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"I let myself in.”
He hadn’t known she wore eyeglasses until her head snapped up at the unexpected sound of his voice. She whipped them off and dropped them on the stack of manuscript pages lying on the Queen Anne desk in front of her. Her red pen, too, fell from her fingers onto the manuscript. One hand momentarily covered her left breast as though to still a pounding heart.
“You startled me, Mr. North.”
“Sorry. Actually I’m perfectly harmless.” Compared to the bright, pristine room, he figured he looked like something that had suckled at the tattooed breast of one of Hell’s Angels. Her haughty expression told him he didn’t belong here. Smiling covertly, he set his canvas duffel bag down near his feet and slid off his sunglasses. “I knocked on the front door, but no one answered.”
“Maybe you should have tried the bell.”
She was miffed all right, he thought. One hundred pounds . . . and that was a generous guess . . . of irritated female. Prickly broad, wasn’t she? Were these first few moments going to set the tone for the next several weeks? Not if he had anything to do with it.
One of his knees unlocked, throwing his body slightly off center and into that thigh-melting, mouth-drying, heart-stopping stance that had beaten Farrah Fawcett’s poster as the all-time bestseller.
“Should I try another entrance?” He curved his sullen mouth into the suggestive smile that was as famous as his arrogant stance. “Obviously my timing was off on this one.”
She didn’t return his smile. “Why bother? You’re in.”
She stood up and walked around the desk. Not until she had taken a few steps across the terrazzo tile floor did he notice that she was barefoot. She caught him looking at her bare feet, but she didn’t apologize for them or go through any of those flustered motions and babbling apologies that women usually do when caught in dishabille.
Her small face was set in an expression that strongly suggested, “If you don’t like my bare feet, that’s just too damn bad.”
What she was better off not knowing was that he liked her bare feet. A lot. So far, he liked everything he saw, from the top of her glossy, dark hair to those ten, tempting toes. She was wearing white jeans, which fitted her a tad too well. In contrast, her white shirt was at least three sizes too large for her, somehow far sexier than a skin-hugging T-shirt would have been. The wide sleeves had been rolled back almost to her elbows, and the hem was brushing her thighs. It looked like a hand-me-down man’s dress shirt. He wondered if it might have belonged to her late husband.
In any event, she was adorable.
“Did I catch you at work?” he asked.
“Yes, you did.”
“On the book?”
“Forgive the interruption. I know how hard it is to pick up a thought once it’s interrupted.”
Impatiently, she pushed her fringe of bangs off her forehead. “My housekeeper went to the market, so I’ll show you to your room. Where’s your luggage?”
He nodded at the ugly duffel bag. One split seam had been haphazardly repaired with silver duct tape. Scuffed, scarred, and stained, it looked like the sole survivor of a baggage handlers’ training convention.
“I left my Louis Vuitton at home,” he drawled sardonically. “This is all I can carry on my bike.”
She gazed at him and his duffel bag with repugnance. He wanted to laugh, but didn’t dare. Instead he let his attention wander to the glass wall that provided a panoramic view of the beach far below and, beyond it, the Pacific Ocean.
“You came by motorcycle from L.A. ?” she asked. “You didn’t fly?”
“Depends on how you define ‘fly.’ The California Highway Patrol might have called it flying.” He grinned at her over his shoulder and slid his hands, palms out, into the holey, threadbare back pockets of his jeans. They had seen better days. Better years. “Terrific view.”
“Thank you. The view was one of the reasons Charlie and I bought the house.”
Pivoting on the heels of boots which no self-respecting cowboy, not even one down on his luck, would have been caught dead in, he faced her again. “Charlie? You didn’t call him Demon?”
“He was my husband, not my idol.”
His expressive hazel eyes, bridged by sleek black eyebrows whose arches were pointed at the apexes, focused on her. Most people thought that Rylan North’s incisive stare was a trick of camera angles and expert lighting, possibly a device the actor used to convey his vast range of emotions. But it was a natural, unaffected characteristic—one eyebrow a fraction of an inch higher than the other; thick, short, black lashes; unmoving, brown-speckled hazel irises.
Rylan didn’t deliberately subject her to that unsettling stare. He was only trying to gauge if there was a hidden meaning behind Mrs. Rumm’s words. Perhaps there wasn’t. But perhaps there was. He was there to find out. He watched her nervously wet her lips and decided that the odds were in favor of his intuition being right on target.
“If you’ll get your bag,” she said in a breathy voice, “I’ll show you to your room.”
“I like this room.” He wasn’t ready to be shuttled off into a back room like a disobedient child. He wanted to look at her some more.
“I’m working in here, Mr. North, and you’re a distraction.”
He learned something then. She didn’t like being teased. Her lips formed a pucker of disapproval. How far could he push before she lost the rigid control she imposed on herself? He was itching to know, but now wasn’t the time to test it, not when he’d just arrived. “Okay, I’ll leave you to your work while I soak up some scenery outside. Is that all right?”
He raised one foot, pulled off his boot and sock, and dropped them onto the floor. Then he did the same with the other foot. He took hold of the hem of his black T-shirt and peeled it over his head, ignoring her gasp of outraged surprise.
His shirt joined the heap of foot apparel on the floor. “Go back to work. I’ll see you later,” he casually tossed over his bare shoulder as he slid open the panel of glass and stepped through it. He walked around the swimming pool toward the steps that led down the rocky cliff to the beach, wondering if she was watching. He would have bet his next Oscar nomination that she was.
He was tempted to turn around and find out, but didn’t. He had an image to uphold, that of being an I-don’t- give-a-damn bastard where women were concerned. And I-don’t-give-a-damn bastards didn’t react to women no matter how attractive they were. He’d almost broken that unwritten law last week when Kirsten Rumm entered her lawyer’s office and they met for the first time.
The appointment had been arranged at his, Rylan’s, request. He had known the moment Mrs. Rumm came in, shoulders back, chin high, carriage militant, that she considered the meeting an imposition. Only her eyes had indicated any vulnerability. They had been wary.
Her tailored, linen business suit had made him ashamed of his appearance. He had been up late the night before reading the movie script and jotting dialogue revisions in the margins. That morning he had overslept and hadn’t taken the time to shave. He had dressed in the first clothes his hands had touched when he reached into the closet, a pair of slacks and a raw silk sport coat. Beneath the jacket, his partially unbuttoned shirt was wrinkled. Thank God the rumpled look was in.