She finished the last of her wine. Vaguely aware of its effects draining the tension from her muscles, she also decided it was time she stopped letting Matt Callaway get to her. Years had passed. People changed. As she had already reminded herself, she was twenty-eight, not an impressionable eighteen. More importantly, not letting him intimidate her would at least return some control to her day.
By the time she decided she wouldn’t be able to work on her little self-improvement project without seeking Matt out, something she hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to do, she had retrieved the bottle of wine from the refrigerator. Twilight had settled deeply over the tranquil view and she had polished off a second glass. Feeling quite relaxed, and certain she would soon feel brave enough to venture inside, she poured another splash simply because sitting there sipping it was the most pleasant thing she’d done all day.
She sank back in her chair.
Across the wide inlet, the trees had turned black against the last light of day. An occasional pinpoint of white indicated a house as isolated as the one her brother had chosen for his escape. Water lapped against the dock. Her brother’s sailboat, its sails furled and masts bare, rocked gently with the incoming tide.
It was peaceful here. Something that surprised her. She wouldn’t have thought Cord could stand all this lovely quiet.
Ten minutes and another splash of wine later, the rumble of the door put an end to tranquility.
Her strappy red sandal slipped from her toes. It hit the deck as she glanced up hoping to see her brother standing there.
Matt leaned against the doorjamb.
He didn’t bother to turn on the porch light, but even in the low glow of the lamps coming from farther inside, she could easily see that he had showered and changed. He’d combed his damp hair straight back from the angular lines of his face. A loose V-neck sweater hung casually over comfortably worn jeans. She couldn’t tell the sweater’s color. She could tell only that it was pale and that it clung rather impressively to his broad shoulders.
The clothing covered him commendably. It didn’t do a thing, however, to disguise the power in his big body. Or, maybe, she thought as he crossed his arms, that power was just the latent tension that surrounded him like a force field.
“Cord just called.”
Reminding herself that she wasn’t going to react to him any differently than she would any other guy, she toed at her shoe. She succeeded only in pushing it farther away. “I didn’t hear the phone.”
“You probably couldn’t hear it through the door,” he replied, his face shadowed in the deep dusk. “He won’t be back until tomorrow.”
Ashley glanced up. “What time is it now?”
She’d been there since six-fifteen.
“He knew I was coming. I left a message on his cell phone.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
“Did he say why he wouldn’t be here?”
“I think her name is Sheryl.”
Give Cord a choice between a good time and responsibility and responsibility lost nearly every time.
“Great,” she muttered, and set her goblet down with a clink beside her purse and the manila envelope beneath it.
She didn’t feel relaxed anymore. The drive had been a total waste.
“Tell me,” she said, leaning forward again to see if she could see her sandal, “is he really playing tonight, or is he just doing what he tends to do when it comes to his family and avoiding me?”
“He didn’t say what he was doing.”
Liar, she thought. He and Cord were as thick as thieves.
“Tell me where he is and I’ll take the papers to him. All I need is two minutes.”
“He didn’t say where he’d be.”
Exasperation threatened to surface. Years of biting back anything that might sound less than agreeable kept it from her tone. “You don’t have to protect him from me,” she assured him, drawn by his loyalty as much as she was annoyed by it. As a Kendrick, it wasn’t easy knowing who to trust. Cord could obviously trust Matt, though. “I’m not asking him to donate an organ. I just want his signature.”
“He’d probably give you the organ.”
“Then, tell him I need a lung and that I’m on my way.”
The corner of his mouth crooked, the expression dangerously close to a smile. “For some reason, I think he might not believe that.” With lazy masculine grace, he pushed himself away from the door. “Leave me the papers. I’ll see that he gets them.”
“I can’t leave them with you.” Still probing for her shoe, she barely noticed the way Matt came to a halt at her flat refusal. “I know my brother. He’ll let them sit around until I have to come back for them. Or he’ll lose them,” she decided, hearing boards creak as Matt resumed his stride. “Then the lawyers will have to redraw them and I’ll have to waste hours chasing him down again. He could have signed these two days ago, but he was in such a hurry to get out of his meeting and up to New York for some concert that he totally spaced it.”
“Maybe he spaced it on purpose.”
“I can’t imagine why. It’s not as if he’s getting cut out of anything. It’s just an administrative formality that Dad wants taken care of this week.”
She nudged her chair back farther, pine legs scraping against cedar.
“Would you turn on the light, please? I can’t see.”
There were times she would like to take a hike from responsibility, too, she thought. At the very least, she would love, for once, to know what it felt like to do what she wanted to do, the way her brother did, instead of what was expected of her. There were times she felt so stifled she could scream.
But that wouldn’t be dignified, either.
A while ago, she’d only felt frustrated by her parents and her life in general. Now, she felt frustrated by a brother who obviously had never learned the value of other people’s time. It didn’t help that she couldn’t find her shoe.
The clean scent of soap and something hinting of citrus, musk and warm male filled her lungs an instant before she glanced up. Matt crouched in front of her. With one hand braced on the arm of her chair, he reached under the table. His arm brushed her leg as he did, the feel of it as solid as granite against her calf.
He picked up what was little more than a dainty heel and a few intersecting ribbons of leather. In the dark, the crimson leather was practically invisible.
“Is this what you’re looking for?”
Ashley’s glance slid from the breadth of his shoulders to the dainty shoe he held in his big hand. With it extended toward her, he openly studied her face and waited for her to take what he offered.
From the unblinking way he watched her, it was almost as if he were daring her not to.
She had no idea where the odd thought had come from. “Thank you,” she murmured, taking the shoe from his hand.
Without a word, he rose, dwarfing her, and stepped back so she could slip the little straps over her foot.
Dismayed by how quickly her heart was beating, she glanced up to see him hold out his hand.
Refusing to let him rattle her was her goal for the day. Utterly determined to have at least that much go her way, she curved her palm over his, willed herself to ignore the heat seeping into her skin and rose from the chair before she could spend any time thinking about the flutter the contact put in her stomach.
She stood too fast. Suddenly light-headed, wanting to ignore that, too, she turned to pick up her purse, keys and the envelope beneath them.
The quick lack of equilibrium wouldn’t