메인 Rebel Waltz

Rebel Waltz

,
0 / 0
이 책이 얼마나 마음에 드셨습니까?
파일의 품질이 어떻습니까?
책의 품질을 평가하시려면 책을 다운로드하시기 바랍니다
다운로드된 파일들의 품질이 어떻습니까?
언어:
english
시리즈:
LS-128
파일:
EPUB, 1.89 MB
다운로드 (epub, 1.89 MB)

귀하의 관심을 살 수 있습니다 Powered by Rec2Me

 
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
책에 대한 리뷰를 작성하거나 귀하의 독서 경험을 공유할 수 있습니다. 다른 독자들이 귀하가 읽은 책에 대한 의견에 귀를 기울일 것입니다. 개인적으로 책이 마음에 들었거나 그렇지 않았거나 정직하고 상세한 호평은 다른 독자들이 자신에게 적합한 책을 찾는데 도움이 됩니다.
1

Something Different & Pepper's Way

언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 1.95 MB
0 / 0
2

On Wings of Magic

언어:
english
파일:
EPUB, 1.89 MB
0 / 0
FIVE

THE NEXT FEW days were hectic ones. And peculiar. Raised in a family that traditionally loved parties, Banner was accustomed to planning quite lavish ones; Rory's barbecue-and-pool-party-cum- moonlight proved to be no exception. Clearly determined that she not be forced to do all the work, he threw his energy—which was considerable—into the effort. They worked together companionably over lists, shared the chore of innumerable phone calls and errands, bickered amiably over what kind of music and who was to cater, and argued the merits of Japanese lanterns versus torches around the pool.

The Hall servants bore up nobly under the deluge of temporary help and delivery vans, although Conner, their butler, who had been given the prior week off to visit a sick relative, threatened to give notice when it turned out that the caterer Rory had hired was Creole and explosively temperamental.

Rory saved that situation, although Banner never could find out from the principals exactly how he managed. And she was desperately curious, because the normally taciturn Conner walked around for two days with a peculiarly shy smile on his face, and then tended to poker up whenever he saw her watching him.

“What on earth did you bribe the man with?”

“Shame on you. I'm above bribery.”

“Oh, of course. Did you find him a hot date?”

“Banner!”

“That shocked look sits ill on your devious face.”

“Just for that, I'll never tell you.” “Rory!”



One of Rory's “special touches” turned out to be a hayride, which he planned with meticulous detail. He managed to find six huge wagons, the teams to pull them, and a driver for each wagon. He found the sweetest- smelling hay in the county for the wagons. He even managed to locate an old rutted trail that wound for miles all around the plantation and never got near paved roads or the noisy sounds of civilization.

“The invitations look peculiar, you know.”

“How so?”

“Well, explaining the moonlight barbecue and pool party is no problem, but how do I warn the guests to bring jeans for;  the hayride?”

“You say: Optional hayride—bring jeans.”

“There's something lacking in that.”

“Who's going to care?”

“True.”



As the days slipped by, Banner was uneasily aware that Rory's companionship was becoming far too important to her. From their morning swim to a late snack before bedtime, they were almost constantly together. To be sure, it was an undemanding companionship; other than holding her hand or occasionally draping an arm around her shoulders, Rory made no attempt to put their relationship on a more intimate footing.

She told herself she was glad of that, told herself what was never begun could have no painful ending. She didn't believe herself.

She could at least partially put the matter out of her mind during the busy, laughter-filled days. But the nights were hell. It was more than irritating to one who had always slept easily and soundly to find herself suddenly restless and awake long into the night. She tried hot chocolate and warm baths, and she tried counting sheep. Nothing worked.

On Thursday, the night before the party, she was particularly restless. A week of being constantly in Rory's company, trying vainly to ignore the tense awareness his nearness brought, had taken its toll. It was late, the house was dark and quiet, and Banner lay awake staring at a shadowy ceiling. The fifth time she looked at the clock on her nightstand, it was two A.M.

Deciding that it was better to be up and doing something if she must be awake, she threw back the covers and left the bed. After flipping a mental coin, she exchanged the sleep shirt for one of her swimsuits. She normally wore a relatively modest one-piece when she swam in the mornings, but this time chose a daring bikini she never wore unless she was sure to be alone; it was her “tanning suit,” purchased simply because it was the briefest thing she had been able to find.

She pulled a white terry beach caftan from her closet and drew it on, picked up a thick towel from her bathroom, then padded barefoot downstairs and through the silent house.

The day had been hot and still; the night was warm and a bit muggy. It was typical midsummer weather for the South, and the weather prediction promised another such day and night for their party. Banner automatically followed the garden path out to the pool. She stopped at the side of the cabana to flip the switch activating the underwater pool lights, then opened the gate and stepped inside the two-acre “privacy fence” that surrounded the pool.

It wasn't until she'd crossed several yards of sparkling tile that she realized she hadn't been the only one in the house with this idea.

“Hi,” Rory called softly from the middle of the pool.

The underwater lights bathed the entire area in a hazy blue light, and between that and the full moon, she could see him clearly. He had spoken while floating lazily on his back, but now swam toward the side closest to her with the easy, powerful strokes she knew so well from their morning swims. Banner dropped her towel on a table and slid her hands into the deep pockets of her caftan, suddenly very conscious of the lateness of the hour and of the fact that they were more alone than they'd ever been. Even though they had shared the pool early every morning this past week, she had always been aware of the sounds of gardeners working to ready the area all around the pool for their party.

She didn't cross the remaining couple of feet of tile, but remained where she was. “Hi. I—I didn't think anyone else was still up.”

“I've been out here every night about this time,” he said calmly, resting his elbows and forearms on the tile as he gazed up at her.

“Every night? I didn't realize you liked swimming that much.”

“What I don't like is staring at a dark ceiling. Come on in. The water's great.”

Banner forced herself to ignore the implications of his first comment; he probably just meant he was a confirmed insomniac, that was all. At any rate, she was suddenly too busy remembering her scanty swimsuit to think about much else. She considered making some excuse to avoid entering the water, but knew that whatever she said, he'd think she was avoiding him.

If only he wouldn't keep watching her. Once in the water, her suit wouldn't look quite so brief, but standing here in full view of God and everybody—

“What's wrong?” Then, in a suddenly altered voice, he added, “I can leave if you'd rather swim alone.”

“No. No, of course not.” Banner walked to the edge of the pool at right angles to him, where wide steps led down into the shallow end. Trying to move as quickly as possible without looking as if she were hurrying, she pulled the long caftan up over her head, tossed it aside, and stepped down into the water.

She didn't look toward Rory, still at the side and utterly motionless, but instead struck out for the far end, swimming the length of the pool in her easy, graceful crawl. She swam back until her feet touched bottom in the shallow end, standing upright, so that the surface of the water came just to her breasts.

“You're right,” she said breathlessly to the man who still hadn't moved. “The water is great.”

“So's that suit.”

Banner knew that it was hardly possible, anatomically speaking, for a heart to turn over; she wondered vaguely what actually happened to that organ to produce such a peculiar feeling. And she stood very still, because there had been something in his voice, an oddly taut, leashed quality, that warned her this moment was a dangerous one.

“Another thing that would have tried Rhett's patience,” he added huskily.

Banner managed a shaky laugh. “I only wear it when I'm—when I think I'll be alone. For sunbathing.”

He left the side, moving toward her until he stood just an arm's length away. “There's no sun now,” he pointed out.

“But I thought I'd be alone.”

“Don't ask me to leave.”

It was half command and half plea. Banner found herself staring, almost hypnotized, at the broad expanse of his chest. It should have been unthreateningly familiar to her after a week of morning swims, but it seemed to her then that she'd never really looked before. Never really let herself look before. Now she saw the sleek, dark gold mat of hair covering tanned, muscled flesh, and swallowed hard.

“Rory, I—”

“Do you know,” he interrupted, stepping even closer, “what I first noticed about you? Green eyes and an impossibly tiny waist. I thought: Scarlett O'Hara, for heaven's sake! But with you around, she'd never have been the belle of three counties.”

“You're hung up on that book,” she said with forced lightness.

“Parallels, I suppose.” His voice was absent. One hand lifted to touch her cheek gently, then slid down to her throat, his thumb stroking her jawline. “Green eyes and a tiny waist. And the Hall's your Tara. But you're not in love with another man—are you?”

“No.” She knew he could feel the pulse pounding in her neck, knew that her quick, shallow breathing was obvious to him. But she could only stare up at him, fascinated by the sparkling droplets of water adorning smooth golden skin. Fascinated by his deep voice, by the warmth of his hand. And she caught her breath audibly when his free hand found her waist beneath the water.

“I always thought,” he mused softly, “that Rhett was misunderstood by everyone—not just Scarlett. He wanted her so badly, and waited so patiently for her to want him. And they came so close, those two. Do you think she got him back, by the way?”

Banner knew dimly that he was drawing more parallels, knew that he was telling her something. But her bemused mind just couldn't cope with cryptic ideas. Not then. So she answered his question. “Yes. She got him back.”

“But he left her,” Rory reminded softly. “He said he didn't give a damn what happened to her.”

“He was tired. He was exhausted.” Banner wasn't really listening to her own words; she just spoke instinctively. “But he loved her. He'd loved her for so long. He would have come back to her. He did come back to her.”

Rory bent his head until his breath was warm on her face, and smiled slowly. “Your sense of romance is definitely fine, milady.”

“Do—do you think he came back?” she murmured.

“I know he did.”

Banner's eyes remained open, staring into the darkened slate gray of his; they seemed to fill her vision, her mind, velvety pools she wanted to drown herself in. His lips teased hers, brushing in a satiny caress that tempted her, tortured her. His tongue probed the sensitive inner flesh of her parted lips, sending shivers through her body.

His body was taut against hers, his tension evident when his hand moved to the small of her back and pressed her hips to his. But he made no move to deepen the kiss. Instead, the tormenting, unsatisfying little caresses went on and on, sapping her strength and willpower. His fingers stroked her throat, the back of her neck, then tangled in her thick curls to hold her head firmly.

Jerkily, her hands lifted to his chest, fingertips exploring silky hair and firm flesh. She wanted so badly to touch him, wanted so badly to feel his strong arms locked around her body. Nothing else seemed to matter. Knowingly, willingly, she closed her eyes and abandoned a fight that had never begun.

Whether he sensed her feelings or simply lost patience himself, Rory abruptly deepened the kiss in fierce need. His mouth slanted across hers hotly, desperately, drawing from her more than she could afford to lose.

But Banner didn't care. Since the passionate embrace of that first night and during all the casual touches of the past week, hunger had built within her like floodwaters behind a dam. She was lost in the swirling rush of escaping passion, afloat only because he held her. Her arms slid around his neck, and the feeling of his arms locked around her body fed the hunger inside her.

The warm water lapped around them, caressing them, and the warm night air carried the heady scent of roses—the traditional flower of love. In a blue-lit haze, they were alone, and Banner wanted to stop time.

She could feel the feverish heat of his body and her own; they were pressed so tightly together she could even feel his heart thudding against her. The hardness of his body lent weakness to her own, and his taut tension was hers. When he lifted his head finally, she had no strength even to open her eyes, and her breath was suspended somewhere far away, out of reach.

“Look at me,” he whispered roughly.

She forced leaden eyelids to raise, gazing up at a handsome face that was tense and gray eyes that were dark and compelling. Aching from head to foot, she was conscious of nothing but her need for him.

“I want you,” he said huskily, his head lowering once again and lips feathering down her throat as Banner instinctively let her head fall back. “You know that.”

“Yes.” Mindless, she twined her fingers among the silky strands of his thick hair.

“And you want me.” It wasn't a question.

But she answered. “Yes,” she whispered.

His warm lips traced the swell of her breast as his fingers unerringly found the flimsy string ties of her bikini top. The tiny black triangles fell away and floated aimlessly to one side, unnoticed by either of them. Rory groaned softly. “God, you're so beautiful,” he muttered hoarsely. “So tiny and beautiful…”

His hands cupped achingly sensitive flesh, thumbs teasing erotically until her body cried out in a sweet, stinging agony, coming vibrantly alive beneath his touch. Warm lips touched and held, and heat exploded in the depths of her belly and spread like wildfire through every nerve of her body. She arched against him, her hips pressed into his in a primal seeking of possession, a moan shivering from deep in her throat.

Abruptly, Rory caught her in a fierce embrace. Her breasts were pressed against his chest, her face buried in the curve of his neck. He held her with a strength just this side of savagery, and there was a trace of that wildness in the reluctant words that seemed torn rawly from his throat.

“There's still… your Tara,” he said thickly.

Banner stiffened, sudden coldness washing her mind and body with sanity. Her Tara, her Tara, which he wanted…

She pulled away and turned her back to him, finding her floating bikini top with one blind, seeking hand. Fumbling to tie the strings at her neck, she choked out, “Why did you—why did you have to—”

“Remind us both?” His voice was rough, hoarse, but the hands that found the remaining two strings and tied them at her back were gentle.

“Yes.” Head bowed, she stared unseeingly at the blue- tinted water, unable to face him because she was afraid of what she'd see in his eyes.

He reached out, pulling her gently back against him, one arm around her waist and the other lying warmly, heavily, across her breasts. “Because I want you to trust me not to hurt you,” he said softly, fiercely.

Banner said nothing.

His cheek rested against her hair, and she felt his chest rise and fall against her back as he sighed. “I think we're both a little drunk tonight, milady. Drunk on moonlight and roses… and desire. The easiest thing to do would be to follow our instincts. But your Tara… I think that has to be resolved first—don't you?”

Banner closed her eyes, wishing desperately that he hadn't had to remind them both. She wanted to believe she'd feel no differently about him once the Hall was his, but she knew herself too well for that. A part of her realized and accepted that she would have cut off an arm for him; but losing the Hall would be cutting out her heart.

“Yes,” she said tonelessly. “Yes, that has to be resolved.”

His arms tightened. “I won't hurt you, Banner. You have to believe that.”

Not trusting her voice, she remained silent.

He sighed again. “Tell me what to do, milady. Should I walk away from the Hall and open up the field for another buyer?”

“No,” she whispered.

“And if I buy it?”

“I know you'll buy it.” She thought of the ghostly soldiers he'd seen, and wondered vaguely if she should tell him she had known, from that moment, he would buy the Hall and live here.

“If I do…” His voice was low and oddly hesitant. “You and Jake could stay here.”

“No.” She swallowed hard. “No, we couldn't do that.”

“Not even if you were my wife?” he asked very quietly.

Banner found that she wasn't breathing. Her heart was pounding violently, and for one single, dizzy moment, she closed her eyes and suspended reality. But she couldn't suspend it forever. In a voice she held even by main force, she said, “That—that wouldn't happen.”

“I love you.”

Just that, simple and calm. She wanted to cry, but couldn't. And she realized with a peculiar certainty that it would never again be as easy for her to cry as it had been before this moment. Her throat was tight and dry, and she stared straight ahead, silent and blind.

“You'll never be sure, will you?” he mused in that same calm tone. “You'll always wonder if I love you because of the Hall or in spite of it. Or even if I really love you at all. You'll never be sure.”

Hearing the words, she knew how certain they both were of the truth of those words. She would always wonder. And neither of them would be able to bear that.

Their beginning was also their ending.

“It's late,” she said flatly. “And we have a long day ahead of us.”

Silently, he freed her from his gentle embrace. But his hand found hers as they moved through the water and up the steps. He released her hand only long enough for her to don the caftan and for him to shrug into his own terry robe, then his fingers twined with hers once again as they left the pool enclosure and headed back through the garden to the house.

“I'll do my best to convince you, you know,” he said conversationally as they neared the veranda. “Rhett might have been worn out by his chase, but I've got more staying power. If it takes me years, I'll teach you to trust my love for you, milady.”

Banner knew that her fingers were clinging to his, just as she was clinging to the last instant of this moonlit night when impossibilities had seemed almost within reach. She wanted to tell him that. But an ending was no place for such things.

Just outside the French doors, Rory stopped and turned her to face him, his hands firm on her shoulders. “You think it's over, don't you? You think I'll buy this place, and that you'll leave it— and me—behind. But you're wrong, Banner. We've both got rebel blood; we both know how to fight.”

He bent his head suddenly, capturing her lips, kissing her hungrily and possessively. His hands slid down to her hips and drew her against him, making her all too aware that his calm voice had belied a desire that had not ebbed in the least. And that throbbing desire rekindled the hot ache in her own body.

She kissed him back helplessly, unable to deny how his touch affected her. There was still moonlight spilling over them, and she was still clinging to precious moments.

Rory framed her face in gentle hands as he raised his head, his breathing rough and quick. “Fair warning, milady,” he said tautly. “The last gentlemanly warning you'll get from me. From this point on, I don't intend to fight fair… because I'm fighting for my life.”

“You have one weapon I can't fight,” she admitted unsteadily, honest because she didn't know how not to be.

“And I'll use that weapon,” he promised. His lips toyed with hers for a brief, tantalizing moment. “This weapon. And any other I can find. But I won't hold the Hall out as a lure. We both know you'll come to me only because of me, and not for what I can give you. And you will come to me, Banner.”

The soft vow held a conviction that stole what little breath she had left, but Banner tried to resist his certainty. “No. You were right. I'd never be sure. I'd always wonder.”

“You'll come to me.”

She found that her hands were holding his wrists, but she was unable even to try to push his hands away from her. “No.”

“Yes.”

“Don't do this to me,” she pleaded huskily. “It'll make it so much worse when—when I have to leave.”

“Leave the Hall? Or leave me?”

“Both,” she whispered.

“Do you love me, Banner?”

“You're not—”

“Fighting fair? I warned you.” His voice was fierce. “Do you love me?”

“No.”

He tilted her face up and covered her lips with his, his tongue probing, possessing. His hands slid downward, exploring her thinly-clad, awakened body with insistent demand. “Do you love me?” he muttered against her lips.

“No—”

Demand shifted insidiously and became supplication, entreaty. His very body wooed hers, his lips pleaded with an aching hunger. Gentle hands caressed with tender care, sensitive and adoring. He held her as if she were a fragile, precious thing.

And Banner's shaky defenses collapsed.

“Do you love me?” he asked, pleading, his voice raw.

“Yes,” she cried brokenly. “Damn you—yes!”

He went very still, his lips only a breath away from hers, his face too shadowy for her to read. “Say it,” he whispered.

“I love you #x201D; She felt that she was bleeding

inside, something vital torn from her by a will greater than her own. She almost hated him then, because he had forced her to see what would have been less painful if ignored. It would always be there now, a part of the beginning that had been so promising and of the ending there would be no avoiding. She almost hated him. “I love you.”

Rory held her close, no demand and no plea in his embrace now, but rather an odd, soothing protectiveness, as if he knew what he had done to her. “I needed to hear that,” he said, and breathed softly into her hair.

“It doesn't change anything,” she managed unsteadily, the unfulfilled need aching in her.

“Doesn't it?”

“Nothing's changed.”

“I love you, Banner.”

She wished she could cry. She wished she could hate him. “Rory—”

“I love you.”

Defeated, she whispered, “And I love you.”

Rory drew back far enough to gaze down at her. After a moment, he kissed her very gently. His eyes were glowing silver, reflecting moonlight—or something else. “You'd better go up to bed, milady. We have a long day ahead of us.”

“You—?”

“I think I'll sit out here for a while.” He opened the door for her, touching her cheek in a final tender gesture. “Good night.”

Silently, Banner went into the house.

Rory closed the door behind her, then turned and crossed the veranda to one of the comfortable chairs. He sat down and gazed for a moment at his shaking hands. Then, grimly, he told himself aloud, “Much more of this and you'll be a gibbering idiot.”

He sighed heavily, wishing that he could get drunk. It would, he decided, be a dandy time to get drunk. He hadn't been prepared for his own loss of patience, hadn't been prepared to tell Banner how he felt about her. Somehow, it had just happened. He didn't regret its happening, but he was worried that he might have played his hand wrongly.

Had he driven her away by pushing?

Restless, his body punishing him for his forbearance, he shifted in his chair. His gaze tracked absently across the veranda, then sharpened as he made out a shadowy form among the darkness of climbing ivy near the corner. He started to call out a demanding query, but then a cord of memory twanged in his mind.

Though indistinct, the form was definitely that of a man dressed in the clothing of another century, and moonlight gleamed hazily off blond hair.

Rory was oddly unsurprised, once the first instinctive shock wore off, to see Banner's “guardian” there. He studied what he could see of the watching presence, wryly noting the broad shoulders that were held stiffly with obvious anger.

“Busybody,” he accused.

Only chilly silence greeted this.

“All right,” he said quietly. “I know it was cruel. I know I pushed her hard and forced her to see something she wasn't ready to see. But I meant what I said. I won't hurt her.”

Utter stillness was a condemnation.

Rory sighed. Then, very softly, speaking to himself as much as to the shadowy watcher, he murmured, “I love her. I know what I did to her by forcing those words out of her. I know it wasn't the right time, either. But she's my lady… and I had to make her see that. I have to keep showing her that, proving it to her. Nothing else matters. She has to believe in my love… because she's going to be mad as hell when she finds out…”

His voice trailing into silence, Rory shook his head bemusedly and stared at the empty corner of the veranda.

Well. He'd imagined it, of course.


TEN

THE TRIP TO New York was uneventful. They'd reserved a suite in a hotel fairly near the gallery, and spent a couple of hours settling in before taking a taxi to see how David Moore had set up for the show, which was scheduled to open the following day.

Banner surprised Rory by not appearing the least bit nervous; she was cheerful when David met them at the door, and didn't seem at all disturbed by the coming ordeal of public and critical scrutiny of her work.

It made Rory very nervous.

David conducted them on a tour of his gallery, explaining how and why he'd placed each of Banner's paintings as he had. Then he took the three of them—Banner, Rory, and Jake—out to dinner. He was unashamedly excited about the show, especially since everyone he'd invited to the opening had accepted; tomorrow promised to be a day to warm a gallery owner's heart.

Late that night, as they lay together in their room, Rory tried one last, plaintive time.

“Would you please drop the other shoe, milady?”

Moving even closer to his side, she murmured sleepily, “Can't stand the heat, hero?”

“The suspense.”

“Mmmm. It's good for your character, I'm sure.”

“Witch.”

When they arrived at the gallery the next afternoon, it was teeming with chattering people. David immediately met them, beaming, offering glasses of champagne and introductions. Rory enjoyed Banner's bemusement as people sincerely praised her work, and he stepped away from her to watch.

It was quite some time later that he became aware of someone staring at him, and turned his head to see a young lady who was a total stranger to him. As his eyes met hers, puzzled, she suddenly giggled and turned rather hastily away. Increasingly bewildered, he realized then that there was quite a bit of smothered laughter directed toward him. Uneasily aware that the shoe had somehow dropped without his noticing, Rory racked his brain, trying to figure out where it had landed.

Jake, who had wandered off to look over the paintings, suddenly materialized beside him. And the older man looked as if he were about to burst out laughing. “My boy,” he said unsteadily, “I sincerely hope and trust you have a strong ego.”

Rory looked at him with foreboding. “Will you please tell me what she's done?” he requested carefully.

Even more unsteadily, Jake said, “I think— she's made damned sure the punishment—fit the crime. You sprang the show on her, so… so she's springing something on you—at the show.”

Taking a deep breath, Rory said, “Where is it?”

Jake gestured helplessly. “Just around the corner there.”

Warily, Rory made his way around the corner indicated, studiously avoiding the smiling people staring at him. He rounded the corner, stopped… and his reaction—after the momentary impulse hurriedly to find himself a quiet, dark corner—was sheer rueful amusement.

Banner had gotten even. Oh, how she had gotten even.

The painting—tagged not for sale—was remarkably well done, especially considering the few days she'd had to work on it and the fact that she'd painted entirely from memory. He now knew why she'd “moved” her equipment and materials, and why she had disappeared so frequently these last days.

And he knew why laughing eyes kept following him.

Morning sunlight bathed the veranda in the foreground and the rose garden in the background. And on the veranda stood an obviously furious blond man with a brilliant green bed-sheet wrapped togalike around him. His hands were clutching slipping linen, and both his tousled hair and morning stubble indicated a rude awakening of some kind. And if Rory had dared to ignore the similarity between this man and himself, Banner had carefully provided a positive identification by detailing the fire-opal signet ring he always wore on his right hand.

He realized he was grinning, and heard the muffled sounds of chuckles trying to escape. Roll with the punches, Jake'd advised? Hell, the little witch had punched below his belt! But he couldn't get mad, for some reason. He just made an emphasized, capitalized, underlined note to himself never again to get her mad.

With an effort, he managed to get his face straightened out and sober. Shoring up the mental shields around his bruised ego, he turned and stoically ran the gauntlet of those amused faces again, until he was standing before Banner.

She was alone for the first time since they'd come in, sipping a glass of champagne and watching his approach with a meditative air. When he stood staring down at her, she said only, “Want your ring back?” in a very calm voice.

“Milady,” he said carefully, “I don't think I've ever had vengeance wreaked on me quite so thoroughly before now.”

“Thank you,” she responded politely.

“My ego's in shreds.”

“I thought it might be.”

“My pride is in my shoes.”

“These Clairmont women,” she mourned sympathetically.

“I don't think I've ever been so damned embarrassed in front of total strangers.”

“Poor man.”

“And Jake will never again be able to look at me with a straight face.”

She lifted a gently inquiring eyebrow and waited.

“If I were a reasonably sane, self- preserving male,” he said musingly, “I would run like hell from a woman who not only has a talent for devious revenge, but also knows damned well I'm not going to run anywhere at all.”

“Now, how could I know that?” she asked innocently. “I did ask if you wanted your ring back.”

“You're a witch.”

“So you've said.”

“I should walk out that door right now.”

“A sane man would,” she agreed seriously.

“Will you swear never to do this to me again?”

“I'll never do this particular thing to you again,” she said promptly.

“Because you never repeat yourself?”

“Uh-huh.”

“But if I make you mad, you'll still get even somehow?”

“What can I say?”

“I should definitely walk out that door.”

“Oh, definitely.”

“Revenge is childish, you know.”

“Certainly.”

“Still … when I waltz with a Rebel, I guess I should expect to get my toes stepped on from time to time.”

“Only when you step on mine first.”

“I guess I'd better be careful from now on, huh?”

“That might be best.”

“Safer, anyway.”

“Uh-huh. Want your ring back?”

“Are you kidding?” He reached out to take her glass, setting it on a handy table, then pulled her into his arms with a fine disregard for all the people milling around. “I know a good thing when I latch on to one.”

Banner smiled slowly, her own arms sliding around his waist. “Now I can say it,” she murmured.

“Say what?”

“Thank you for saving my Tara, darling.”

“I didn't save it.” He nodded around at the paintings surrounding them, most with “sold” stickers next to them. “You saved it.”

“I know who saved it,” she said huskily, and stood on tiptoes to kiss him.



At Rory's request, Banner wore an antebellum-style gown for their wedding, in the rose garden of Jasmine Hall. Jake gave her away and Rory's mother, Laura, who had been a guest at the Hall for the past several weeks, was her matron of honor. And the entire neighborhood, along with numerous acquaintances from Charleston, turned out.

Since the couple had decided to defer their honeymoon for a few days and planned to remain at the Hall, there was no great rush to change clothes for a bridal trip; everyone ended up making a party day of it.

Banner and Rory wandered together among the guests in the garden, she still in her ruffled gown and he in a tuxedo, and it wasn't until late in the afternoon that they found themselves alone together.

“Too late to back out now, Mrs. Stewart,” he told her firmly, rubbing a possessive thumb across the wide band now accompanying her diamond.

“I could say the same for you,” she reminded him. “You're the one who has to put up with my peculiar Clairmont temper from now on.”

“If you know it's peculiar, why can't you do something about it?” he asked, curious.

“Like become rational?”

“It's just a thought, you understand.”

“Well, unfortunately for you, when I get mad I follow my instincts.”

“And they say get even?”

“You should know.”

“Don't remind me.” He sighed. “I can only be thankful that the damned painting isn't hanging in the main hall.”

“I like it in our bedroom.”

“And I know why. You just want to be sure I never forget how a Clairmont woman gets even.”

“Think of the embarrassment it'll save you in the future.”

He grinned suddenly. “Well, I'm delighted with the way things turned out, milady, but weren't you taking quite a chance with that painting? Were you so certain I wouldn't be furious enough to leave you?”

“I was certain.” She smiled just a little.

“How? Because you were sure I loved you? Because you understand me so well?” He was honestly curious.

She nodded. “Yes. And a… couple of other things.”

“What things?” Rory pulled her down beside him on a garden bench.

“For one…” She rubbed her nose in that rueful little way that fascinated him oddly. “Rory, do you remember that first day?”

“Here at the Hall? Of course.”

“When we were together in the upstairs hallway, and again when we waltzed together that night, you saw some Rebel soldiers and their ladies. Remember?”

“I remember. In the ballroom, they waltzed with us.”

“Yes. Well… I caught a glimpse of them upstairs, but during the waltz…”

“What're you trying to tell me?” he asked— but knew.

“They were ghosts, Rory. In the ballroom, no one but you saw them.”

He'd learned to accept the ghostly presences of Jasmine Hall, and this latest addition hardly surprised him. “All right. And so?”

“I looked up a few of the old legends and ghost stories in the Hall book that night. And according to legend, only those who'll live their lives at the Hall will see the soldiers and their brides. The legend also says that if they dance the midnight waltz with an engaged couple, they're expressing approval of the union.”

“So since I saw the soldiers, you knew I'd live at the Hall?”

“I thought it was a good bet.”

“You saw them, too, you said.”

“Vaguely. Hazily. But you instantly assumed you were looking at guests, so you saw them clearly. Darling, I've known since that night that you'd live in the Hall; I just wasn't sure that I would.”

“Is that why you led me such a merry chase, milady?”

“You know why. I was convinced I'd lose both you and my home no matter what happened. When we took that suicidal jump that night, I was shocked into realizing I had to trust you… because I loved you too much not to.”

He lifted her hand briefly to his lips. “So a legend about ghostly soldiers made you pretty sure I wouldn't leave you?”

“Pretty sure.”

“You said there were a couple of things?”

“Well, the other thing was my Clairmont blood.”

“I'm going to hate myself for asking this, I know, but what did that have to do with it?”

Banner smiled. “Darling, the Clairmonts have been many things, but they've never been quitters. Once you—uh—caught me, I wasn't about to let you go.”

“I'm not sure who caught whom.”

“Is it important?” she murmured.

“No.” He smiled slowly. “It isn't important at all, milady.”

Banner was just about to go into his arms when she stiffened suddenly, gazing past his shoulder. “Rory—look,” she whispered.

Rory turned his head, his eyes immediately finding the tall blond man dressed in antebellum clothing who was standing several yards away from them. He was in the late- afternoon shadows of tall shrubbery, but remarkably distinct for all of that.

As they watched, still and silent, the blond gent made a slight gesture toward them, as a man would gesture politely for another to take his place with a dance partner. Then he bowed slightly, gracefully, and stepped back, vanishing into the dark shrubbery.

“I didn't believe it,” Banner said blankly.

“What—that I've been seeing him all this time?” Rory asked, turning back to her. Then he realized that she had obviously seen him this time.

“No, I believed that.” She gazed up at her husband. “But it was something else I read that first night.”

“About the blond man?”

“Yes. According to legend, the Clairmont daughters never see their guardian—except once: when he renounces his guardianship of them in favor of their husbands.”

Rory got to his feet and pulled her gently up. “I think,” he said, smiling, “that the final mark of favor has been granted to our marriage, milady.”

“A good omen.”

“If we needed it. But I don't think we do. I think that you and I, wife, will never need more luck than we can make for ourselves. And I think we're going to have a great many happy years together.” He grinned suddenly. “I also think we'd better provide another generation of Clairmont daughters for that blond gent to guard.”

“You do, do you?” she murmured, gazing up at him.

“Certainly. We wouldn't want him to get bored, after all.”

“I think… that's an awfully good idea, love. But maybe I'd better warn you about the Clairmonts.”

“Oh, God,” he said, sending a plaintive glance upward. “What now?”

Banner's smile was trying hard to hide. “Well, we tend to go to extremes, you see. Either we'll have a very small new generation—or a very large one. And it's about time for a large generation …”



[image: ]

REBEL WALTZ
A Bantam Book

PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bantam Loveswept mass market edition published February 1986
Bantam mass market edition / April 2009

Published by Bantam Dell
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York, New York

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved
Copyright © 1986 by Kay Hooper


Bantam Books and the rooster colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.



eISBN: 978-0-553-90610-3

www.bantamdell.com

v3.0





Read on for a special preview of the second thrilling novel in Kay Hooper's Blood trilogy …

[image: ]

Now on sale from Bantam




TWO

BANNER CLOSED THE library doors by leaning back against them, looking across the room at her grandfather, who was now in costume and looked every inch the Southern plantation owner.

He smiled at her with just a trace of wicked mischief. “How'd the tour go?” he inquired.

“Oh, just dandy.” Banner's cheerful voice was a far cry from the cold tone of the tour. “I was horribly rude to your Mr. Stewart and he took it like a gent.” She laughed suddenly. “Until a couple of minutes ago, that is.”

“Did he flay you?” Jake Clairmont asked interestedly.

“He wanted to murder me! However, since he's a guest in your house… At least, that's the impression I got.” Banner hesitated, then said in a determinedly toneless voice, “He… saw the soldiers and their brides, Grandfather.”

Jake's gaze sharpened, the same arrested expression Rory had seen in Banner's eyes in his now. “Did he?” the old man murmured thoughtfully. “Did he, now? That's interesting.”

“He thought they were our guests.”

“You didn't tell him…?”

“No, of course not.” In a voice suddenly passionate with feeling, Banner exclaimed, “Jake, you can't sell to him! This place is in your blood—in mine. It'd kill us both to leave.”

Jake looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. “He came out here in good faith, you know that. I offered to sell, he wants to buy. If his price is right—”

“He'll be master of Jasmine Hall,” she finished bitterly.

Flatly, Jake said, “Restoring the place took a huge chunk out of our capital, Banner, and it'll take more than we've got left to turn the Hall into a paying plantation.” Deliberately, brutally, he added, “D'you want to see it decay like the others in this area?”

“No,” she whispered.

“Then we have two choices. We can turn the place over to a historical society or we can sell to someone like Rory Stewart, who's interested in keeping it relatively intact.”

Banner squared her shoulders, the reason of his words sinking in against her will. She smiled at him, hiding heartbreak and showing her Clairmont blood and her love for the old man in her affectionate words. “You old bastard.”

Jake grinned at her. “I promised I wouldn't sell the place without your approval, lass, and I meant it. We'll take a long, hard look at Stewart before we decide. We'll make sure we leave the Hall in good hands. Agreed?”

“Agreed, Grandfather.”

“All right, then.” He lifted a quizzical brow at her. “And none of your tricks, Banner.”

“I don't play tricks,” she said indignantly.

Jake Clairmont smiled faintly. “When you were ten,” he reminded her, “you very innocently proclaimed that the Hall was haunted, because you wanted to discourage potential buyers.”

“That was seventeen years ago,” she pointed out virtuously. “I didn't know that you weren't serious about selling and I was not playing tricks.”

“Well, be nice to Stewart. No more rudeness, all right?”

Banner tossed her head and turned to open the door. “Of course I'll be nice,” she said loftily over her shoulder. “I've already short- sheeted his bed, disconnected the hot water in his bathroom, and put thorns in the seat of his riding breeches—how much nicer could I be?”

She closed the door behind her, hearing her grandfather laugh. She listened to the growing clamor of the party preparations and, after a moment of indecision and a guilty glance at the clock near the stairs, hurried out of the house through the French doors in the front parlor. She crossed the veranda and went down the steps and through the rose garden, holding up her skirts and following a path that led into the woods.

She wound up at a little cottage built in a clearing less than a hundred yards from the main house. According to the Hall books, the cottage had been built before the Civil War, but Banner had never been able to find out just why it existed. As a child, she'd woven stories of lovers’ trysts and family disapproval, and saw no reason now to reconsider the stories. They suited both her romantic nature and the cosy architecture of the cottage.

In good repair, the little house was nestled among the trees, peeping like a shy maiden from behind her fan. It had been Banner's “pretend” house as a child, and as she'd grown she had made it her sanctuary. It contained a single bedroom—the bed kept ready in case she chose to sleep there—and one large open area that Banner had made into a workroom. The bathroom had been built a few years ago and was the only modern part of the structure.

Banner stood on tiptoe to find the key resting above the doorjamb, then unlocked the door, replaced the key, and went inside. She left the door open out of habit, secure in the knowledge that no one ever disturbed her here.

In the main room of the cottage, she quickly removed the ringlet-dressed wig she wore and hung it rather comically over a bust of her grandfather, which had been one of her few early attempts to sculpt. She ran her fingers through her own short raven curls, massaging her scalp absently as she stared at the half- finished painting on the easel in the center of the room. She longed to sit down and frown at her work in earnest, but lacked the time and was reluctant to crush the silk gown.

So she just stood, rubbing a scalp that was itching from its confinement by the wig, and glared at her portrait. Why, she wondered, did it look so awfully damned much like Rory Stewart? That was what had brought her out here to stare even though she'd little time for it. She'd started on the thing days ago, and had intended merely to portray a Southern gentleman, to paint him entirely from her own mind.

Dammit, it looked like Rory Stewart!

Thick, sun- lightened blond hair—and she didn't even like blond men. Level gray eyes. A lean, strong face with compelling bone structure. Crooked smile. Proud tilt to his head. Only the attire was different; this man was dressed in the well-cut, long-tailed coat and ruffled shirt of the Southern beau out to break hearts—

“That wig's a crime.”

Banner turned so quickly that she nearly lost her balance, staring toward the door and thinking, Damn—it really is him.

Rory had changed into the costume provided by Clairmont, and not only did it fit him perfectly, it also suited him perfectly. From the smooth crown of his thick blond hair to the mirror reflection of his black boots, he was the personification of a Southern gentleman.

“What?” she managed to ask, then realized that she was still massaging her head. Quickly, she let her hands drop.

“I said that wig's a crime,” he repeated patiently, studying the thick curls that lent her small head a deceptively fragile look.

Banner considered resurrecting her hostility, but abandoned the notion. There would be time for animosity, she decided, after he bought Jasmine Hall—if he bought it. She therefore obviously startled him with a sunny smile. “The wig itches,” she confided solemnly.

Rory blinked, torn between the instant pleasure of her smile and an uneasy suspicion about her change in attitude. “I hope you don't mind,” he said rather abruptly. “I saw you from my window and wondered where you were going.” He glanced around, then added carefully, “I don't want to intrude.”

She wondered briefly at his odd tone, then dismissed it. “This is where I work,” she explained.

“Do you paint professionally?” he asked, looking at all the canvases propped against the walls.

“It's more of a hobby, really. I'm not good enough to be a pro.”

Rory stared at her for an incredulous moment, then went over to one particularly thick stack of canvases, went down on one knee, and began looking through them. When he finally rose to his feet, he turned to stare at her again. He realized in some surprise that she honestly had no idea of just how good she was.

“Has Jake seen these?” he asked.

Banner shrugged. “I haven't shown him anything but sketches in a long time. Why?”

“Because they're brilliant,” Rory said flatly.

She felt a flush rising in her cheeks. “I'm just a hobbyist,” she told him uncomfortably.

He decided to drop the subject—for the moment. He moved around the easel until he could see the painting she'd been studying when he came in, startled to find himself gazing on what could have been a portrait of himself. “Hello. What in the world—?”

“Odd, isn't it?” she said. “I can't understand it. I was just imagining a Southern gent, and that's what I ended up with.”

“Oh? I thought perhaps your friend—?”

She blinked at him. “What friend? What're you talking about?”

Rory looked at her, puzzled. “The man who walked across the rose garden with you. He was dressed like this”—he gestured at the painting— “and was blond. Where is he, by the way?”

Banner very carefully backed up a step and half-sat on a tall stool, unmindful, now, of her gown. She reflected in a queerly detached manner that Rory's earlier comment about “intruding” now made sense; he'd been wary of walking in on a lovers’ tryst. “Oh… I'm alone, Mr. Stewart,” she murmured.

“Rory,” he corrected automatically, trying to pin down her expression and deciding at last that it was a curious blend of laughter and be-musement. “Your friend's gone, then?”

“Mmmm,” she offered noncommittally.

Conscious of the odd feeling that he was missing something, Rory gazed at her and tried again. “It's strange that your painting looks so much like me, Miss Clairmont. Of course, there are differences.”

“Are there? We never see ourselves as others see us, do we?” she commented cryptically, then went on, “Might as well make it Banner, all right? And I really think we should be going back to the house, Mr.—um—Rory.”

“Certainly,” he agreed, watching as she removed the wig from a wickedly accurate bust of her grandfather and expertly pulled it on over her own short curls. He wanted to ask what had become of her friend—in fact, he was surprised at just how much he wanted to question her about the man—but held his peace. Since he'd entered the cottage, she'd been not only polite, but actually friendly, and he didn't want to put her back up inadvertently.

Banner led the way out of the little house, locking the door behind them but making no attempt to disguise from Stewart where the key was kept. They went through the rose garden and into the house through the French doors, finding that the party chaos had intensified alarmingly.

Wincing as the sound of something fragile crashing smote their ears, Banner gestured for Stewart to follow her. “We'll go into the little dining room; Jake's probably waiting for us.”

Jake was, in fact, waiting for them in the dining room that was intended for and used when only a few people were to be served meals. It was small and cosy, the antique table, chairs, and sideboard scaled exactly for a family group. And Banner's grandfather was so patently delighted to see them come into the room together—and obviously on friendly terms—that her good humor very nearly deserted her.

“I was showing Rory the garden,” she said without thinking, then felt a flush creep up her face.

However, Jake Clairmont could hardly have managed to look more pleased whatever she'd said; he merely grinned and asked Rory what he thought of the estate roses.

That topic and Jasmine Hall in general lasted them throughout the light meal. Banner said nothing; she watched Jake rather broodingly, her eyes flicking toward Rory occasionally and holding a speculative expression.

And it wasn't until they had risen from the table and headed back toward the foyer and the sounds of guests arriving that Rory abruptly realized why Jake Clairmont had been so pleased and why Banner had fallen so unaccountably silent. His first thought as understanding dawned was, That old shark! His second thought—and a ruefully annoyed one at that—was, This is going to complicate things hellishly. This is definitely going to complicate things. He was made absolutely certain of just how complicated “things” already were when he heard Banner take a moment to hiss wrathfully into her grandfather's ear.

“What you're up to, Jake, you can just forget.”

Jake didn't seem noticeably abashed, but Rory was conscious of a strong desire to throttle the old man. Anyone but an idiot, he thought, could see that Banner was going to refuse to have anything further to do with him after her grandfather's intent had been made so painfully obvious.

The old devil was matchmaking, for God's sake!

Rory thought of several things in that moment. He thought that his own plans might now be equated with a salmon's struggle to swim upstream. He thought morosely about the unknown blond man in the rose garden. And he wondered whether it had been Fate's intention or Clairmont's to strew boulders in his path.

“Damn,” he muttered to himself. “I haven't got a ghost of a chance.”



Within an hour, the party was in full swing. Since nobody had bothered to explain anything to him, Rory'd had to discover for himself that this was a yearly affair at Jasmine Hall; the entire neighborhood and anybody else who could manage to wangle an invitation turned up in full antebellum dress to pay tribute to bygone years. Some came only for the party; others intended to spend the night to participate in the costumed hunt the next morning.

Since Rory and Jake moved in some of the same business circles he found there were quite a few people present whom he knew. But as the guests began pouring fast and thick into the house, he started to worry that Banner and her grandfather seemed blithely unconcerned about the likelihood of gate- crashers.

He finally managed to locate Banner in the crush of people and to draw her into an alcove in the ballroom. “I don't mean to pry,” he announced firmly, “but have you and Jake thought much about gate- crashers, Banner?”

“Oh, there are always gate- crashers,” she told him cheerfully.

Rory was abruptly conscious that hers was an impersonal cheerfulness, and spared a moment for a silent curse at Jake's heavy- handedness.

With an effort, he kept his voice as easy as hers. “Well, then, crass as it may sound, shouldn't someone keep an eye on the valuables?”

“Someone is,” she assured him. “Several someones, in fact.” She nodded toward the ballroom. “See the gent in maroon velvet? And the one in gray—and the one by the doors there— and—oh, and several others. They're private security guards.”

“I see.” Rory grinned slightly. “I should have known Jake wasn't all that trusting.”

“Trusting?” Banner gazed up at him in astonishment. “Jake? Listen, my grandfather is a shark with a full set of teeth,” she said roundly.

Laughing at the probably accurate but hardly filial summation, Rory quickly caught her hand when she would have turned away. “I seem to hear a waltz,” he remarked musingly. “May I, Miss Clairmont?”

She blinked and then tried a laugh that didn't sound quite as gaily unconcerned as she'd intended. “Why not?”

Rory swept her out onto the floor among the colorful array of laughing couples, proving himself to be an excellent dancer and also proving that he was perfectly capable of carrying on a conversation without having to count steps or mind his feet. His excellence depressed Banner for some reason she didn't try to fathom.

“Have you ever noticed that adults love an opportunity to dress up and pretend they belong to another age?” he was asking cheerfully.

“It's strange, isn't it?” she agreed. “And after spending so much time growing up, too.” Banner, with some years of Jasmine Hall costume balls behind her, also had no need to count steps. However, she was ridiculously conscious of his hand at her waist and of the strength of his shoulder beneath her own hand. Idiot, she chided herself.

“I haven't seen your friend since the party began.”

Banner started slightly, and as some response seemed called for, tried to dredge one up. “I— expect he's around here somewhere.”

Rory looked pointedly at her left hand. “No ring,” he observed.

She toyed briefly with the notion of using the blond man as a shield, then abandoned it. Just because her grandfather had an absurd idea about a romantic involvement between her and this very self- assured man dancing with her, it didn't mean that Rory shared it, she decided firmly. “He isn't—um—that kind of friend,” she explained casually.

“I see.” Rory nodded. “That's good.”

In spite of herself, Banner had to bite her tongue to keep from taking the bait. But she managed. “You dance very well,” she complimented hastily.

“Thank you. So do you. You're also dandy at changing the subject.”

She was also very good at ignoring ungentle-manly teasing. Daring him with a frown to persist, she said briskly, “If there's anyone in particular you'd like to dance with or be introduced to, just let me know.”

“When's the last dance of the evening?” he asked instantly.

“Midnight. By tradition a waltz.”

“I'd definitely like to dance then.”

“Oh? Well—”

“With you.”

“I can't,” she said apologetically, both glad and regretful that she had to refuse. “Another tradition—that's my dance with Jake.”

Rory didn't seem noticeably disappointed. “Really? Well, my loss.”

“Thanks,” she muttered.

The musicians brought the dance to a resounding conclusion just then, and Rory, staying firmly in character as a Southern gent, bowed deeply and gracefully from the waist. “Thank you, ma'am,” he said gravely.

“You're welcome,” she said with something of a snap, and quickly, irritated with herself, went off to see to her guests.

Retiring to the sidelines to watch the next dance, Rory caught Jake Clairmont's ridiculously paternal eye on him. He returned the stare squarely for a moment, then purposefully crossed the room to speak to the older man.



The party had grown more cheerfully boisterous with every hour that had passed. Since the refreshments provided were lavishly democratic, more than one guest had succumbed and been escorted discreetly upstairs to a bed, either by a wife, husband, friend, or one of Clairmont's polite security guards.

Rory, amused and awed by the entire anachronous spectacle, wondered if anyone else appreciated this regression to another era in much more than dress. Some of the guests seemed enormously comfortable with their antebellum manners; there were several hot and rather tipsy disputes on whether or not the South really should secede, one lengthy discussion between two middle-aged men on Mr. Lincoln's merits, and one duel narrowly avoided when Banner stepped between the two combatants, saying cheerfully that she'd have no blood in the rose garden.

Not that there really would have been a duel. At least, Rory hoped there wouldn't have been a duel. For a dizzy moment, he wondered if he'd stepped back in time. The twentieth century, he realized in astonishment, began just outside those tremendous oak doors; inside this house, the Grand Old South reigned supreme—for this night, at least.

And it was fascinating to watch.

Rory had studied antebellum architecture and furnishings extensively, but his knowledge of the manners and morals of the day was culled entirely from fictional reading. He was therefore delighted and intrigued to see both displayed before him with an accuracy he didn't for a moment doubt.

No single young lady, he noticed—deducing “singleness” by the absence of rings—danced more than twice with any young man; older gentlemen gathered in groups near the refreshment table and talked brisk business; older ladies— Matrons! he thought delightedly—sat along the walls talking and keeping wary eyes on daughters and on other ladies’ sons. There was a great deal of lightly drawled flirtation and the batting of eyelashes over the edges of fans, and the dancing was decorous to the point of hilarity.

Banner, as the daughter of the house, moved among the guests, busily finding partners for wallflowers and keeping conversations going. Jake held court by the punch bowl.

Rory surprised a giggle from his hostess at one point, catching her in passing to ask incredulously, “Where did you find these people? Did you hire actors to put on a play, or what?”

“Aren't they wonderful? It's the same every year, and I just love it. The overnighters will be a bit sheepish in the morning, but once they're back in costume and on their horses they'll revert again.”

“Tell me I'm in the twentieth century,” Rory begged, half seriously.

Banner giggled again. “Wait until the party guests start to leave,” she advised. “No carriages will pull up to the front door—only good old Detroit motorcars.” Then she was off once more.

Rory didn't catch her after that until just before midnight, and then it was his determined intention to catch her. He pulled her firmly into the alcove he'd made use of before, saying to her questioning look, “I have to warn you.”

“Warn me? What about?”

“Well, I know you're too much of a lady to make a scene,” he explained, both astonished and amused to find himself reverting, just like everyone else, “but I think I should be a gentleman and not let you be—uh—caught off guard.”

“By what?” she asked.

The musicians were winding up for another conclusion, and Rory said hurriedly, “By our dance.”

Banner glanced at a nearby clock and said patiently, “I'm sorry, but I told you the last dance was Jake's.”

“Not this time,” Rory told her, a little guilty and a lot triumphant. “Tonight, the last dance is mine.”

After staring up at him for a long moment, she said carefully, “Rory, you don't understand. It's a tradition. If you dance with me, everyone'll think that we—”

“Too late,” he interrupted firmly as the musicians struck up the final waltz. Then he swept her out onto the floor.

Banner was given only a second to think, and that wasn't enough time. She saw her grand father watching with a satisfied smile and a faintly sheepish light in his green eyes; she sent him the dirtiest look she could manage without losing her smile. She was very conscious of the speculative attention following them around the floor and wondered wryly if Rory had any idea at all of what he'd just proclaimed to the neighborhood—and to any gate- crasher who happened to be acquainted with Jasmine Hall tradition. After all, it is the twentieth century, she reminded herself sternly.

“Doesn't it bother you to be dancing alone, with everyone watching?” she asked him politely.

Rory laughed. “We do seem to be the center of attention,” he commented. “But since the soldiers and their partners have come out of the woodwork to keep us company, we're not entirely alone. I wonder where they've been all evening,” he added parenthetically.

Banner glanced around, hearing herself laugh a bit unsteadily and not at all surprised by it.

“Is something wrong?” he asked curiously, looking down at her.

“Hmmm? Oh. No, nothing's wrong.” Banner got a grip on herself. “If you're interested, this ball is a tradition going all the way back to the Civil War,” she offered.

He was interested. “Really?”

“Yes.” Banner divided her attention between his gray eyes and the top of his ruffled shirt. “It was the last ball in this area before the War; actually, it was held the night before all the men marched off. And it was the last time all the families were together. During the War, of course, there weren't any balls. Jasmine Hall was the first to—um—resume the tradition; although I imagine the first ball after the War was more sad than gay.”

Rory thought of the heartbreaking end to that tragic time and nodded. “Yes. So many men gone. So many widows dressed in black.”

Banner stole a glance at his grave face. “I think perhaps I should tell you about another tradition begun that night,” she said dryly.

“What is it?”

She could hear the musicians beginning to wind down, and timed her explanation perfectly. “Well, it just so happened that the son and daughter of the family got engaged that night— like so many young men and women. Anyway, the—uh—betrothed couples claimed the honor of the last dance. Ever since then, the last dance has been reserved for the master of the house and either his wife or daughter. Or, in my case, his granddaughter. And if a single daughter or son of the house dances with another gentleman or lady, it's only because they've become engaged. Until tonight,” she added wryly as the music came to a close, “the tradition remained unbroken.”

Stepping back from her startled partner, Banner curtsied deeply and gracefully. “Don't be surprised to receive hearty congratulations from the other guests,” she advised him sweetly.

Rory watched her make her escape, having gotten a pretty good idea of the meaning behind both her words and the martial glint in her lovely green eyes. He turned his head slowly, scanning faces until he located Jake Clairmont. Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into! he sent silently to that old rascal. And another misunderstanding, he reflected wryly, to clear up. He decided to speak to Jake before either of them was much older.

Otherwise they'd neither of them get what both, apparently, very much wanted.


SEVEN

BY THE MIDDLE of Rory's second week at the Hall, Banner's paintings were on their way to New York, and so was David Moore. He had set a tentative date for the showing of barely two weeks away, at which time Jake and Banner would also be in that city.

Banner didn't know what Rory's plans were. They didn't talk about the showing or about the future of the Hall, both tacitly preferring to take each day as it came. And each day was becoming more difficult for them.

It was hard to say whether their honesty made things worse; neither of them pretended or tried to hide their desire. The entire household—led, needless to say, by Jake—entered into a conspiracy to leave them alone together as much as possible, which tried both Rory's patience and Banner's pride considerably.

She had made up her mind that the next move—if, indeed, there was to be one—would come from him. Another rejection on top of her fear about the showing would be more than she could handle, and she knew it. But the restless, sleepless nights were hard. And there was no satisfaction for her in the knowledge that the nights were just as hard on Rory.

Rather than attempt any more postmidnight swims, she began creeping through the silent house and out to her cottage studio, there to work harder than she'd ever done in her life. The portrait of the blond gentleman was finished— though not in time for the New York show, for which she was curiously grateful. It reposed on an easel beside the new work. The painting she worked on now was of Jasmine Hall, a subject she had never before felt qualified to attempt. And after three nights of steady, driven work, it was nearly finished.

She made no mention of the painting to either Rory or her grandfather; the painting had become, for her, a private farewell to the Hall.

And it was that symbol of finality, her own determination to paint what was lost to her, that finally made Banner face a future she'd avoided considering so successfully until then.

It was Thursday, and somewhere near midnight; the painting was finished. It sat on her easel, a glowing representation of a home that had housed generations. And she had, in unconscious whimsy, hinted at those generations long dead. Near the corner of the veranda among the darkness of ivy, she had bent sunlight to her will and had it shape the vague outline of a light-haired man in the dress of a century before. At one upstairs window, a fluttery curtain and vague shadows hinted at a presence. And in the rose garden, which occupied the background on the right of the painting, wisps of a morning mist might have been Rebel soldiers strolling with their brides.

Banner never heard the thud of her palette dropping to the floor. She stared at the painting and the pain of loss throbbed in her. Jasmine Hall… and Rory.

She didn't turn off the lights or close the door behind her; she simply ran for the stables, desperate to get away from her own thoughts. But they followed her relentlessly as she bridled a startled El Cid and grasped his thick mane to swing aboard his bare back, and they followed her as willing Thoroughbred legs ate up the ground in long strides.

Why, why couldn't she believe that she could live here with Rory no matter who actually owned the Hall? Why was her awful despair at the thought of losing the Hall mixed with an equally powerful despair at losing Rory?

Did she have to lose them both?

Her mind, ignoring all commands to blank itself, inexorably examined the situation and her own feelings about it. Pride. Was it simply pride that told her she would have to lose them both? Did it really matter so much to her that another name would be on the deed? If she married Rory, it would be her name as well as his; there would never be another Clairmont to inherit the Hall no matter what happened.

And then she realized, slowly, that it was her pride. For generations, Clairmonts had maintained and preserved the Hall. And now she, the last Clairmont daughter, could do nothing— nothing—to save it for the family. With a bitter laugh that echoed in the darkness and caused Cid's ears to flick back nervously, she recalled Rory's parallels. Scarlett O'Hara had saved her Tara, she remembered self- mockingly. She had killed for her family and her Tara, had ruined her delicate hands and bowed her back working in the dirt to save her beloved Tara. She had schemed for it, pinched pennies for it, worked herself and her family relentlessly for survival and for Tara. She had entered a man's world and fought by her own rules. And in the end, she had saved Tara and lost the man she loved.

And what could Banner Clairmont do to save her Tara?

She could marry the man who wanted them both. But the empty ache inside of her was an agonizing denial of that option. Yes, that would save the Hall and keep her within it; she would see it flourish beneath Rory's guiding hand, she knew. Family name or no, descendants of Clairmonts would continue on in the home of their ancestors.

But she would never be sure.

Never be sure that the Hall had not seeped into Rory's blood more thoroughly than she ever could. Never be sure that he had not wanted the one because it was a part of the other. Never be sure that he loved her more.

And which, she asked herself then, honestly, did she love more? For a moment, a split second, she was torn. Then the pain ebbed, and she knew the answer. Rory. That was why she would leave him. She would leave him, not because her pride wouldn't allow her to live with him in his Jasmine Hall, but because she would never be sure just how much he loved her.

She wanted him to have the Hall if she couldn't keep it herself. He would take care of it. She would turn her back on the home that was a part of her and leave. She would turn her back on the man she loved more than her heritage and leave him because she couldn't bear being second in his heart.

“Trust me.”

She wished she could.



Rory stared at a shadowy ceiling, unable to sleep and not the least surprised by that. He was still fully dressed and lying on top the covers, having known that he wouldn't sleep. He thought of Banner and of the things they hadn't talked about these last days. The future of the Hall. Her show.

So much depended on that, though Banner herself hadn't realized it. Would she realize, he wondered, when she found out what prices would be asked for her paintings? Would she realize when she saw—as she inevitably would— that people were willing and eager to pay those prices? She had no conception of the scope of her talent, no idea at all just how gifted she really was.

Would she realize that her talent would allow her to keep the Hall?

Jake had realized, Rory knew. The old man was, of course, delighted, though clearly cautious; he would wait until the show before he would abandon plans to sell his plantation.

Rory would have told Banner himself, but he knew she wouldn't believe him. She would have to attend the show and find out for herself.

But the waiting was so hard….

And how would she react when his own involvement became apparent? If it did. If not, he'd tell her himself. Would she trust him enough to see why he'd done what he had? Or would her stubborn pride blind her to his true motives? It was that definite possibility more than anything else that had shored up Rory's patience these last days. He wanted her to be sure that he wanted her more than the Hall.

Of course, once she could be sure that the Hall would be hers, she could still suspect him of wanting them both. But no matter what he did, that possibility existed—unless he walked away, and then she still could lose her home. Rory would have willingly given up the Hall for Banner, but not at the cost of hurting her. She needed the Hall and he needed her.

He wondered, then, which she needed more— him or the plantation. He wondered if she had asked herself that. He didn't know the answer. He knew that he loved Banner, and wanted her no matter what the price. And he knew that if she agreed to marry him, it would be because she loved him. Nothing else mattered.

Rory sighed, then sat up abruptly as he sneezed. He realized then that the scent of jasmine had grown heavy in the room, so heavy that he was forced to breathe through his mouth or be racked by sneezes. Frowning, he gazed around the darkened room. His eyes followed the shaft of moonlight as it cut a bright path from window to door, then he caught his breath, absently swallowing another sneeze.

The door was open.

He distinctly remembered closing it, and knew from experience that it had a good, strong catch.

“Sarah?” he ventured uncertainly. Instantly, he sensed movement, agitated movement, and the scent of jasmine grew even stronger.

Startled, Rory swung his legs over the side of the bed. Clearly, his visitor wanted something of him, but he didn't know what it was. “I'm not a mind reader,” he told the visually- empty room, then almost laughed when he distinctly sensed irritation and impatience. “I hate to say it, but give me a sign.” He told himself he'd laugh about this in the morning.

The curtains at one window fluttered.

A bit hesitantly, he left his bed and moved to the window. Since the house was centrally air-conditioned, the sash was down, but Rory didn't let himself think about that; he just parted the curtains and gazed out and down on an empty moonlit garden. After a moment, he turned back to face the room.

“There's nothing there,” he complained.

More impatience, and then the door swung slowly, until it was almost closed, before swinging open again.

“You want me to go somewhere?”

Instant approval.

Rory obediently left his room. In the hall, he hardly knew which way to go, but then he saw what he immediately took to be his guide at the top of the stairs. The blond man. Shadowy and indistinct, he was nonetheless there, and Rory started for him, unable to ignore his own curiosity.

His blond guide led him down the stairs and out into the garden, always staying just far enough ahead that Rory had to strain to see him. He wondered absently why he could see this ghost but only feel Sarah, then wondered irritably why he was wondering.

He was obviously dreaming the whole damned thing.

Just as he realized they were heading for Banner's studio, he saw that lights were shining within and the door was open. He forgot his guide and hurried forward, uneasy because two ghosts had roused him in the middle of the night and both had clearly been upset.

He stepped into a cottage that seemed curiously bare, with only blank canvases leaning against the walls. Two completed paintings—the blond man and one Rory hadn't seen—reposed side by side on twin easels. The new painting was of Jasmine Hall, and he stood staring at it, feeling the raw emotion that had gone into the work.

Before he could do more than absorb the subject and the sadness it aroused, he heard the sound of thudding hooves, and made it back outside just in time to see El Cid's black form sharply etched in the moonlight as he galloped away from the stables and across the field, a small, familiar figure hunched on his back.

Without thinking, Rory ran for the stables.



Banner heard a shout behind her, heard the sound of pursuing hooves. For an instant she nearly reined in her mount. But then she leaned forward even more, her fingers tangled in Cid's thick mane and her knees pressed tightly to his sides. She didn't know why she was courting danger with this wild ride across fields and over fences, but she urged her horse on. El Cid, with the blood of wind- racing Arab ancestors in his aristocratic veins, lengthened his stride until he seemed to barely skim the ground, and took wing over every jump.

It was, in a sense, a release of tensions and cares, a flirting with danger, that helped to satisfy her body's craving for another kind of release. Or so it seemed to Banner. She felt free and stingingly alive, breathless with the excitement of her dangerous night ride.

The pounding hooves behind her pursued, but she had no fear of their catching her. El Cid and Shadow were half- brothers, both sired by a racing Thoroughbred, but the Cid was just a touch faster, and he had the advantage of a lighter rider. And the racing fever was in his blood, just as it was in his rider's; born to fight any restraints or restrictions, the Cid was running wild.

Banner didn't realize she had lost control over her mount until she automatically tried to turn him away from a looming obstacle she never would have attempted even during daylight: a wicked four-rail fence bordering a sheer drop of several feet, at the bottom of which was the wide stream that ran through the plantation. Heart in her throat, sobered at last by sure disaster for herself and her beloved horse, Banner tried desperately to turn her racing mount away from that impossible jump. But the Cid had the bit between his teeth and was hell-bent on the impossible, refusing to heed even the commands of the only person he had ever obeyed.

Realizing the futility of trying to stop the horse, Banner swiftly considered and discarded the option of jumping off him. She wasn't overly worried about her ability to land safely; she'd taken too many tumbles in her life not to know how to land with the least risk to herself. What did worry her was the Cid. He was going to take that jump with her or without her; at least with her on his back, she might be able to keep him balanced enough to give him that vital extra chance of making it.

With only seconds to prepare, she hastily loosened the reins and grasped his mane as firmly as possible, leaning all her weight forward and using all the strength in her knees to hold her seat firm. Then she urged him on aloud, knowing that he would need every ounce of speed and determination to jump high enough and far enough to land on the far bank.

Like any incredible feat, it was over almost before it began. El Cid cleared the fence with a foot to spare, his powerful hind legs launching him with driving determination. Banner saw the flash of water passing far beneath them, felt the horse's forward velocity slow and his body stretch catlike in midair as he reached for the opposite bank of the stream. They were dropping, flying, falling.

Incredibly, impossibly, the Cid's front hooves touched the bank and dug in. He stumbled as his speed caused him to lurch forward, but Banner's quick hands on the reins held his head up until his hind legs were under him and he was balanced again. It was the last thing she was able to do before her own slipping balance and the horse's second lurch forward unseated her.

Deliberately disobeying the first rule of riding, she dropped the reins, then let herself fall. Like an expert tumbler, she rolled as she touched the ground, cushioned by the thick meadow grass, unhurt. And she sat up instantly, her heart in her throat for a second time as she remembered the pounding hooves only strides behind.

Shadow was little more than his name as he hurtled over the fence; the moonlight that had etched the Cid's black form only turned the gray horse indistinct and eerily unreal. But however dissimilar they were in color, the blood they shared, told that night. Rory's mount took wing just as Banner's had, stretching in midair and then clawing for that vital bank. And he made it.

Rory was slowing the gray and sliding off in the same motion, leaving the horse to go wherever it would as he hurried to Banner's side. He dropped to his knees, filled with anxiety, his hands finding her shoulders.

“Are you all right?” he demanded roughly.

“Yes. Yes. I'm fine.” Her voice was shaking, and she wasn't surprised by that; the rest of her was shaking too.

He eased back on his heels, but didn't release her. “Just an easy middle-of-the-night ride, huh?” he asked wryly.

“Seemed like the thing to do,” she managed to say. “At the time.”

Rory glanced over at the jump they'd both just taken, then went very still. Obviously, he'd had no time to realize what had happened. In an extremely careful voice, he said, “Is that what we just jumped?”

“Uh-huh.”

He turned his gaze back to her, gray eyes glittering in the moonlight. Then he shook her. Hard.

“What possessed you,” he gritted out, furious, “to risk a jump like that? Bareback, the dead of night, after a three-mile race at a gallop—you could have been killed!”

This last roar caused Banner to wince, but she wasn't at all resentful of his rage. She could hear fear for her as well as anger in his voice, and wondered amusedly when he'd realize that he had taken the same jump and the same risks— even more so, since he hadn't been familiar with them, as she had.

A bit breathlessly, she managed to answer, “Better ask what possessed the Cid; he was running wild.”

“That brute's going to get you killed!”

“It was the first time he ever disobeyed me—”

“Once is all it takes, Banner.”

She sighed. “It was my own fault. I encouraged him to run flat-out.”

“Why?” Rory demanded wrathfully. “And why didn't you answer when I called out to you?”

Banner gave herself a moment to think as she glanced toward the horses, noting that they were grazing calmly only a few yards away. “I don't know,” she said finally, looking back at him. “I guess… I went a little crazy, like the Cid. I wanted to—to run.”

“From what?” His voice was suddenly quiet.

“Do you have to ask?”

“I asked you to trust me,” he reminded.

“I know you did.”

He was silent for a moment, then said, “I saw the painting.”

Banner said nothing.

His hands tightened on her shoulders. “It's beautiful—perfect. But it isn't good-bye, Banner.”

For the first time, she pushed his hands away from her. Getting to her feet, she walked over to her horse and patted his damp neck before unbuckling and removing his bridle. “Grass instead of your stable tonight, boy,” she murmured. “You've earned it.” To Rory she said only, “We ran in a circle. Ironic, huh?”

“Banner—”

“We can leave them here in the meadow for the night; Scottie'll see them in the morning, since the stables are just over there. I'm… going back to the cottage for a while.” She didn't wait for him, but tossed the bridle over her shoulder and struck out across the meadow toward the woods.

He caught up with her quickly, carrying his own bridle. “Banner, we have to talk.”

She kept walking, silently passing through the gate he opened, then following the path leading toward the cottage. She said nothing until lighted windows came into view, then spoke softly without looking at him.

“What's there to talk about, Rory? That's what I faced tonight, what I was trying to run from.”

He waited until they were inside the cottage, watched while she hung both bridles on pegs by the closed door, before he said, “That's it, then? There's nothing else to say?”

Banner felt tension steal through her at his flat, strained tone. Not looking at him, she went over to stand before the easels. “Nothing.”

“Can't you trust me not to hurt you?” Rory wanted to tell her that she'd be able to keep her home, but since art was something no one could be certain of—public acceptance being a fickle beast—he wasn't about to get her hopes up. And his inability to ease her mind tortured him. “Banner, I love you. Believe that.”

Banner turned slowly to face him. Vaguely, she was aware that the night's wild, dangerous ride had left tendrils of recklessness in her, but she didn't care right then. “It doesn't change anything. I told you that.” A part of her, an ancient, feline part of her, watched intently, waiting. “There's no use pretending anymore, Rory.”

“I haven't been pretending,” he gritted out.

“I have.” She stared at him. “Just like in your favorite book; I keep pretending I'll think about it tomorrow.”

He stepped toward her, face taut. “Banner—”

“But tomorrow's here.” She gestured jerkily over her shoulder at the image of Jasmine Hall behind her. “Tomorrow's that painting.”

One long stride brought him to her, and his hands went to her waist, hauling her against him. “I won't let you throw us away,” he muttered against her lips. Then he was kissing her hungrily, all the pent-up frustration of two weeks driving him.

Banner didn't even bother to hide her exultation. Her arms lifted to slide round his neck and she rose on her toes to fit herself more fully against him; recklessness held her as firmly as he did, recklessness and a desire she wasn't about to fight—or let him fight. She wanted no reminders about her Tara. She didn't want to wait for some vaguely promised tomorrow when everything would be all right. She wanted him, and saw no reason to pretend about that.

He tore his mouth from hers. “Banner—”

“I love you,” she whispered, pulling his head back down, kissing him fiercely.

A groan rumbled from deep in his chest as Rory's mouth slanted across hers, deepening the kiss until it was a literal act of possession. Smoldering desire flared to new life, fed by her fiery response, until there was no possibility of restraint.

He lifted her into his arms, carrying her into the bedroom, where a shaft of light from the studio illuminated the bed and left all else in shadow. Setting her gently on her feet beside the bed, he framed her face in his hands for a long moment, gazing down at her. Raggedly, he accused, “Dammit, you planned this.”

“A gentleman wouldn't notice that,” she murmured huskily, her own hands lifting to cope with the buttons of his shirt.

Rory's laugh was half groan, but his fingers were no less eager than hers when they trailed down the V neckline of her summer blouse. “You're no lady, milady,” he teased, his lips feathering along her jawline and down to her throat.

“Right now, I don't want to be a lady,” she breathed.

Shirt and blouse dropped to the floor, shoes and jeans were kicked aside, unimportant and forgotten. Underthings were smoothed away by eager, impatient hands, until they stood with no barriers between them.

She looked at him in wonder, sudden heat blooming somewhere deep inside of her and spreading rapidly all through her body. He was so beautiful it made her throat ache, and the emotion in his eyes as he gazed at her own body made her feel more beautiful than she knew herself to be.

He caught his breath harshly, drawing her fully against him for a tantalizing moment before bending to strip back the covers of the bed, then lifting her onto it.

Banner stretched out her arms to him as he came down on the bed with her, her breathing quick and shallow, her body trembling. Her fingers tangled in his hair when his lips lowered to hers, and the touch of him fueled her hunger until she was dizzy with it.

Rory held her restless body still as he lay half over her. He kissed her closed eyes, her brow, her cheeks, pressed long, drugging kisses to her trembling lips. Though his own body was taut and fever-hot, he seemed determined to torment them both. Slowly, lazily, as if they had all the time in the world, he learned her body. Hands molded and shaped quivering flesh, lips explored with tender, sensitive hunger.

Desire coiled tighter and tighter within Banner, becoming a consuming need that ran molten fire through her veins. A hollow agony grew in her middle, expanded, filled her whole being. Heat suffused her skin, and her hands gripped his shoulders with white- knuckled tension. His seeking touch probed erotically and tore a moan from the depths of her throat as she moved with restless impatience.

“Rory…”

“God, I need you,” he groaned hoarsely, moving over her, gazing down on her with hot, liquid eyes. He kissed her deeply, tenderly, then raised his head to look at her taut, seeking face. “And I love you,” he whispered, moving with gentle care.

Banner caught her breath, surprise and wonder widening her eyes. Her arms tightened around his neck in instinctive possessiveness. A part of her was suddenly unleashed and out of control, a wild, primal cave- woman exultant in the certainty of being loved by her man. She caught him within her fiercely, trapping them both in a fiery union that threatened to consume them.

Smooth rhythm quickened, desperately hurried by need. Breathing caught and jerked convulsively as feverish bodies drove themselves on a reckless flight toward satisfaction. Hearts pounded frantically within their living cages, and two voices were barely human as they cried out words of love …

Banner refused to let him leave her, murmuring a soft plea before he could do more than begin to shift his weight.

“I'm too heavy,” he whispered against her throat.

“No.” Languidly, her fingers explored the sharply defined muscles of his damp back and shoulders. She watched the light from the main room glimmer on his bronze flesh, and not even the faintest tinge of regret disturbed her contentment.

Rory sighed, his breath warm on her. “You're so tiny, milady. I'm afraid I'll hurt you.”

“No.” She touched his cheek as he lifted his head, smiling into his arresting gray eyes. “No, you won't hurt me.”

He knew what she was saying, and he had to swallow before he could manage a light tone. “If I'd known what'd change your mind, I wouldn't have been so damned patient all this time.”

She was still smiling, a curiously mysterious, feline smile. “I changed my mind before we ever got back here to the studio,” she murmured.

“What did make you change?”

“Seeing you take that jump.” Her smile faded, replaced by remembered anxiety. “I could have lost you, you know. I've seen horses go down on easier jumps. When Shadow landed safely I… I just knew I had to take the chance.”

“You trust me,” he said, his voice and expression full of wonder.

She pulled his head down to kiss him lovingly. “Of course I trust you, idiot,” she murmured against his lips.

Rory lifted his head suddenly, a martial light growing in his eyes. “Wait a minute, now. If you felt that way before we came back here…”

“Mmmm?” Banner decided that she most definitely liked the taste of his skin.

“Then what the hell was the meaning of all that malarkey?”

“Malarkey?” She was mildly offended. “That was no malarkey. I meant every single word I said.”

Frowning, Rory concentrated for a moment, then realized that everything she'd said could have been taken in a way other than he'd taken it. “Well, the way you said it was malarkey,” he accused sternly.

“Oh, no, it wasn't.” She brushed a lock of thick blond hair away from his brow and smiled gently. “And you half-guessed that yourself. It was a very careful, if spur-of-the- moment, plan.”

“You little witch!” he said blankly.

Banner took that as a compliment. “Well, you were so busy being noble all over the place that I had to do something. And it worked nicely, don't you think?”

“It worked.” He stared down at her with a mock frown. “Although I'm not too sure I care for being manipulated.”

“Better get used to it,” she warned serenely. “Southern ladies are famous—or should I say infamous?—for it. Remember your favorite heroine?”

“What've I let myself in for?”

She let her nails move slowly across his back and murmured, “I really couldn't say.”

Rory shuddered, and his voice had hoarsened when he spoke. “I'm not so sure myself. But I think—I know—I'm going to enjoy every minute of it.” And his mouth hungrily found her smiling lips.


ONE

SPANISH MOSS HUNG from the towering trees, draping branches, shadowing the drive in coolness. It should have looked gloomy, but didn't, somehow. Sunlight filtered through the leaves and moss to create a mosaic on the hard-packed ground.

Rory stood leaning against the opened car door, gazing around and noting that Nature had been allowed to encroach on what had once, probably, been stunningly beautiful land. The woods were now thickly grown with brambles and nearly impassable; the distant pasture, although obviously still cultivated for hay, was surrounded by a once-white three-rail fence that looked more imagined than real; a gazebo nearly invisible beneath years of ivy strove valiantly to remain standing; and the driveway was packed dirt with not a trace of gravel or pavement, but many a deep rut.

His cool gray eyes measuring, Rory calculated what it would take to restore the land. A riding path through the woods, he mused, and a footpath and benches for guests in need of shaded solitude. The old gazebo torn down and another constructed. The stables weren't visible, but probably they, too, would need a major overhaul.

He thought of the other plantations he'd purchased and converted into resort-type hotels, then looked steadily up the tree-lined drive to the house. Outwardly, it was in better shape than most of the few remaining privately owned plantations. It possessed wide, shallow steps, a veranda extending along two sides, solid white Doric columns, and the landscaping near the building had been kept up. Red brick mellowed by time was decorated here and there by climbing ivy. The shutters appeared to be in good repair and there were no broken windows in sight.

Although heaven only knew what rotten floorboards and moldy draperies awaited him inside… Jasmine Hall's noble owner had never allowed cameras inside the place, so Rory hadn't the faintest idea what he'd find.

Sighing, he got back into the car and continued up the drive. He'd stay two weeks, as invited, he decided, to look the place over and find out if old Jake Clairmont was really serious this time about selling Jasmine Hall.

Twice before, the crusty old man had spread the word, only to back out gleefully when Rory and others had expressed interest in buying. The second time had been in Charleston, nearly a year before. The third time, six weeks ago, no one but Rory had taken the bait. And he was still vaguely surprised and slightly suspicious that he had been promptly invited out to visit the estate.

He frowned as he parked the car in the graveled area near the house and got out, wondering if Clairmont had been foxy enough to have weeded out less interested parties by offering to sell the first two times and then retracting his offer.

It put Rory on guard, his keen business sense wary of an attempt to drive up the price. Although, of course, the place was priceless.

Pushing the thought aside, he went up the broad, shallow steps and made use of the shining brass knocker. He had to use it three times, the third time with considerable force, before the heavy solid-oak door finally swung open. And in that moment Rory experienced the somewhat bewildering shock of a man whose entire attention was quite forcibly ripped from all thoughts of business.

She was an antebellum Southern belle, complete from the raven hair dressed in ringlets to the silk slippers peeping from the hem of her hoop skirt. The gown was emerald silk, off the shoulders and breathtakingly low-cut, and the faint rustle of each movement announced the presence of at least a dozen petticoats. Her face was heart-shaped and delicate, each feature finely drawn by an appreciative artist. She seemed young, perhaps in her early twenties, although the costume might have been deceptive.

And Rory thought dizzily that Scarlett O'Hara had a rival here in green eyes and an impossibly tiny waist.

“Whatever you're selling, we don't want any.”

If her voice was soft and drawling, her tone at least was thoroughly modern and more than a little impatient. And there was faint surprise in her eyes as she stared up at him, a tiny frown of puzzlement on her forehead.

Rory pulled himself together with determination, leaving his questions for later. “My name's Stewart—Rory Stewart. Mr. Clairmont is expecting me.”

“Oh.” Sea-green eyes looked him up and down thoughtfully—and with faint hostility?— before focusing on his face. “You're early; we weren't expecting you until tomorrow,” she said abruptly.

Rory ignored the rudeness. “I finished my business in Charleston this morning and decided to get an early start. Unless that's inconvenient, Miss—?”

“Clairmont. Banner Clairmont. Jake's my grandfather.”

Uncomfortably aware of the measuring green eyes holding that slight animosity, Rory reminded himself sternly that Scarlett O'Hara had been a lady only skin deep… and sometimes not even that. “If it's inconvenient—?” he repeated steadily.

“No. No, I suppose not.” She stepped back, gown rustling, and allowed him into the foyer. “Come in.”

Rory's second shock came upon entering the house. He was experienced in detecting attempts to camouflage decaying old mansions with paint and paper in order to have them fetch a higher price, and knew full well that most Southern families never sold out until they simply could not afford the upkeep of their mansions. He had assumed Jake Clairmont to be in that majority, after seeing the condition of the property surrounding the house.

But Jasmine Hall was fully restored and absolutely beautiful.

He stood in silence, staring about him, his innate love of these historic old homes nearly overpowering him as he saw the foyer as it was meant to be and probably had been a century before.

The wide twin staircases flanking either side of the vast foyer, polished wood gleaming and thick carpet deeply red and spotless. The sparkling chandelier. The antique tables holding priceless vases and figurines. The Old Masters hanging on the walls. The marble floor dotted here and there with intricately woven rugs.

A myriad of thoughts crowded Rory's mind. The old man was toying with him; he couldn't mean to sell this treasure. If he could afford to maintain it in this prime condition… It would cost the earth if Clairmont were serious. But… dear Lord, wouldn't he love to own this! He'd mortgage practically everything he possessed to have this house. And no resort hotel here. No, this was a home meant to hold a family. But there was no way he possibly could justify the expense; it was impractical and impossible and… and damn Clairmont for the tormenting old devil he was.

Only then did Rory snap out of his trance and realize that the “old devil's” granddaughter had been watching him steadily. He fought to hide what must have been hunger in his eyes, turning to her and waiting politely for her to lead the way. He was faintly surprised to observe that her animosity had vanished, to be replaced by a speculative curiosity, but she gave him no opportunity to probe it.

“This way,” she said, gesturing for him to follow as she headed across the foyer to a set of huge, beautifully carved double doors. She flung one of them open, rustling into a room revealed to be a library as beautifully restored as the foyer and announcing with a hint of mockery in her soft voice. “You have a visitor, Jake.”

Rising from a leather wing chair by the fireplace, Jake Clairmont set aside the book he'd apparently been reading and immediately came forward with hand outstretched to greet Rory. He was a benign old man in appearance, tall and slender, with a full head of silver hair and the slightly leathery skin of a man who'd spent most of his life outdoors. His lean body was hard and still powerful though he was in his sixties, and he moved with certainty and grace. The mild serenity of his expression was belied by the acuteness of his vivid green eyes.

Quite suddenly, Rory remembered overhearing from the lips of one of Clairmont's closest friends that Jake was half hawk and half shark, and that the only living soul capable of making him bow to another's wishes was the granddaughter he adored.

“Rory. Glad you could make it, my boy. Welcome.”

The “my boy,” Rory reflected musingly, would have been patronizing from anyone else's lips; from Clairmont it sounded entirely natural and amiable. Suspicious, Rory wondered what the old shark was up to. “Thank you, Jake,” he responded mildly. “It's good to see you again.”

“You've met Banner, I see.” Half statement, half question.

Glancing toward the fireplace, where Banner stood with a disquieting look of amusement on her lovely face, Rory nodded. “I've had that pleasure,” he confirmed, and wondered why he always felt somewhat like a Regency gent whenever he was around Jake; they had met several times in Charleston, and on each occasion he'd felt an alarming attack of careful manners sweeping over him. Perhaps it was the Old World quality in Jake's own behavior.

The damned old rogue could rob you blind and leave you with a smile, he thought with an inner laugh.

“Good, good.” Jake seemed inordinately pleased. “She can give you a quick tour of the house while I have someone bring in your bags. I'm sure you'll want to wander around by yourself tomorrow, but Banner can tell you quite a bit about our history.”

Before Rory could respond, Banner did.

“Jake, have you forgotten the party? I do have a few things to take care of before our guests arrive.”

Her grandfather waved the remark away. “Plenty of time for that. Besides, you look so beautiful nobody's going to notice anything else.”

While Rory watched in silence, two pairs of green eyes locked in a silent struggle that was almost palpable. Both combatants smiled easily and gazed steadily, and Rory didn't dare wager to himself who would win. He just waited.

Finally, Banner sighed and turned away to head for the door. “This way, Mr. Stewart,” she said wryly.

Rory only just stopped himself from bowing to the smiling Jake before following the girl from the room.

Once out in the foyer, she began speaking in a cool, faintly insolent tone that grated and was, Rory thought, quite deliberate. And she sounded for all the world like a bored tour guide.

“The main house was restored ten years ago; until that time it had been kept up structurally but the interior had been neglected. Now, each room has been painstakingly restored; all furnishings are period pieces and all materials authentic. There are thirty rooms, including library, study, a formal dining room, ballroom, several sitting rooms and dens, and bedrooms. Only the bathrooms are not authentic, and those have been designed to blend in as much as possible. Where d'you want to start, Mr. Stewart?”

He gazed down at her bland, inquiring face, and said pleasantly, “If you'll just direct me to my room, I'll leave you to get ready for your party. We can skip the tour for now.”

“My grandfather requested it,” she reminded him coolly.

“Sounded more like an order to me.”

She shrugged slightly, whether in agreement or disagreement or mere acknowledgment of his comment he couldn't tell.

Ignoring his suggestion that the tour could wait, Banner said briskly, “We'll start with the ballroom.” And she led the way.



For the first time in his memory, Rory paid scant attention to the tour and quite a bit to the guide. She seemed intent on alienating him— or at the very least angering him. Every word seemed calculated in tone to rouse defensiveness and aggression. She was cold, rude, patronizing, and impatient.

Rory was not a man to stand for that kind of thing, but he stood it from Banner Clairmont. He met coldness with amiability, rudeness with impeccable manners, condescension with bland-ness. He ignored her impatience, asked few questions, and came to the conclusion that his first impr