What Ashley did had nothing to do with need as her mother had meant it. It had to do with feeling that she was earning her own way.
Smoothing the hem of her short red jacket over her white slacks, she settled back in the deck chair. Not liking her mood, hoping to change it, she told herself she might as well enjoy the break.
The effort lasted long enough for her to cross one knee over the other. One low-heeled sandal dangling from her French-manicured toes, she restively swayed her foot and glanced past the wide, tiered deck and her brother’s sailboat moored fifty feet beyond the cedar railing.
She knew that working for her family must be like working for any other employer. Suspected it was, anyway, as she watched the sun set on the sailboats in the long inlet on Chesapeake Bay. She’d never worked for anyone else to know for certain. She loved her family. She truly did. But she was twenty-eight years old, had never in her life done anything that wasn’t by the book, and she was getting really tired of being told what to do and when she could do it.
Ten feet away, the glass deck door rumbled open in its track.
“Do me a favor, will you?”
The sound of Matt’s deep voice had her foot going still an instant before she carefully uncrossed her legs. Knees together, she automatically crossed her ankles, abandoned her mental mutiny and set her wine on the glass-topped table beside her. As she did, she glanced toward the blond jock filling the doorway.
Matt was still dressed as he had been when he’d answered the front door. His loose gray tank top exposed enough of his beautifully cut arms, shoulders and pectorals to leave no doubt about what had to be an impressive six-pack of abdominal muscle. Below the baggy hem of his navy gym shorts, his powerful thighs glistened with sweat.
The front of his shirt was stained with it, too.
He’d obviously finished the workout she’d interrupted when she’d arrived.
“If I can,” she said, hurriedly dragging her eyes from his chest.
“I just need you to listen for the phone.” His glance slid over her, bold and assessing, much as it had when he’d opened the front door. He’d seemed as surprised to find her there as she’d been to find herself faced with his decidedly large and impressive body. Within seconds of her unconsciously stepping back, he’d also seemed just as edgy with her as he’d always been. “I’m getting in the shower and won’t be able to hear it. Cord said he’d call if he got held up.”
Without looking up, swearing she could feel that edginess radiating toward her, she nodded. “Sure.”
“If he does call, tell him he doesn’t need to stop by the construction site. I have the reports he left there.”
The construction site. That would be the major mall Matt’s company was building outside Newport News for Kendrick Investments. Apparently, he’d come down from Baltimore to check on its progress and was staying with Cord while he was here.
She might not have seen Matt in years, but that didn’t mean she didn’t occasionally hear about him through the somewhat tangled family grapevine.
“I’ll do that,” she quietly assured him.
Restively pushing his fingers through his hair, he turned away. A heartbeat later, he turned back. “And tell him that if he wants me to help him with his boat, he’s going to have to pick up some graphite. His ignition switch is jammed.”
“You’re working on his boat?”
“I’m helping him get the winter kinks out of it as long as I’m here. He just had it brought from dry dock yesterday.”
She gave him another nod, tried not to stare at his thighs. At least now she knew why he was here.
“I’ll pass that on, too.”
She thought he would leave then, go inside and leave her to stew in the lovely late-June evening. She hoped he would, anyway, since she couldn’t think of anything else to say with him watching her so closely. She could practically feel his quiet scrutiny move from her low ponytail to where her bare toes were now tucked, ladylike, beneath her chair.
He was about to say something else. She felt certain of it.
Or, so she was thinking when she saw him slowly shake his head and the door finally rumbled closed.
Her breath escaped in a long, low rush.
All Matt had said when she’d asked if Cord was home was that he expected her brother in about an hour. He’d then stepped back, more to allow her her space than to get out of her way, told her she might as well come on in and disappeared in the direction of the weight room.
With him going one way, she had immediately decided to wait for her brother in the other—which had put her out on the deck.
She picked up her wine again, took a healthy sip.
In the space of seconds, he’d thrown her back ten years. She hated that he still made her nervous, but she’d at least grown up enough to carry on a relatively normal conversation with him. When she’d first met him at the tender age of fourteen—a full year before her parents had banned him from the house because he’d turned out to be such a bad influence on her brother—he’d intimidated the daylights out of her.
He’d been big even back then. Tall, broad-shouldered and filled out more like a man than a prep-school senior. The years had carved an appealing maturity into his beachboy good looks, and his effect on her now was actually rather intriguing considering how much time had passed. Yet every time she’d seen him back then, her teenage heart had done a pirouette in her chest. The way he would narrow his beautiful steel-gray eyes and tell her she could at least say hello had tied her tongue, literally stolen any clever thing she might have said right from her head.
Then, she had begun to overhear the concerns her parents had expressed about him. About how Matt had been suspended from school for fighting. About how he’d stolen liquor from another friend’s home. About how they could no longer trust their son in his company because Cord had picked up his unruly behavior and Cord had already been difficult enough as it was.
Had she been the rebellious type herself, she supposed she would have found Matt’s defiance of authority terribly attractive. And she had—in a safe, James Dean teenage-fantasy sort of way. But her parents pampered and protected their children. Their girls, especially. She had been sheltered all her life from people who lacked manners and breeding and, being a good and dutiful daughter, she had avoided him like the proverbial plague long before he had been declared persona non grata at the Kendrick estate. Even after Matt and Cord had hooked up again in college, she had found herself avoiding him.
Not that their paths had crossed often. Until she had arrived at her brother’s that evening, she hadn’t seen Matt since his and Cord’s college graduation. And then, only at a distance. The most exposure she’d had to him was to hear his name in connection with the astonishing growth of his company and, occasionally, to hear her mother complain that Cord had taken off with him yet again to risk his neck in pursuit of an adrenaline high.
She crossed her legs once more, her foot slowly swaying as she nursed her chardonnay. She had the distinct feeling that Matt’s and her brother’s mutual love of adventure was why they had remained such good friends despite the temporary ban from each other in their youth. Cord climbed mountains simply because they were there. He sailed, scuba dived and flew his own plane. If there was a force to be conquered, he met the challenge head-on. More often than not, according to her mom, Matt was the one who introduced the challenge in the first place.
Still stewing about her day, she rather wished she had that sort of nerve herself. Make that guts, she thought, unladylike as the word sounded. She rather wished she had such guts herself.
She would never admit such a thing aloud, of course. It wouldn’t be dignified and heaven knew she needed to be that. At that moment, though, feeling constrained by her parents, her life and her own inability to buck the tide, she couldn’t help thinking that she would love to abandon the conventions she lived with and lose herself in something that made her feel