intelligence, Kelsey.”
It was the first time he had said her name since she had suggested he do so. Kelsey gulped, wishing she had never extended the offer. It sounded bone-shiveringly good on his lips.
“Neither can it be dismissed as a factor.” Although what he said was true—after all, she had no degree and didn’t think herself the lesser for it—she was loath to agree with him so readily. “How about you? Did you ever go to university?”
She hadn’t meant the question to sound like a challenge, but the scornful twist of his lips told her it had come out that way. His eyes turned glacial. “Making comparisons, sugar?”
Kelsey amended her earlier opinion. She wished he would call her by her name. If he called her sugar like that one more time she might dissolve like a spoonful in a hot cup of tea. “Between you and Stefan? Why on earth would I?”
He merely tilted his head slightly until his meaning sank in. Kelsey gasped and all but sputtered, “You don’t think I’m interested in…you?”
“I think you’re interested in something ol’ Stevie doesn’t seem to want to give you.”
“His name,” she enunciated, “is Stefan.”
“Whatever. He’s not sleeping with you and by my reckoning you’re in need of a good, hard—”
“What makes you think Stefan and I aren’t sleeping together?”
“Because if this guy was your lover there’d be no way he’d allow you to have dinner with me. He’d be over here taking advantage of the situation.”
“Taking advantage…no way he’d allow me…” Kelsey didn’t know where to start to argue with such an arrogant, sexist statement. All her soft-edged tipsiness evaporated. Her anger intensified at her inability to express to this Neanderthal what a throwback he was.
She pushed back her chair and stood, this time feeling no dizziness, only determination. “Get out of my house.”
He pushed back his chair and stood, too. “Your imperious, lady-of-the-house thing is hot as hell. Anytime you want me to play at being your footman—”
“I said get out!”
“Alright, alright.” To Kelsey’s mounting rage he actually laughed, the sound soft, melodic and maddeningly sexy. “Anything the lady wants.”
The innuendo hung in the air as he left, making heat that didn’t belong to fury slice through her. As arrogant and rude as she knew him to be, the idea of KD giving her whatever she wanted had more appeal than she felt capable of dealing with. How could she want to sleep with a man she found so reprehensible?
Chemistry, that’s what. Hormones, celibacy and frustration. None of which she would let rule her life.
With a determined sigh, Kelsey scooped up the coffee cups and carried them inside. She had just finished washing them when she heard footsteps in the hall. The distinctive, heavy clunk of KD’s boots.
She turned as he entered the kitchen. His expression taut, his shoulders tense with restraint, he asked, “Have you ever heard the expression, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb?”
“Well, I figure this is one of those situations.” He took a few, seemingly casual steps. But there was nothing casual in his heated expression as he drew near. Kelsey’s knees weakened and she clutched the solid steel of the kitchen sink for support. “You hate me enough to slap me right about now, so making you hate me a little bit more isn’t gonna make much difference, is it?”
She recognized the intent in his eyes a moment before he acted. It wasn’t enough time to stop him. Before she could even gasp, KD hauled her into his arms, crushing her already aching breasts against the hard wall of his chest and covering her mouth with his.
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