From Chapter Three
Anita. Standing on his front porch, looking wet and tired and more beautiful than anything he’d seen in a long time. Luke gulped and, for a minute, forgot where he was.
His gaze traveled over her heart-shaped face, past the delicate earlobes, down the long elegant curve of her neck, over the inviting swell of her breasts, straining against the sunflower-yellow dress.
He stopped when he noticed the visible bulge at her waist.
Anita was pregnant?
His gaze flickered to her left hand. Empty.
He caught his jaw before it dropped to the floor. But…but…
Try as he might, he couldn’t get his mind around the thought of Anita pregnant and alone.
“I’m not a piece of art, you know,” Anita said, her voice light.
Luke jerked his attention back to Anita’s face. “Sorry. It’s been a tough morning.” He opened the door wider. “Come in.”
She took a step inside, pausing in the entry hall. “Actually, I was looking for your father.”
“My car died. Miss Marchand said your dad was a handyman of sorts, which is just what I need right now. I have no idea what’s wrong with the car. I’m not very engine literate.” She laughed. “Okay, not at all. I don’t think I could tell a dipstick from a piston.”
He chuckled, leaning against the wall. “Remind me never to let you work on my Chevy.”
She held up a palm. “Scouts’ Honor. I’ll stay far away.”
He smirked. “When were you a Girl Scout?”
“Never.” Anita laughed. “Hey, but in a pinch, I can sell you a box of cookies and start a fire with a good set of matches.”
Luke glanced down at her and wanted to ask about the obvious pregnancy, but couldn’t think of a tactful way to do it. So he bumbled along with the only question he could come up with. “There isn’t anyone with you who knows about cars?”
“I live alone.” She didn’t elaborate.
Luke should have realized that last night. There’d been one dish in the sink, one glass on the countertop. “That must be hard,” he said.
“Not really.” She smiled, but it was clear she wasn’t going to talk about the lack of a man in her life. “I do quite well as a hermit. Except when it comes to Home and Auto Maintenance 101. Then I could use a team of experts, especially with that rental house.”
“It didn’t look too bad last night. Well, except for the light in the kitchen.”
She laughed. “It all looks good in the dark. Let’s see,” she began, ticking off the items on her fingers, “my front door is stuck. The roof leaks, the water is the color of coffee, the telephone doesn’t work and oh, there’s this mouse-”
“Whoa!” He held up his hands. “I think you win the Worst Day Award. My dad won’t be back for a few hours, so why don’t you come into the kitchen, have a cup of coffee.” He grinned. “We’ll work on the rest later.” He reached out and took her hand, intending only to lead her into the kitchen. Heat flared between them when he touched her, as if he’d set off a two-alarm fire without meaning to. Luke stepped back, releasing Anita’s palm, and stuffed his hands into his pockets, then led the way down the hall…
…She smiled again, then brushed past him on her way to the kitchen table, leaving the faint scent of jasmine in her wake. The lusty fragrance jetted Luke’s mind back to that night eighteen months ago, to the memory of her in his arms, her body entwined with his, her lips-
What the hell was he doing? The last thing he needed to do was take a trip down Memory Lane right now.
Luke let out a deep breath, regaining control of his senses and his racing pulse. Emily was his priority. His life could be put on hold. Hers was just beginning and she didn’t need a father who was distracted by a new relationship. Besides Anita clearly had other priorities.
That thought set off a strange plummeting feeling in his gut. Anita was entitled to a life, a man. He shouldn’t be bothered one iota about her personal life.
But he was. More than he wanted to admit…
…Anita pivoted again in her chair and her skirt hiked up another couple of inches.
Luke jerked his gaze away and concentrated on the least-sexy thing in the room. A squat cookie jar shaped like a pug, complete with a ceramic chef’s hat and smirky dog grin. Think cookies, he told himself. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, macadamia nut…
Before he could get to thumbprints cookies, his gaze was back on Anita’s fabulous legs. His concentration was shot, at least as long as Anita was here. And that was dangerous. Very dangerous.
She was pregnant, he reminded himself. By another man. Luke had his own problems to worry about. Thinking about Anita in any way other than as a friend he used to know was bad. And even though his curiosity about why she was here and why she was having a baby by herself was damn near eating him up, he didn’t ask, at least not while his daughter was in the room.
Anita rose and crossed to him. “She’s doing great with the computer.” Anita leaned close, her voice a whisper. “But maybe we should leave her alone so she doesn’t feel like we’re watching over her shoulder.” Anita smiled. “And then she’d stop working, just to spite you.”
He smiled back. “You know her too well.”
She shrugged. “Hey, I was twelve once, too.”
Luke motioned to Anita to follow him across the hall and into the den. When she sat in one of the armchairs, her skirt hiked up again.
Luke took the chair opposite and tried like hell to keep his gaze on her face.
“We really shouldn’t tie up your laptop or your time,” he said, in a lame attempt at a coherent conversation. “Emily can use my computer.”
“It’s no big deal,” Anita said. “Besides, it’s still pouring out. I’ll go to the library when it stops raining.”
In that case, Luke hoped Mercy was in for a flood.
“And I know you, Luke. You don’t like anyone messing with your computer.” Anita grinned. “You treat that thing like some people treat their Pomeranians.”
The laughter that rose in his throat and then escaped him had such a foreign sound that for a brief second, Luke almost didn’t recognize it. “I guess I do. Never get between a man and his computer,” he quipped.
“I’ll remember that.” Her voice had taken on a deeper tone, as if she was remembering the same moment he was. A late night in his office, both of them tired from working on a project all day, sharing a few cartons of delivered Chinese, laughing, joking, then not joking at all, Anita’s body pressed against his desk, her mouth hungrily tasting his, equipment falling to the floor as Luke tried to get closer, touch more of her, the blinding passion driving him like the engine of a two-ton truck.
Luke cleared his throat and got to his feet, putting some distance between himself and the jasmine perfume triggering memories in his mind like a starting pistol. He fiddled with the line of framed photos on the mantel.
“So, what do you think of Mercy so far?”
She laughed. “It’s not exactly L.A.”
“Hey, we have a strip mall. And two stoplights. We’re civilized.”
She laughed. “Compared to California, this is the outback.”
He leaned against the door frame, trying to look nonchalant in a white short-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. He suspected he resembled an ironing board more than anything else. “I take it our tiny town bores a city girl like you.”
Anita turned toward the sound of Luke’s voice and concentrated only on the deep, rich timbre. Luke Dole had a measured way of speaking that was both direct and calming, like the roll of the ocean as the tide came in. “No, not at all,” she said quietly. “It’s exactly what I was looking for.”
He hadn’t moved from his spot against the doorjamb, the seemingly relaxed pose masking obvious tension. The muscles in his neck were stiff and his easy grin was anything but.
He seemed unnerved by her presence, as if he was afraid she’d bring up that night-that crazy, heated night in his office-in front of his daughter. Anita might not be the classiest woman in the world, but she was far from tactless. And she wasn’t the kind to whine and demand explanations. A year ago, he’d made it clear, and she’d agreed, that nothing would come of their kiss. Leaving it that way was best for both of them.
Besides, she didn’t need a relationship right now. Anita didn’t rely on other people. Men especially. All a man would do was complicate her plans, a lesson she’d learned in her relationship with Nicholas. Anita pressed a palm to her stomach, knowing her new life, her entire world really, was right inside.
Anita clasped her hands together, feeling oddly uncomfortable. It took a minute for her to realize why-she’d always had a business-based relationship with Luke. Never had she been in his home, or in any kind of private area with him, except for that one hot, wild evening in his office. She cleared her throat, looking for common ground. “So, how’s Mark?”
Luke grinned. “Married, believe it or not.”
“Mark?” She couldn’t hide the surprise in her voice. “I thought he was set on being the world’s oldest bachelor.”
“So did he. Then he met Claire, and he was hooked.”
“Claire? As in Claire Richards? The one who used to live in my house?”
“Yep. The very same one. They fell in love in an RV.” Anita’s eyes widened and Luke let out a laugh. “It’s a long story. Remind me to tell you sometime.”
“I will,” she said, softer than she’d intended. Between them, the temperature rose and the silence thickened.
“So…” he said after a pause, “what brought you to Mercy? Work?”
She laughed. “Actually, I’m not working much at all right now. I quit my job in L.A. when I got pregnant, and now I’m becoming…well, sort of an entrepreneur. With booties.”
“Booties?” He looked about as stunned as he had when she hit him with the Teflon.
“Long story,” she parroted.
“Maybe you’ll tell me over dinner sometime?”
She saw the surprise that flitted across his features, as if he’d shocked himself by asking her out. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. I mean, well…” she let the words trail off because she didn’t know quite what she did mean. Images of sitting across a table from Luke in a darkened restaurant, sharing a plate of linguini, tasting and teasing, played at the edges of her mind.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he finished for her.
Anita got to her feet, stretching her back and arms. As soon as she moved, her stomach began to rumble in an ironic twist that belied her refusal for dinner. The last thing she’d had to eat was that god-awful marmalade. Must have been Luke’s mention of dinner that set her off. That, and the hungry life inside her.
Ever since she’d gotten pregnant, it seemed as if her life revolved around the thought of food. Pickles, French fries, Twinkies. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she’d start craving some crazy treat and end up driving around, searching for a convenience store that had stockpiles of Hostess goodies.
“I should probably go,” she said to Luke, heading toward the hall. “I’ll leave my laptop here so Emily doesn’t lose all the bookmarks and page histories. I can pick it up later.” Her stomach rumbled again, like a complaining volcano.
She felt her face heat up. She paused in the doorway to the kitchen. Luke was inches behind her. “Yeah, a little. Okay, a lot. It’s all right, though. I have some ham at home.”
“Let me guess. From the Mercy Welcoming Committee?” He laughed and the sound of it was like a fresh cup of espresso, vibrant and full. “Stay away from Miss Tanner’s homemade marmalade. She has to give the stuff away to strangers because it’s so awful. She’s a legend at the Indiana State Fair.”
Anita grimaced. “That’s one lesson I already learned. Even the mouse wouldn’t touch that stuff.”
“Listen, the rain isn’t about to let up any time soon. Why don’t you stay for dinner? With me and my family. No strings, no dates.”
Luke gestured toward his daughter, still excitedly surfing the Net and jotting notes. “It looks like Emily has hit upon a gold mine of information and isn’t ready to let go of your laptop yet. Afterward, I can take a look at your car.”
“I can’t just impose like that-”
Luke lowered his mouth to her ear. “I haven’t seen my daughter do a lick of homework for the last six months. Whatever magic touch you seem to have, I’m hoping you’ll stay until she’s finished that report.”
His breath was warm on her ears, rocketing her back to that night he’d kissed her, the one time Anita had followed her instincts, not her head. Desire to taste that slice of heaven again pulsed through her.
Staying here, with Luke, was a crazy idea. He was the kind of man she’d vowed to avoid-a workaholic who would invariably get swept up into the office and forget she existed. She’d learned a long time ago that she could do virtually anything on her own. She depended on herself, no one else. Getting involved with Luke would just be retreading familiar ground.