His Royal Pleasure Leanne Banks Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Pirate Island, North Carolina, is an unlikely vacation destination for Prince Alexander of Moreno. But when a detour brings him to the rustic campground, he jumps at the chance to be just Alex, no media glare, no royal responsibilities, for four glorious weeks.That the manager is a beautiful, fun-loving redhead unlike any woman he's ever met makes the prospect even sweeter…Katherine Kendall doesn't trust men easily, including the wickedly handsome stranger who practically washes up on her island. But most of all she doesn't trust her body's reaction to this uncommon man–and when he offers to tutor her in the nuances of lovemaking, to awaken the sensual woman within, she cannot resist…Days with Katherine bring out a playful side Alex thought long-buried, and nights are filled with passion. As summer wanes, Alex begins to crave something he never has before. But will his secret tear them apart? His Royal Pleasure Leanne Banks www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Pirate’s Island, North Carolina is an unlikely vacation destination for Prince Alexander of Moreno. But when a detour brings him to the rustic campground, he jumps at the chance to be just Alex, no media glare, no royal responsibilities, for four glorious weeks. That the manager is a beautiful, fun-loving redhead unlike any woman he’s ever met makes the prospect even sweeter… Katherine Kendall doesn’t trust men easily, including the wickedly handsome stranger who practically washes up on her island. But most of all she doesn’t trust her body’s reaction to this uncommon man--and when he offers to tutor her in the nuances of love-making, to awaken the sensual woman within, she cannot resist… Days with Katherine bring out a playful side Alex thought long-buried, and nights are filled with passion. As summer wanes, Alex begins to crave something he never has before. But will his secret tear them apart? Previously published. Thanks to Nita Taublib for “fixing the music box,” and to Courtney Henke for the tinnitus. This one is for all the grown-up little girls who ever dreamed of princes and happy endings. Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Epilogue Chapter One “He smells.” Katherine Kendall wrinkled her nose and turned her head, wishing she could magically cause the man sprawled on her couch to disappear. “Not that bad,” Chad replied as he closed his eyes and slunk farther into the La-Z-Boy lounger. “He smells like he took a bath in a tub of whiskey,” she corrected, none too happy with being awakened at two in the morning to deal with another of Chad’s misadventures. “Well, you would, too, if someone broke a bottle of whiskey over your head.” Chad warily propped open one eye, then shut it again. Katherine tightened the belt of her kimono-style robe and planted her hands on her hips. “This is crazy. Do you even know this guy’s name? He could be a mass murderer for all we know.” Grudgingly Chad opened both eyes. “All I know is he got the bottle that was aimed at my head before all hell broke loose at Chuck’s Bar. Some guy punched him, and I figured the least I could do was drag him out of there and give him a place to rest for the night. He would have ended up in jail if I hadn’t taken him with me.” There was a strange logic to Chad’s explanation. That was frightening. When her nineteen-year-old half brother started to make sense she was in trouble. “I’ve got to be up at six. Make sure Prince Charming is out of here by then. I’m going to bed.” She turned toward her bedroom. “But you can’t.” “Can’t?” Katherine turned back around and arched an eyebrow. Chad stood and gestured awkwardly toward the man on the sofa. “Somebody’s gotta check him out and make sure he’s okay.” “Call a doctor.” “Katie!” “What?” “Can’t you at least look him over? I mean, you’re the one who’s taken first aid.” “Why didn’t you take him to the clinic?” “I didn’t think he was hurt that bad. I just knew we had to get out of Chuck’s.” “Is he drunk or does he have a concussion?” Chad gave a grimace of uncertainty and shrugged. Katherine sighed in resignation and moved toward the sofa. “Get me a damp washcloth and the first-aid kit. It’s in the bathroom.” Then, as Chad prudently followed her instructions, Katherine reluctantly turned her attention to the unconscious man. He was tall, longer than the six-foot plaid sofa. His face was damp from the storm raging outside, his dark hair drenched. She gently touched his head, checking for bumps. She found one the size of a goose egg and winced. The blow must have been painful. “So, what do you think?” Chad asked as he handed her the washcloth. With great care Katherine sponged the man’s face, neck and head. Her instincts told her the man would be all right, and she told Chad so. Then looking at the stranger’s face for the first time, she felt a vague sense of the familiar. “He looks like—” She stopped, because she couldn’t put her finger on it. “He looks like who?” Chad asked. She squinted her eyes together and tried to concentrate. There was something about him, something that made her pulse run faster. She should know him. She searched her memory but came up with nothing. Katherine shrugged, dismissing the odd feeling. “He looks like a mess.” She studied the way his facial structure was sculpted with clean lines, high cheekbones, dark eyebrows, an aquiline nose and a firm but compelling mouth. Uncompromising. Men would feel threatened by the arrogance in that face. Women would stare at him and make silent, secret wishes. Other women, she thought. She would never indulge in such futile wishes. His lovers would be tall, cool, sophisticated blondes. Not, she concluded wryly, short, emotional redheads with perms from hell. She unbuttoned his fine cotton shirt and frowned. “This doesn’t fit Chuck’s dress code. Have you ever met this guy before?” “Nah, the first time I saw him was when I ducked Randy’s bottle.” Chad cleared his throat. “I was busy playing cards before that.” Katherine glanced knowingly at her brother. “I’ll just bet you were. Did this fight have anything to do with your tendency to cheat?” Chad shifted his feet. “Cheating’s a harsh term.” Katherine closed her eyes, silently praying for restraint. Then she looked at the stranger interrupting her sleep and felt a twinge of concern. She tried to keep her touch clinical as she pulled the wet garment from his shoulders, but Katherine was a tactile person. She liked the slide of silk against her body, the texture of well-worn cotton and satin that caressed like warm water. She enjoyed feeling the vibration of a cat’s purr, couldn’t keep her hands off the peach fuzz of a baby’s head, and she had a weakness for touching beautiful things. His chest was a work of beauty—muscular, with brown male nipples peaked in protest to his cool body temperature, and a spray of dark hair that had her fingers tingling with the instinct to touch. He had biceps that inspired the thought that he was strong enough to hold a woman and keep her safe from the world. Katherine wondered what it would be like to feel those arms around her. Instantly embarrassment surged through her. She took a deep breath. “Can you find a robe for him? His clothes are a mess.” “Mine won’t fit. He’s a good four inches taller than I am,” Chad pointed out. “Look in Uncle Jasper’s closet.” Checking for broken ribs, she gently ran her hands down his torso. His smooth skin warmed beneath her fingers while his chest rose and fell in the slow rhythm of peaceful sleep. His heartbeat vibrated against her palm, and she became more aware of her own pulse. It was as if there was an invisible connection between them, as if he knew her, and she knew him. Katherine caught herself and rolled her eyes. Her lack of sleep was affecting her brain. She needed to finish this, and the ruined trousers had to come off, she realized. After unbuckling the fine leather belt, she eased the zipper down two inches and paused. His stomach was taut and richly tan like the rest of him. She bit her lip. She’d uncovered his navel and the beginnings of dark hair on his lower abdomen. Get on with it, silly, she thought. She clenched her jaw and pushed the zipper halfway down over his impressive masculinity and stopped abruptly. Her fingers grazed the most sensitive pleasurable part of him. Her hands were almost as close as a lover’s would be. She jerked her shaking hands away. She just couldn’t do it. It was all in her mind. Nurses, doctors and rescue workers did this kind of thing all the time. They didn’t ogle. They just stripped people naked with no regard to privacy. It was their job. But Katherine couldn’t get past the intimacy of the situation. Her inappropriate thoughts made her feel like an intruder, a voyeur. She’d just have to let Chad finish undressing him. “I found one of Jasper’s.” Chad held the robe out to her. “Good. I’ll let you get his pants off and cover him with a blanket,” she said quickly. “We can leave the robe on the back of the sofa just in case he gets up later. Then I can finish checking his head.” I might want to get mine checked too, she thought. Chad completed the job with a few groans and grunts. Katherine knelt near the man’s head and applied antiseptic to the wound. It must have stung, because he moaned. The sound tore at her. “It’s okay,” she murmured, stroking his forehead. Alex lifted a hand toward his head. The pain was so incredible he was tempted to go back to sleep. But his bed suddenly seemed too short, and his head felt as though an explosion had gone off inside it. Then he heard a soft, feminine voice, felt cool, gentle hands, and smelled something sweet and sultry. “I don’t think it needs stitches,” the female voice said. She talked with a lazy American drawl he couldn’t place. He struggled against the weight on his eyelids and willed them open. She was blurry. He squinted his eyes, and the picture cleared. Wild auburn hair framed a solemn, cameo-featured face. Her expression was guileless and sincere. He recognized both qualities because they were so rare in his world. Her large gray eyes were wide with concern. For him? Yes, he decided, and the notion wrapped around him like a blanket. Her skin was pale, almost alabaster perfect, except for the faint violet shadows beneath her eyes. And the sprinkling of freckles on her small nose. “Freckles,” he muttered, wondering why he couldn’t recall her name. Her pink mouth stretched into a sweet, sexy grin. “You must be okay if you can identify freckles.” Alex wondered if she were a figment of his imagination. She looked real, smelled like temptation and had a voice that conjured up visions of lazy, hot afternoons spent in bed. He lifted his hand to her chin and watched her freeze. Her skin was silky smooth. And her lips, he thought, rubbing his thumb against them, were like rose petals. He frowned. “Why don’t I remember making love to you?” Her eyes widened, and her face bloomed with color. “Because you haven’t,” she whispered. Frowning again, he dropped his hand from her mouth. What a disappointment. He’d like to think something pleasurable had precipitated this horrendous headache. None of this made sense. Why was this woman in his bed? And why had his bed shrunk? He vaguely identified the pungent smell surrounding him. “Whiskey. Not Chenin Blanc.” Not the fine liquor to which he was accustomed. Her large eyes blinked, and she cleared her throat. “Definitely not Chenin Blanc.” The soft, unmistakable weight of feminine breasts pressed pleasantly against his arm. Who was she? The throb in his head increased, and he took a deep breath to fight it. He refused to close his eyes. He didn’t want to lose sight of her. Her fine eyebrows drew together in a frown. “Get him a glass of water, Chad, please. Maybe he can take aspirin.” He heard a low murmur of response but still kept his eyes on her. “Who are you?” She brushed her hand soothingly over his forehead. “I’m Katherine, and you’re going to be okay. Here. Take some aspirin.” He took the pills and almost blacked out from the pain when she propped his head to take a drink of water. The process exhausted him. He finally closed his eyes, wondering why he hadn’t made love to her. “I think he’s gone back to sleep now,” Katherine said. His eyes were almost black, as dark as his hair. In those fleeting moments his dark searching gaze had a profound effect on her, as if he’d been looking for an anchor and decided she was it. Katherine shook her head. No way. She had an entire month and a half left to manage her uncle’s resort. Her time and attention were spoken for. “You think he’ll be okay?” Chad looked guilty. Katherine’s heart softened toward her brother. He was at a tough stage in life: not quite man, not quite boy. The fact that their mother had just entered the blissful state of matrimony for the fifth time didn’t exactly help matters. Katherine was convinced that underneath—way underneath—all his selfishness lay a heart of gold. She squeezed his arm. “He’ll be fine. And I think you did the right thing by bringing him here.” She paused, thinking of how her heart had tripped when the handsome stranger wrapped her in his warm gaze. There was something familiar, yet forbidden, about him. She squared her shoulders. “But I want him out of here by tomorrow afternoon.” When Alex awoke the next morning, he couldn’t decide which was worse: the crick in his neck or the teeth-clenching pain in his head. He looked around the unfamiliar room and felt confused. Then the events of the previous evening came back to him. Katherine and the young man named Chad. He hadn’t seen the bottle coming until it was too late. The wet trip over on the ferry. He rose stiffly. Chad entered from another room. “So, how’s the head?” Alex quirked his mouth. “In the future I’ll always associate the smell of cheap whiskey with pain.” Chad grinned and offered a cup of coffee. “You and the rest of the world.” He accepted it and took a drink. It was weaker than what he was accustomed to. “Thank you.” “No. Thank you. I’m sorry about the bottle last night.” Chad shrugged his shoulders. “If there’s anything I can do…” He glanced down at his bare chest and legs. “A shower and some clothes?” Chad seemed glad to have something to do. “Sure. There’s a mechanic who takes care of the rides who’s about your size.” He headed for the front door. “And the bathroom is the second door on your right.” “Chad,” Alex called. “Where am I?” “Nowhere.” Alex frowned. “Well,” Chad amended quickly, “specifically, you’re on Pirate Island, population four hundred sixty-four on a busy day. This is a camping resort for families who want to get away from it all. And I say ‘all’ in the literal sense. We don’t even have a weekly newspaper, and the only way you can get here is by ferry.” Chad hooked his fingers in his pockets and leaned forward conspiratorially. “Elvis could live here in total obscurity. The place is dead.” Alex was sure he’d misunderstood. “No newspaper?” “None.” “Radio or television station?” “None.” Chad pushed open the door. “Don’t worry. We won’t keep you here. The noon ferry will be here before you know it.” Alex stared after Chad thoughtfully. No newspaper. No media. No “Your Majesty.” An insane idea struck him. He immediately dismissed it. But as he took his shower and ate a bowl of cereal, it distracted him like a buzzing bee. He called the palace collect and asked for Isabella. Though Alex felt distant from his three siblings, he felt the strongest connection with Isabella, probably because she was the closest in age and she didn’t stand on ceremony with him. “Where are you?” she asked without preamble. “Jake called this morning and said you hadn’t arrived.” “You haven’t mentioned this to Father.” “No, but I would have if you hadn’t called in another hour. Jake asked where you were, then he rudely ordered me to keep my mouth shut. Your friend is—” “—Jake’s an American, and he was right to ask you to keep quiet.” “He didn’t ask,” she stiffly informed him. Alex shook his head. This would have been easier if he could have talked to his longtime assistant, Max, but Max was in Tibet. “That’s beside the point. I’m on Pirate Island, North Carolina. I had some—” he paused only a second “—transportation difficulties. It’s a remote area. No media. They don’t even know who I am.” “Sounds enthralling. When are you going to Jake’s?” “I don’t know.” He looked around the simply furnished room and finally repeated his impulse out loud. “I was thinking of staying.” Complete silence followed his statement, which was rare for Isabella. “You’re joking,” she finally said. “You wouldn’t last a week without your adoring servants.” That nettled him. “I’ve handled tougher conditions than this.” “But everybody always knew you were Prince Alexander Ferdinand Merrick de Moreno.” True. That was what he loved and hated about Isabella—she always told the truth. “Alex, face it. You’re a prince. When you take the throne, you’ll be a king. You’re good at being a ruler. It’s your identity.” Familiar dissatisfaction rolled through him. He loved his country and took seriously his role as leader, but even leaders needed an occasional break. That was the purpose behind this monthlong vacation. A dozen practical objections to his staying on Pirate Island came to mind. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be just a man, though, won out. In that instant he made his decision. “Call Jake and give my regrets. He’ll understand. Have the rental car picked up in Charles City. I’ll see you in a month.” “I don’t believe this. You’ll never last.” Alex knew Isabella couldn’t resist a bet. “Shall we wager?” “What?” “If I don’t last a month, I’ll persuade Father to let you go to Monte Carlo with your wild friend Lucinda.” “She’s not that wild,” Isabella corrected. “If I stay, you make the same kind of trip—sans title.” While Alex wore his title like a cloak, Isabella used hers as a shield to get out of sticky situations. “Deal.” “Not a word to Mother or Father.” “My lips are sealed. I’ll be too busy thinking about Monte Carlo.” Alex smiled. “Just remember my nickname, dearest.” “Prince of Steel? Ah, but even steel melts, Your High and Mightiness.” She paused, and her voice softened. “Take care. Au revoir, Alex.” “Make that Al. Al Sanders.” “Au revoir.” She hesitated. “Al.” Twenty minutes later his new identity was firmly in place. From the tight fit of the borrowed jeans and T-shirt brought to him, Alex concluded the mechanic weighed about twenty pounds less than he did. He learned that Chad and Katherine’s uncle Jasper owned the campground but had recently experienced a heart attack. Katherine was nearly overwhelmed with the responsibility of the busy tourist season. He also learned despite Chad’s stuttering and stammering that Katherine expected Alex to vacate the premises as soon as possible. Alex, however, had other ideas. He wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to be a nonprince. After all, it might never come again. He needed to be just a man. Katherine needed help. The solution seemed simple to him. And in the back of his mind, he wanted to learn more about the tough and tender lady with the rose-petal mouth. Alex picked up a map of the resort complex and set out to make himself indispensable. At nine o’clock that evening Katherine glanced up to find Al Sanders propped against the door of her uncle’s office. He should have been gone hours ago. Instead, he’d entertained some difficult customers by taking them sailing. The disgruntled couple had been charmed, the woman nearly melting into the cracks of the pavement. Katherine couldn’t blame her. When Al looked into a woman’s eyes as though she were the only female in the world, he dissolved defenses more effectively than the Patriot missile. And those breathtakingly tight jeans could surely earn him a spot in the buns-of-steel calendar. Add in his hundred-dollar smile and masterful air, and Katherine was surprised women hadn’t started throwing their lingerie at him. She was pretty sure Al Sanders was a con artist down on his luck, and she wanted him gone before he caused any trouble. The fact that he unsettled her and she couldn’t put her finger on why only added fuel to the fire. It would have been much easier to kick his incredible derriere off the island if he hadn’t sold helium balloons and skipped dinner to sell cotton candy, she realized. Remembering his injured head, she felt guilty. She motioned for him to sit and offered him some packaged bologna sandwiches and a soda. Maybe if she fed him, she wouldn’t feel so bad about sending him off. “How’s your head?” “Fine.” But he looked a little green. She set some aspirin in front of him. “Thank you.” Katherine took a deep breath and sat in her uncle’s worn captain’s chair behind the old walnut desk. Her least favorite thing in the world was firing people. And although technically, she’d never hired Al, the process was still the same. Her palms were sweating. She thought of how her uncle would handle this situation, pretended she was six feet tall instead of five foot three, and tried to forget that she was much more comfortable teaching first graders than managing this camping resort. “Al, I appreciate how you’ve pitched in today. And I’ll be glad to pay you for your services,” she began, and twined her fingers together. “That’s unnecessary. I wanted to thank you for your kindness last night.” Al glanced down at the sandwich. “This meat is unusual. It’s very good.” Katherine blinked. “It’s bologna.” He looked thoughtful. “I’ll have to remember that.” She narrowed her eyes. “You have an accent. Are you from England?” “I’ve spent some time there.” “Do you have a green card?” she asked, hoping for an easy out. He stiffened. “I don’t need a green card.” His manner was so cold and affronted, she had to resist the urge to apologize. Such pride, she thought. It was surpassed only by his confidence. She’d always resented tall, confident people. Katherine tried the direct approach. “The next ferry leaves at ten o’clock. We’re booked for the night, but there are some nice hotels on the mainland.” “You have a room available in your cabin. Chad tells me you’re short-staffed and this is the busy season. I’d like to work for room and board until the end of the month.” Katherine mentally cursed her half brother and picked up a pencil. “Al, you arrived here last night, drunk and passed out. I don’t really see how I can hire you on that basis.” “I arrived here passed out because I happened into a bottle of whiskey aimed for your brother’s head. I was not drunk.” He stood and dropped the paper napkin into the trash. Then he looked directly at her. “Have you been unhappy with my performance today?” Katherine leaned back in her chair. “Well, no.” “Are you short-staffed?” She resisted the urge to squirm. “Yes.” He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Take me on a trial basis.” Her chest squeezed tight. What woman wouldn’t take him? He was the kind of man women made fools of themselves over. If she had erotic dreams, he would be the kind of lover she’d dream of. His hands would be slow and sure, his mouth both giving and ruthless, his voice low and urgent. She shivered. “Trial basis,” she repeated weakly. “Yes.” He glanced away from her, suddenly appearing tired. “I’m rather…” “…down on your luck at the moment,” she supplied for him. His dark eyes held wry, weary amusement. “So, you’re not only beautiful, you’re also perceptive.” He bent over the desk and took her fidgeting hand. “What have you got to lose?” Katherine’s cheeks heated at the feeling of her hand enveloped within his larger one. Beautiful? Lord, he’s good, she thought. She pulled her hand away and cleared her throat. She couldn’t say what tipped the scales in his favor. Maybe it was the fact that he’d worked so hard this afternoon. It might have been that she wondered if she’d misjudged him. What if he wasn’t a con man and needed help? Katherine was sensitive to unfairness, having taken too many cheap shots from the tabloids over her ex-husband’s affairs. But what really affected her was the way his posture screamed confidence while his eyes revealed flashes of something deeper and more human. “One week’s trial,” she finally said, and watched him relax slightly. “You won’t regret it.” Katherine gave a grim smile and prayed. Katherine awoke to darkness and the sound of someone scratching on her window screen. After a moment of terror she recognized old Mr. Larson’s husky voice. He wanted to borrow fishing lures from her uncle and had forgotten Jasper was gone for the summer. Katherine promised to find them, and Mr. Larson said he’d be back in twenty minutes. Pushing her hair from her face, she crept from her room to the hall closet. She shined the flashlight up the shelves to the top one and sighed. There sat the tackle box. She tiptoed to the kitchen and grabbed a bar stool. After positioning it in front of the closet, she climbed on top and reached for the box. “What are you doing?” a low voice said behind her. Startled, Katherine gave a muffled squeak. The bar stool shifted. She panicked until the stool was steadied and a strong arm wrapped around her waist. She took deep breaths to calm her racing heart. “What are you doing?” she whispered. “That’s what I asked you,” Al said. “Do you know what time it is?” “No. And please don’t tell me. I’ve got to get fishing lures for Mr. Larson. He and Uncle Jasper always go fishing together this time of year.” She moaned. “They’d leave about four o’clock in the morning.” “You’re close. It’s actually—” “I said don’t tell me.” His chuckle rumbled pleasantly out of the darkness. His arm felt warm around her. She’d rested her hand on it and could feel his flexed muscles. Her back absorbed the sensation of his hard chest pressed against her. His musky male scent made her lightheaded. The darkness covered them like a blanket, and their hushed voices made the situation feel oddly erotic. “Let me go.” “No. You might fall.” She started to argue, then realized it would be faster just to grab the tackle box and get down. She turned around with the tackle box in her hand. Al took it, and before she could bend down, he picked her up. She clutched his shoulders and slid down his body, feeling his bare chest against her breasts. Her hair shimmied over one of his shoulders. She looked into his face, and everything stopped. Her mind, her heart, her breath. Somewhere in her conscience the hint of a melody, stirring and poignant, teased her. At that moment all she could do was stand still inside his arms and watch. With one arm still wrapped around her waist, he picked up the long lock of hair and rubbed it between his fingers. “It’s so long,” he mused. Katherine’s mouth went dry. “I—I keep saying I’m going to cut it.” “No, it’s you. Long red hair, slim little body, lots of warm smiles.” She sucked in a deep, desperate breath. Laughing nervously, she tried to step back. “How do you know anything about me? You just met me.” He released her slowly, and she could make out the intent look in his eyes even in the darkness. “You learn by watching and listening. I’ve done both.” “Oh,” she said. She shook back the distracting hair, relieved to be out of his arms. “Why are you managing this place on your own?” he asked. “My uncle had a heart attack. I’m the only one he trusts.” “But you don’t like it.” That stopped her. “Does it show that much?” She sighed. “I teach first grade during the school year and head up the children’s programs for Pirate Island during the summer. Jasper’s heart attack caught all of us by surprise.” She shrugged. “I may not be a wonderful manager, but I think with a little help I can hold things together until he decides what he wants to do.” “It’s a heavy responsibility.” “Yeah.” Katherine grinned and picked up the tackle box. “But I’m tough.” He put his hand on hers. “Let me take that.” “I can handle it,” she insisted. “I’m sure you can.” Katherine stared at him to see if he was making fun of her. But his gaze was serious. “Okay. Just put it on the front porch, please.” She set the barstool back in the kitchen. “See ya in the morning,” she whispered. “That will be in about two hours,” Al said. Katherine moaned. “Don’t rub it in.” After she closed her door and settled into bed, Katherine stared at the ceiling. She wasn’t sure about Al Sanders. Too many things didn’t add up. Who was he? Why was he staying on Pirate Island? Why did she care? She wrestled with the questions until she finally fell asleep. Then she dreamed she danced in the dark. She couldn’t quite make out the face of her partner, but his shoulders were broad, his arms strong, and the music she heard touched a tender, vulnerable place inside her. Chapter Two Katherine hung up the phone and stared at it. She felt as if she’d just committed a murder. It was the right thing to do, she told herself. After all, this was Jasper’s third heart attack. The doctor had warned Jasper to cut back on his level of responsibility. Even though her uncle wouldn’t admit it, he had no business managing the campground any longer. By putting the word out that they were interested in selling, she was just making it easier for him. Ultimately the final decision would be Jasper’s. But Katherine reasoned that if she took care of the legwork, selling the campground wouldn’t be so traumatic for him. Then why did she feel so horrible? It was probably because Uncle Jasper and Pirate Island were the two most stable elements in her life. Since Katherine had turned six, she’d spent every summer with Jasper at the campground. On high school breaks she’d led the children’s programs. Between her mother’s ventures in and out of matrimony and the corresponding upheavals in all their lives, Katherine had clung to Pirate Island as if it were a lifeline. Now, she was cutting it. The thought made her sick. From her disappointing relationship with her father to her publicly humiliating divorce, Katherine’s luck with men had been the pits. The only exception was Uncle Jasper, who’d taught her to fish, encouraged her to go to college, and taught her the value of honesty and stability. She sighed, wishing there was another way. “Bad news?” Al asked from behind her. He moved closer, watching her turn away and give her cheek a surreptitious wipe. “Why didn’t you knock?” “I did. You must not have heard me.” Alex hesitated, wondering what to do. He’d dealt with teary females before, but in his experience, women usually cried in order to get something. Specifically they cried when they found out he wasn’t going to marry them, and they weren’t going to be the next princess of Moreno. Katherine, however, appeared genuinely upset, and that bothered him. “You’re upset. What do you need?” She shook her head and forced a cheerful expression on her face. “Nothing. It’s nothing.” Alex narrowed his eyes. “If it’s nothing, then why is your lip quivering?” He reached a hand to her face. “You’re very observant,” she murmured, moving to the other end of the small office. “Yes. You didn’t answer my question.” She made a sound that was half exasperation and half laughter. “You’re also pushy.” “Persistent,” he corrected. “What’s wrong?” Katherine rolled her eyes. “It’s none of your business.” He frowned. No one had ever said that to him. Not his mother, not even Isabella. Katherine Kendall was an irritating feminine puzzle. She’d reluctantly taken him in but kept her distance during the last week. And though she didn’t trust him, she was beginning to rely on him. He was making damn sure of that. He was curious about her. The way the campground children followed her around as if she were the Pied Piper. She gave smiles away for free, hugs as if they were pennies. To everyone but him. He minded being excluded from her smiles, hugs and everything else. He noticed the way she used her petite body carelessly, as if she thought there was nothing sensual about the way she walked, but he sensed something simmering beneath the surface. Her slim waist and full breasts made him want to wrap his hands around her, touch her silky skin, learn her secrets. When she talked, sometimes he got hard just watching her mouth. And if she knew what he was thinking, he’d be on the next ferry out of here. For the first time in his life Alex wanted something he’d never wanted from a woman. If only for the remainder of this month, he wanted possession of the mind, body and soul of Katherine. His obstacle was that the lady didn’t trust him. Patience had never been his long suit. He moved forward. Katherine took a matching step away. He stopped. “Why do you do that?” he asked. She curled her hands around the edge of the desk. “Do what?” “Move away as if you’re afraid I’ll attack you.” Her eyes opened wide. “Do I do that? I, uh, I didn’t realize.” She pushed back her bangs and jammed her hand into the pocket of her pink cotton shorts. “Are you afraid of me?” “No! Of course not,” she said quickly, but the silence stretched between them. “No?” Katherine sighed, then said reluctantly, “This is embarrassing. I don’t know you, but I feel like I should. You remind me of someone, but I can’t remember who.” For a second he froze, wondering if she’d seen a publicity photo of him. He forced a casual shrug. “Someone you knew when you were young?” “No,” she admitted. Alex wondered at the sudden color in her cheeks. “Is it my face?” She looked trapped. “Yes, your face and your…” “My what?” “Your eyes.” “And?” Maybe if she said it out loud, the strange feeling would go away. “And your body. It’s ridiculous. I know. It’s insane, but I have this feeling that I’ve known you…” She lifted her hands, searching for the word she couldn’t bring herself to say. And there was no way on God’s green earth she’d tell him about the music. Alex smiled. “Intimately.” “But we both know it’s not possible,” she went on quickly, not liking the satisfaction she heard in his voice. “I’ve never met you. You’ve never met me. It’s just—” He touched her, and her mile-a-minute denial cut off. Her vocal cords jammed. He cupped her chin, gently encouraging her to meet his gaze, and Katherine knew she was in major-league trouble. “If I had met you, mon amie, I couldn’t have forgotten. Perhaps we met in another life.” “I, uh, I don’t really believe in reincarnation,” she managed breathlessly. “Neither do I.” His face grew serious. “But there are other ways—dreams, fantasies.” Katherine squished her eyes shut, fighting his words and the images he provoked. “I don’t have a lot of time for dreams or fantasies.” “Fantasies make time for themselves.” He wrapped his warm hand around her waist, and she thought she’d faint. Oh, God, she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d done such a good job of it before. She clenched her jaw. “I dreamed of you,” he said. “I dreamed I tasted your smile. I made love to your mouth for a day and a night, because I couldn’t stop. Then I brought you so close, there was nothing between us.” Keeping her eyes closed, she felt him lower his head, felt his warm breath, got dizzy over his heat and strength. The melody began again, so sweetly it hurt. She waited, dreaded, wished. His mouth barely whispered against hers in an openly erotic touch that coaxed and threatened and sent her pulse into triple time. She saw herself falling down deep into a well that never ended. No safety net. No coming back. It scared her spitless. Katherine jerked back, her eyes flying open. “No!” “No?” he repeated, as if he were unfamiliar with the meaning of the word. “N-o-o.” She drew it out so he wouldn’t miss it, and she was beginning to think she needed some practice with that word herself. She was going to need ice for the burn marks where he’d touched her. “This weird feeling will go away,” she insisted. “It’s not real, and we don’t need to act on it.” “Not real.” Her insides still felt like a five-alarm fire. “Exactly. It’s good that we both understand. It’s perfectly clear.” Clear as mud, she thought. Without a hint of conversational finesse, she forced the conversation back to business. “Is there a problem somewhere on the campground? Or did you have a question?” He paused, studying her, and she knew she hadn’t fooled him. Such dark, perceptive eyes Al Sanders had. She waited out the uncomfortable silence, hoping he’d relent. “Do you know anything about a balloon battle?” he finally asked. Katherine laughed in relief and nodded at his quizzical expression. “Yes.” She checked her watch. “Oops, we’d better hurry or we’ll be late. Wednesdays at two o’clock sharp, all the kids and some adults engage in a water-balloon battle.” Grateful for something to break the spell, she grabbed some bags of balloons from a drawer and led the way out of the office. “A game,” Al concluded. “Sort of.” “And what is the objective?” Katherine came to a stop on the wooden front porch of the rec building and looked at him. “You’ve never been in a water-balloon battle?” When he shook his head, she made a tsking sound. “The objective of a water-balloon battle is to get everyone wet and to laugh a lot.” “But who wins?” “No one.” “Then why?” “For fun,” she said, wondering why the concept seemed foreign to him. “Like making mud pies when you were three.” Alex looked at her blankly. Mud pies? “Seeing who can do the worst belly flopper off the side of the pool?” His German swimming instructor had allowed only perfect dives. He shook his head. Katherine was determined to find common ground. “Who can blow the biggest bubble-gum bubble?” Alex’s lips twitched at that. He could just imagine the appalled expression on his etiquette instructor’s face if the future ruler of Moreno had suggested a bubble-blowing contest. “Try again.” “Okay. Last one. Little boys are famous for this. Who can spit the farthest?” He laughed out loud. “You’re joking.” Katherine smiled, liking the rare sound of his deep chuckle. “No. And if you’ve never done any of those things, you’re either an alien or you were raised in a bubble.” He felt his grin fall, remembering the scandal that had rocked his childhood. “You could be right.” The turbulence in his dark eyes tugged at her. Al obviously knew how to have the adult brand of fun. He was an expert at everything from sailing and charming conversation to seducing a woman. But he seemed lost when it came to carefree, silly, childlike fun. It made her wonder what he’d missed. It made her care. She deliberately kept her tone light. “An extraterrestrial. The kids’ll love it. Well, get ready for a new experience.” About thirty kids, some of them over thirty years old, stood in the grassy area set aside for outside recreational games. They wore bathing suits and were screaming for blood. In between filling the balloons with water, Chad was inciting the crowd to all kinds of watery violence. When they saw Katherine with more balloons, they cheered. Katherine and Al filled the rest of the balloons while Chad divided the group into teams. “That should be enough,” Katherine said, and began to put the balloons into two separate piles. “If you don’t want to play, you’d better—” Splat. Alex jumped as the balloon burst against his back, cold water seeping into his shirt and pants. He looked over his shoulder at the culprit, a pigtailed little girl. He was so shocked, it must have shown on his face. Her eyes grew huge with fright, and she began to run away. “Stacy!” Katherine caught her and handed the little girl another balloon. Uncertain, Stacy looked from Katherine to Alex. Katherine gave her a nudge of encouragement, and little Stacy heaved the balloon smack into the side of his head. Alex took it like a man. With water dripping off his nose and eyelashes, he even managed a smile for the little feminine warrior. “This is fun?” he asked Katherine when Stacy ran off yelling in victory. “Am I supposed to thank you?” Katherine didn’t bother hiding her laughter. “Well, I bet you’re cooler now.” There was another splat. Katherine shrieked, snatched up a balloon from the rapidly depleting supply and threw it at her attacker. Catching the spirit of the event, he took a balloon, testing its weight in his hand. Katherine turned, laughing, then shaking her head when she saw the balloon in his hand. “No,” she said, backing away. “I owe you.” Going against every rule he’d ever learned about how to treat a woman, he threw it and scored a direct hit. “Al Sanders!” she yelled, clearly torn between laughter and indignation. “You’ll pay!” But the balloon she tossed back barely fazed him. He was too busy looking at Katherine. Her eyes were full of laughter. Her wet shirt stretched like a second skin across her breasts. Her nipples strained against the drenched cloth, begging for a man’s hands and mouth, he thought, and felt a corresponding thickness in his loins. Suddenly he understood the appeal of a water-balloon battle. Katherine sat on the beach at midnight wearing a flowing blue dress that dropped off one shoulder. She was waiting for something, somebody, as she dug her bare toes into the cool sand and lifted her head to the breeze. She closed her eyes until something soft brushed her cheek, and the scent of a rose reached her nostrils. She looked up, and he was there. He smiled and drew her to her feet. “Where have you been hiding?” Her heart sped up. “I haven’t been hiding. I’ve been waiting.” “For me,” he said with customary arrogance. “Maybe.” He pulled her close. “Who knows you like I do? Who knows what pleases you?” She felt a wave of uncertainty. “Sometimes I don’t even know me.” “Yes, you do.” He rubbed his thumb over her lower lip. “And what you don’t know, I’ll teach you.” She shivered at the intensity in his dark eyes. What if he tried and found her lacking? He must have read her mind. “Never.” Holding her gaze, he continued to rub her lip. Hesitantly, Katherine stroked his thumb with the tip of her tongue. He tasted warm and a little salty and male. Something dipped and swayed within her at the small intimacy. “Good,” he said. He glazed his thumb over the edge of her lower teeth, and she bit down gently. She saw the approval in his eyes and felt a rush of pleasure. She’d pleased him. Then she pleased herself and suckled. The heaviness in her abdomen surprised her. “You make it difficult to wait, Katherine,” he muttered in a strained voice. He pulled his hand away and brought hers to his mouth. “But turnabout is fair play, no?” He kissed the palm of her hand. Then he sucked a finger into his mouth. The sensation drew her nipples tight. Embarrassed, she wondered how to hide it. “There’s no need to hide your desire, chårie. It pleases me.” He gave her finger a playful nip and placed her hand on his shoulder. Then he touched one of her nipples. She gasped. The gentle caress stung. She was too needy, too soon. It made her feel weak and vulnerable. He seemed to understand. “How long have you been this way?” “Too long,” she breathed. “Much too long.” Anger flashed in his eyes, then passed. He pulled her into a comforting hug. She sighed against his white shirt. Beneath her cheek, she felt the beat of his heart, the hard, warm muscle of his chest. “I’m not like other men. Are you ready for me, Katherine?” She wasn’t sure, but was it a matter of choice? It felt inevitable. She lifted her head. “I don’t know what to tell you.” “What do you want?” She swallowed and somehow found the courage. “I want to feel your mouth against mine. I want to taste you. I want you to taste me. I want you to want me,” she whispered, realizing she’d made herself completely vulnerable. “If it’s in my power, I will always give you what you want,” he said in a deep, rough voice. He lowered his mouth, and she waited and wanted. The music began. She felt the first brush of his lips and melted. The wanting got worse. She reached for him, but her fingers were suddenly empty. He was fading. She panicked. “No!” she cried, but he’d turned into mist. “Don’t go.” The dampness from her eyes woke her. Her breath backed up in her chest, and she blinked hard, staring at her ceiling. “Oh, God.” She threw an arm up over her eyes. “It was just a dream.” Katherine rolled onto her side and curled into a ball. The anguish still flowed through her. It was worse than a nightmare. Her subconscious had played the most cruel of jokes on her this time. That she could please a man was impossible. God knows, she’d tried every trick in the book with her ex-husband. Making love had been the most awkward, humiliating experience of her life. Twice now, she’d dreamed of Al and heard that damned music in the background. It was because of that kiss this afternoon. Her lips tingled even now at the memory. She touched them. Unsettled, she kicked off the covers. She was too warm, yet goose bumps stood up on her skin. Why was this happening to her? What did it mean? She took a deep breath, fighting and accepting the crazy truth. It meant she was vulnerable to Al Sanders, and she’d best watch her step if she didn’t want heart trouble. After a busy Saturday spent checking in the new week’s campers, Katherine was glad to escape for a late-night swim. She took a little extra time in the ocean, knowing she’d pay for it tomorrow morning. Finally, she reluctantly left the warm, caressing waves. There was Al standing on the sand, next to her T-shirt. The crazy dream flashed through her mind, and her heart tightened in her chest. Willing herself to relax, she made her way to his side and reached for her balled-up T-shirt. She’d forgotten a towel again. Al’s gaze lingered on her wet, scantily clad body for a long moment, then he draped a towel over her shoulders. “I brought this for you.” His kindness made her contrite for being so guarded. “Thank you. It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?” “Yes.” Al sat down and patted the sand beside him. “Join me.” Katherine paused in the act of rubbing herself dry. He’d done it again. Was that a request or an order? Then again, after midnight, who cared? “I love the ocean,” she said, watching the pulse of the whitecaps against the sand. “During the school year I live in Greensboro. So I really miss it then.” “You’re going to miss it even more when Pirate Island is sold.” Katherine stiffened. “How—” “You got a call from Mr. James Logan. He’d heard from someone in Charles City, and he wants to tour the campground with you tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.” “Tomorrow!” The news hit her like a brick. Even though she knew selling Pirate Island was for the best, taking this next step hurt. She wasn’t ready emotionally or logistically. “Oh, this is just great.” She stood and struggled with her T-shirt. “We’ve got a ton of children’s activities planned tomorrow morning. It’s supposed to rain, so all the parents will be dumping their kids on us.” Trying to pull the armhole of the shirt over her head, she made a muffled sound of frustration. “What is wrong with this shirt?” “I’m sure Chad and the others will cooperate with you once you tell them your plan,” Al said, deftly righting the shirt for her. She jerked the shirt on and glared at him. “I don’t want Chad and the others to know. For that matter I don’t want you to know. But I guess it’s too late for that.” “And your uncle Jasper?” Katherine gripped his arm. “Swear you won’t tell him.” “I won’t. But you shouldn’t have to do this alone. You care too much about this place. You can trust me.” Katherine stared at him. She almost believed him. He stood there so tall, so sure, so strong. She could feel muscles like steel beneath her fingers. She dropped her hands, but he caught them. He was getting too close. She felt crowded. She’d always felt more comfortable helping others than being helped. Katherine tried to pull her hands away, but he wouldn’t allow it. She pulled her gaze from his instead. “Let me help you,” Al said in a low murmur that sent goose bumps down her arms. “Call it payback,” he offered. “You took me in when I needed help.” “I didn’t want to.” “But you did.” Katherine finally succeeded in pulling away. “I don’t know you.” Al shook his head. “You know me. You told me so yourself. You’re not following your instincts.” Her stomach fluttered, but she held her ground. “My instincts with men haven’t been very reliable.” “Then you must follow my instincts.” Katherine blinked and checked the hard planes of his face. He was serious. “Has anyone ever told you you’re the teeniest bit autocratic?” Alex considered that. “No. People are grateful for my advice.” “Or maybe they’re just too intimidated to point out your arrogance,” she muttered. Alex was just about to firmly address her breach of protocol when he remembered that Al Sanders wasn’t due any special treatment. He stared down at the woman who got under his skin more than any other had and reined in his consternation. “I prefer to call it confidence.” “Well, I can’t argue with that,” she said in a dry tone. “Are you so frightened of me?” He watched her face and realized he’d hit a nerve. His quick surge of triumph gave way to something less comfortable. He took her hands again. “Can’t you just leave me alone?” she whispered, hoping to appeal to his mile-wide chivalrous streak. Alex shook his head. A lump of dread formed in her throat. The sheer power of his personality overwhelmed her. He was so sure of himself. His hands, she noticed irrelevantly, were warm and firm, just as they’d been in her dream. He pulled her closer. Katherine’s heart raced. Oh, no. Not on the beach. Not when she felt weak and confused. Not tonight. Not any time. Chapter Three It was inevitable, Katherine realized. She braced herself, stiffening her body, closing her eyes and tightly pursing her lips. Then she waited. For a moment nothing happened. His hands still held hers, his breath mingled with the night breeze against her cheek, and his body emanated heat and power, but he didn’t move any closer to her. Then he rubbed his lips across her cheek and chuckled next to her ear. The tickling vibration of his voice had her curling her head toward her shoulder. She opened her eyes and glared at him for laughing at her. “You look like you’re preparing yourself for a vile-tasting medicine,” he said. “Am I so bad, chårie?” “Very bad,” Katherine shot back. When she realized how tightly she clutched his hands, she struggled to release them. He ignored her struggles. “Ah, but how can you know when you haven’t learned my flavor?” “I don’t wa—” The rest of her words and breath were lost as his mouth came down on hers. She tried to purse her mouth again, but he sucked her lower lip and darted his tongue across her upper one. He gave her a moment’s respite, and she grabbed it as if it were a lifeline. “Cheater,” she hissed, breathless and angry because of it. “You’ve got my hands.” In an instant he released them, but before she could do anything, Al slid his hands through her hair, cradling her head. “It’s a sin to see a frown on such a beautiful mouth,” he chided in a velvet tone that sent shivers down her spine. “I’m sure you’re an expert on sin.” At his soft laughter she balled her fists and thought about bopping him on his hard head. Her ability to move, however, evaporated when he nibbled, then pressed his mouth against hers first one way, then another, and another, until she grew soft beneath him. He was sipping her like nectar. His tongue explored the tenderness just inside her lips. She felt like a rare delicacy he was savoring to the fullest. Her heart thundered against her chest, and she sighed, dropping her fists in mute surrender. One of his hands slid down her hair to her bare back, pressing her closer so that she felt the muscles of his chest, the tightness of his abdomen, the power of his thighs and the hard ridge between. And she knew he really wanted her. He wasn’t putting on an act that would end up making her feel foolish and humiliated. “Taste me, Katherine,” he murmured. His voice was needy, irresistibly needy. She couldn’t find the reserves to fight him. Rubbing her tongue against his, she tested the texture of his teeth and the roof of his mouth. He made a gruff, masculine sound of approval. Needing something to hold on to, she clung to his shoulders, her fingers squeezing restlessly. Her breasts were heavy, and she ached in secret places. As he mercilessly plundered her mouth, Katherine was lost to everything but him. She felt a clench deep inside her, increasing waves of sensation that threatened to drown her with their intensity. “Oh, my God,” she moaned, tearing herself from his arms. Utterly and completely humiliated, she wrapped her arms around herself and turned away gasping for air. For God’s sake, what was wrong with her? All he’d done was kiss her. “Katherine,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. She jerked away. “No! Don’t touch. Don’t talk. Just leave me alone.” She heard the huskiness in both their voices, felt his uneven breath on her shoulder, and nearly cried. “But you’re upset.” “I’ll be okay. Just give me a minute alone.” He paused. “I can’t leave you like this. Not after—” “Let’s not talk about it,” she said desperately. She cringed at the intimacy between them. He was too experienced not to know how aroused she’d been. “Look at me, Katherine.” There it was again, the note of command in his voice. When she looked up at him, his hair was ruffled by the wind, his dark eyes blazing with blunt desire. His cheeks flared with the dusky flush of passion. And as she looked at his swollen lips, she touched her own. “You’re not alone,” he said. She almost believed him. “Maybe not at this moment, but eventually I will be. It always ends that way.” The breeze cooled her face and gave her strength. “I’m just an ordinary woman who will end up getting hurt.” She paused, shaking her head. “I don’t know much about you, Al Sanders, but I know you’re not like other men.” His eyes flickered, then narrowed. The warmth of passion faded to something cold and bleak. He’s angry, she thought. He might even be hurt. The notion didn’t sit well. She tried to say something but couldn’t think of anything that didn’t leave her too vulnerable. Al turned away, effectively dismissing her. Something inside her compelled her to go after him. Don’t let him be lonely. But then she caught herself and forced herself to be still. This man could destroy her. For several long moments Katherine watched him, her mind and heart pulling in opposite directions. Finally she turned away and walked up the beach, shivering the whole way home, wondering why she felt so empty. The next morning Katherine focused on her upcoming appointment with James Logan. She persuaded Chad and one of her most dependable employees, Suzanne, to help out with the children. Katherine gave them a mile-long list of activities to do while she met with Mr. Logan. James Logan was a clever, middle-aged resort owner who talked circles around Katherine’s sales spiel. He’d griped the entire time. She countered each of his criticisms of the campground with a positive statement. He didn’t like the layout. He didn’t like the menu at lunch. He didn’t like the color of the paint in the cabins. Katherine just smiled and pointed out that beige didn’t show dirt. He didn’t seem to like much of anything. When they’d concluded the excruciatingly thorough tour, he’d said, “I’ll call you.” Translated: You’ll never hear from me again. Katherine was tired enough to be more relieved than disappointed. The only thing she wanted now was a six-hour bath. Her conscience chided her to check on how Suzanne and Chad were doing, so she hustled the rest of the way to the front porch. Pulling off the plastic poncho, Katherine laughed at her wet, mud-splattered appearance. “Give me a white flag,” she murmured to herself. The sound of applause filtered through the wooden door. Curious, she opened it and caught sight of Chad and a group of little boys playing cards. They were chewing gum and swilling Kool-Aid. A sliver of unease sifted through her. Chad wouldn’t teach them poker, would he? Noting the backs of the cards, Katherine relaxed. Old Maid. She pushed the door open wider. The activity on the other side of the room stopped her midmotion. A lamp, minus its shade, perched on a low stool. A small army of boys and girls holding switches lunged and feinted as if sword fighting. Their movements created a dancing display of shadows on the far wall. Al called out and showed them a movement. They stopped to watch, then, in unison, imitated his precision with childlike awkwardness. “En garde,” he said in a commander’s voice. “En garde,” they returned, and copied his bow. A chill ran down her spine. The whole scene carried an air of unreality. Al feinted and parried with his imaginary opponent, moving with agility and skill. His shadow looked larger than life. She could almost imagine him in times of old, protecting, defending, conquering. His powerful body flexed with tension. His face was set with concentration. This was no game for him, Katherine sensed. It made her wonder about him. Who was he? Why was he here? What did he want from her? He lunged and took the killing stroke through the heart of his victim. The room cheered. He turned, faced the crowd and gave a brief bow. Chad came up beside her. Katherine forced her gaze to her brother. “How’d it go?” He shrugged. “Not bad. Big Napoleon here got everyone straight this morning.” “Big Napoleon?” Chad grinned, pleased with himself. “Yeah. It’s my new nickname for him. Pretty clever, huh?” “Very clever,” Katherine said. “Have you shared it with Al?” “Hell, no. I’m not an idiot. He’s great with a sword, and I’ve got strong survival instincts. Which,” he added darkly, “is why I didn’t drink any coffee this morning. Al fixed it, and it tasted like sh—” He broke off, glancing over his shoulder at the wide-eyed children who stood behind them. He lowered his voice. “Horrible. If you have an ounce of concern for my health or our coffeemaker, you’ll make it before he does.” Katherine laughed. “Okay. I hear you.” Chad looked at Al again. “We ought to get him to be a pirate in that skit we always used to do.” Chad paused. “He’s looking at you.” Her chest tightened. “I’ll ask him about the skit,” she said. She didn’t want to look at Al. She was afraid that she would turn into a quivering mass of Jell-O. “He’s still looking at you.” “Thanks for telling me,” she muttered, resigning herself. Time to face the music, chickie. Anticipation is usually worse than reality, she told herself. When she looked up and met his deep, dark gaze, though, her heart seemed to stop. Standing tall, with that sword in his hand, he looked every inch the conquering male. But his eyes were tentative, asking, not demanding, and her defenses melted like butter in the sun. He held out his hand for her to join him. She didn’t hesitate. She’d have to think about that later. She just walked forward and let him take her hand. He held it firmly and whispered in her ear, “How did it go with Logan?” “Horrible,” she said, relieved he wasn’t going to refer to what had happened between them last night. “I—I didn’t know you could fence.” His jaw tightened, but he kept his voice light. “There are many things you don’t know about me.” Katherine trembled and pulled her hand away. She didn’t like the way she felt—light-headed, flushed, out of control. And he’d merely touched her hand. “How true,” she returned. He must have felt her response. Al smiled slowly, all male confidence now. “You can trust me.” Katherine shook her head. “I don’t know that.” “You need me,” he insisted. “Pirate Island needs you,” she corrected. “We’d like you to be a pirate in our Wednesday-night skit. The guests have missed it. Uncle Jasper always coordinated it before. We’ve got a bunch of new employees this year, so no one knows how to pull it off. You could coach the others in fencing, and Chad could direct.” Al flicked the sword through the air thoughtfully. She noticed it was one that had been hanging on the wall. “What do I get in return?” he finally asked. Her chest felt tight at the look in his eyes. “What do you want?” “Your trust.” She shook her head automatically. He might as well ask for one of her lungs. “No.” He lifted his shoulders in a masculine shrug. “What a shame. You’ll have to find someone else.” Exasperation swept through her. “But—” “You’re not being equitable. You want something from me when you’ll give me nothing.” “I’ll pay you,” Katherine offered. The children began to get restless. “Do the sword again, Mr. Al,” one called. “Yeah, do it again,” another one said. “It’s up to you,” Al said to Katherine. The kids got louder, and Katherine vacillated. This was crazy. She hardly knew the man. “I can’t,” she whispered. “Then I guess we’re at a stalemate.” He turned to the children. “That’s all for today, kids. Talk to Katherine if you want to learn more. She’s in charge.” Past a chorus of moans and protests, she glared at him. He grinned. Fearing a riot, she grabbed his arm as he began to leave. “There’s got to be something else you want.” She cringed at how suggestive that sounded. “Something like Saturday nights off, or the use of my car.” He thought it over for a moment and nodded. “Saturday nights off, yes. And the use of your car. Add one more thing.” “What?” she asked suspiciously. “Answer my questions.” Katherine was nonplussed. She’d been certain he’d ask for something more, perhaps something provocative. “Katherine?” Al prompted. Heat scorched her cheeks, and she drew a breath of thanks that he couldn’t read minds. Answering questions wasn’t difficult. After all, she’d led a pretty boring life except for her brief marriage, and she’d developed a pat uninformative response due to countless inquiries she’d received from reporters. It seemed harmless enough. Two children pulled on her leg and asked for cookies. Katherine shrugged. “Fine.” He gave her a devastating smile and garnered the attention of the entire room simply by clapping his hands together and picking up the sword. He had such a powerful, commanding presence that even she was awed. The cookies were forgotten, and Katherine wondered again what she’d just gotten herself into. That evening Katherine skipped her late-night swim and watched a movie on television. Since Chad was in hot pursuit of Suzanne, Katherine and Al shared the evening together. It should have been comfortable. After a long, hot bath and dinner, she should have been happy and relaxed. They both sat on the plaid sofa, she on one end, he on the other. But Al’s proximity unsettled her, and her gaze kept wandering to him. His hair was damp and ruffled from a shower. He’d changed into a pair of khaki canvas shorts and a yellow pullover. There was nothing seductive about his clothing. 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