A very male shadow.
The heavy shoulders and narrow waist told her as much. But she’d spent enough time admiring that particular masculine physique today that she didn’t have to guess who she was watching.
Carson McNeill had come home.
He stood at the deep end, facing the house. Facing her. She recognized his clothes from earlier; he must have just returned from his family obligation. She didn’t move, not wanting him to see her.
Wanting to watch him a little longer.
But then he raised his hands and dragged his T-shirt over his head. The light from the pool glinted off the bare muscle of his arms. She couldn’t see his abs in the shadows but her imagination supplied a picture of them just fine.
It was too late to shout down to him. Or at least, that was what she told herself. She seemed to have forgotten how to move, let alone speak.
His hand moved to his belt and he stepped out of his boots. Her mouth went dry when he reached for the button on his fly.
She gasped out loud when he stepped out of the denim.
That must have been what he heard. His head snapped up then, his gaze immediately finding her.
Her heart thudded so loud in her own ears she wondered if he heard that, too. Still, she couldn’t seem to lift her eyes from the slim-fitting boxer shorts that hugged his hips.
“Emma?” His voice smoked through her, heating her skin from the inside. “Is that you?”
There would be no slinking back to her room now.
Emma struggled to find her voice, flustered to her toes to be caught gawking.
“Carson?” She feigned surprise, as if she’d been standing at the railing staring at the moon and not the almost-naked gorgeous man in the courtyard. “I—er—didn’t see you there.” She cleared her throat to smooth over the cracks in her voice. “It’s a little cool out for a swim, isn’t it?”
She couldn’t quite peel her eyes away from him. But it was dark enough he couldn’t possibly tell exactly where she was looking. She hoped.
He grinned, his teeth a flash of white in the moonlight. “Spoken like a southern California girl. And no, it isn’t too cold.” He backed up a step, retrieving his jeans and shirt. “I thought you would have been asleep by now or I would have checked on you.”
Moonlight played over his muscles as he slid the denim back up over his hips. The light in the pool cast a watery glimmer on his chest until he put his T-shirt on. Having him less naked helped her brain cells start functioning again, but she wasn’t forgetting what she’d seen any time soon.
“I’m fine.” She wondered what “checking on her” might have involved, though. “Mrs. Tillson made sure I had dinner and helped me get settled.”
She noticed he left his boots by the pool as he jogged across the pavers to the wooden staircase at the far end of the upper deck. The deck that led to her.
Straightening, she remembered what she was wearing. A flannel shirt over an outfit she normally wore to bed. It was decidedly lacking in coverage. While Carson climbed the steps, she discreetly adjusted the waistband of the shorts, easing them a bit lower on her hips to cover the tops of her thighs before wrapping the flannel shirt around her again.
Her heart thudded hard against her chest as he strode closer, his steps light on the planked decking that lined the whole upstairs floor along the back of this section of the house.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else you need?” he asked as he reached her, his gaze missing nothing.
For one heated moment, she allowed herself to consider the question. Then reason returned and she shook her head. “I’m all set. And I appreciate the hospitality. I certainly never would have expected you to—”
He waved off her thanks, leaning on the rail as he faced her. “Don’t think twice about it. I will sleep better knowing you’re as safe as we can make you here.”
A different kind of warmth filled her at his kindness. “Thank you.” She soaked in the comfort of his protection for just a moment. His caring. Then she remembered his quick exit earlier. “Is everything all right with your family? I’m sorry that your stepmother is in the hospital.”
He looked out over the ranch for a moment, his jaw flexing. He nodded. “Things are better now. My stepmother has been in a coma since she fell in a hiking accident, but her doctors say she’s coming out of it.”
“I’m so sorry. That must have been frightening for your whole family.” Her hand landed on his forearm. Squeezed. She had a tenuous relationship with her own mother, but she couldn’t imagine life without her. Jane Layton was the only family Emma had since her father’s suicide when she was three years old.
A cool breeze chilled her, sending a shiver up her spine.
“I just hope they’ll let her come home soon. Worrying about her has really taken a toll on my father.” Carson glanced over at her, frowning down at her bare legs. “You’re cold. Let’s find a spot to sit away from the wind for a minute and then I’ll let you get to bed.”
He palmed the space between her shoulder blades, steering her toward the seating area close to the French doors that led into her suite. As she dropped into one of the thick cushioned seats, he tugged a throw blanket off the love seat and laid it over her legs.
“It’s okay. I’m too wound up to sleep anyway.” She hadn’t anticipated her ex’s release from prison to churn up so many old insecurities, especially after the months she’d trained to feel strong and confident. She tucked the edges of the blanket—a soft wool blend—under her to keep the wind out.
“I ordered more private security starting tomorrow.” He lowered himself into the love seat, putting him at a right angle to her chair.
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