The taxi zipped through the airport traffic. Gwen let out a long sigh as the Louisiana heat throbbed around her. She shifted as the thin material of her ivory lawn blouse dampened against her back. The relief was brief. Squinting out of the window, she decided the July sun hadn’t changed in the two years she had been away. The cab veered away from downtown New Orleans and cruised south. Gwen reflected that very little else here had changed in the past two years but herself. Spanish moss still draped the roadside trees, giving even the sun-drenched afternoon a dreamlike effect. The warm, thick scent of flowers still wafted through the air. The atmosphere was touched with an easygoing indolence she nearly had forgotten during the two years she’d spent in Manhattan. Yes, she mused, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of a sheltered bayou, I’m the one who’s changed. I’ve grown up.
When she had left Louisiana, she’d been twenty-one and a starry-eyed innocent. Now, at twenty-three, she felt mature and experienced. As an assistant to the fashion editor of Style magazine, Gwen had learned how to cope with deadlines, soothe ruffled models, and squeeze in a personal life around her professional one. More, she had learned how to cope alone, without the comfort of familiar people and places. The gnawing ache of homesickness she had experienced during her first months in New York was forgotten, the torture of insecurity and outright fear of being alone were banished from her memory. Gwen Lacrosse had not merely survived the transplant from magnolias to concrete, she felt she had triumphed. This is one small-town southern girl who can take care of herself, she reflected with a flash of defiance. Gwen had come home not merely for a visit, a summer sabbatical. She had come on a mission. She folded her arms across her chest in an unconscious gesture of determination.
In the rearview mirror, the taxi driver caught a glimpse of a long, oval face surrounded by a shoulder-length mass of caramel curls. The bone structure of his passenger’s face was elegant, but the rather sharp features were set in grim lines. Her huge brown eyes were focused on some middle distance, and her full, wide mouth was unsmiling. In spite of her severe expression, the cabbie decided, the face was a winner. Unaware of the scrutiny, Gwen continued to frown, absorbed by her thoughts. The landscape blurred, then disappeared from her vision.
How, she wondered, could a forty-seven-year-old woman be so utterly naive? What a fool she must be making of herself. Mama’s always been dreamy and impractical, but this! It’s all his fault, she thought resentfully. Her eyes narrowed as she felt a fresh surge of temper, and color rose to warm the ivory tone of her skin. Luke Powers—Gwen gritted her teeth on the name—successful novelist and screenwriter, sought-after bachelor and globe-trotter. And rat, Gwen added, unconsciously twisting her leather clutch bag in a movement suspiciously akin to that of wringing a neck. A thirty-five-year-old rat. Well, Mr. Powers, Gwen’s thoughts continued, your little romance with my mother is through. I’ve come all these miles to send you packing. And by hook or crook, fair means or foul, that’s what I’m going to do.
Gwen sat back, blew the fringe of curls from her eyes and contemplated the pleasure of ousting Luke Powers from her mother’s life. Researching a new book, she sniffed. He’ll have to research his book without researching my mother. She frowned, remembering the correspondence from her mother over the past three months. Luke Powers had been mentioned on almost every page of the violet-scented paper; helping her mother garden, taking her to the theater, hammering nails, making himself generally indispensable.
At first Gwen had paid little attention to the constant references to Luke. She was accustomed to her mother’s enthusiasm for people, her flowery, sentimental outlook. And, to be honest, Gwen reflected with a sigh, I’ve been preoccupied with my own life, my own problems. Her thoughts flitted back to Michael Palmer—practical, brilliant, selfish, dependable Michael. A small cloud of depression threatened to descend on her as she remembered how miserably she had failed in their relationship. He deserved more than I could give him, she reflected sadly. Her eyes became troubled as she thought of her inability to share herself as Michael had wanted. Body and mind, she had held back both, unwilling or unable to make the commitment. Quickly shaking off the encroaching mood, Gwen reminded herself that while she had failed with Michael, she was succeeding in her career.
In the eyes of most people, the fashion world was glamorous, elegant, full of beautiful people moving gaily from one party to the next. Gwen almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the illusion. What it really was, as she had since learned, was crazy, frantic, grueling work filled with temperamental artists, high-strung models and impossible deadlines. And I’m good at handling all of them, she mused, automatically straightening her shoulders. Gwen Lacrosse was not afraid of hard work any more than she was afraid of a challenge.
Her thoughts made a quick U-turn back to Luke Powers. There was too much affection in her mother’s words when she wrote of him, and his name cropped up too often for comfort. Over the past three months, Gwen’s concern had deepened to worry, until she felt she had to do something about the situation and had arranged for a leave of absence. It was, she had decided, up to her to protect her mother from a womanizer like Luke Powers.
She was not intimidated by his reputation with words or his reputation with women. He might be said to be an expert with both, she mused, but I know how to take care of myself and my mother. Mama’s trouble is that she’s too trusting. She sees only what she wants to see. She doesn’t like to see faults. Gwen’s mouth softened into a smile, and her face was suddenly, unexpectedly breathtaking. I’ll take care of her, she thought confidently, I always have.
The lane leading to Gwen’s childhood home was lined with fragile magnolia trees. As the taxi turned in and drove through patches of fragrant shade, Gwen felt the first stirrings of genuine pleasure. The scent of wisteria reached her before her first glimpse of the house. It had three graceful stories and was made of white-washed brick with high French windows and iron balconies like lacework. A veranda flowed across the entire front of the house, where the wisteria was free to climb on trellises at each end. It was not as old or as elaborate as many other antebellum houses in Louisiana, but it had the charm and grace so typical of that period. Gwen felt that the house suited her mother to perfection. They were both fragile, impractical and appealing.
She glanced up at the third story as the taxi neared the end of the drive. The top floor contained four small suites that had been remodeled for “visitors,” as her mother called them, or as Gwen more accurately termed them, boarders. The visitors, with their monetary contributions, made it possible to keep the house in the family and in repair. Gwen had grown up with these visitors, accepting them as one accepts a small itch. Now, however, she scowled up at the third-floor windows. One of the suites housed Luke Powers. Not for long, she vowed, as she slipped out of the cab with her chin thrust forward.
As she paid her fare, Gwen glanced absently toward the sound of a low, monotonous thudding. In the side yard, just past a flourishing camellia, a man was in the process of chopping down a long-dead oak. He was stripped to the waist, and his jeans were snug over narrow hips and worn low enough to show a hint of tan line. His back and arms were bronzed and muscled and gleaming with sweat. His hair was a rich brown, touched with lighter streaks that showed a preference for sun. It curled damply at his neck and over his brow.
There was something confident and efficient in his stance. His legs were planted firmly, his swing effortless. Though she could not see his face, she knew he was enjoying his task: the heat, the sweat, the challenge. She stood in the drive as the cab drove off and admired his raw, basic masculinity, the arrogant efficiency of his movements. The ax swung into the heart of the tree with a violent grace. It occurred to her suddenly that
for months she had not seen a man do anything more physical than jog in Central Park. Her lips curved in approval and admiration as she watched the rise and fall of the ax, the tensing and flow of muscle. The ax, tree and man were a perfect whole, elemental and beautiful. Gwen had forgotten how beautiful simplicity could be.
The tree shuddered and moaned, then hesitated briefly before it swayed and toppled to the ground. There was a quick whoosh and thump. Gwen felt a ridiculous urge to applaud.
“You didn’t say timber,” she called out.
He had lifted a forearm to wipe the sweat from his brow, and at her call, he turned. The sun streamed behind his back. Squinting against it, Gwen could not see his face clearly. There was an aura of light around him, etching the tall, lean body and thickly curling hair. He looks like a god, she thought, like some primitive god of virility. As she watched, he leaned the ax against the stump of the tree and walked toward her. He moved like a man more used to walking on sand or grass than on concrete. Ridiculously, Gwen felt as though she were being stalked. She attributed the strange thrill she felt to the fact that she could not yet make out his features. He was a faceless man, therefore somehow the embodiment of man, exciting and strong. In defense against the glare of the sun, she shaded her eyes with her hand.
“You did that very well.” Gwen smiled, attracted by his uncomplicated masculinity. She had not realized how bored she had become with three-piece suits and smooth hands. “I hope you don’t mind an audience.”
“No. Not everyone appreciates a well-cut tree.” His voice was not indolent with vowels. There was nothing of Louisiana in his tone. As his face at last came into focus, Gwen was struck with its power. It was narrow and chiseled, long-boned and with the faintest of clefts in the chin. He had not shaved, but the shadow of beard intensified the masculinity of the face. His eyes were a clear blue-gray. They were calm, almost startlingly intelligent under rough brows. It was a calm that suggested power, a calm that captivated the onlooker. Immediately, Gwen knew he was a man who understood himself. Though intrigued, she felt discomfort under the directness of his gaze. She was almost sure he could see beyond her words and into her thoughts.
“I’d say you have definite talent,” she told him. There was an aloofness about him, she decided, but it was not the cold aloofness of disinterest. He has warmth, she thought, but he’s careful about who receives it. “I’m sure I’ve never seen a tree toppled with such finesse.” She gave him a generous smile. “It’s a hot day for ax swinging.”
“You’ve got too many clothes on,” he returned simply. His eyes swept down her blouse and skirt and trim, stockinged legs, then up again to her face. It was neither an insolent assessment nor an admiring one; it was simply a statement. Gwen kept her eyes level with his and prayed she would not do anything as foolish as blushing.
“More suitable for plane travelling than tree chopping I suppose,” she replied. The annoyance in her voice brought a smile to the corners of his mouth. Gwen reached for her bags, but her hand met his on the handle. She jerked away and stepped back as a new source of heat shot through her. It seemed to dart up her fingers, then explode. Stunned by her own reaction, she stared into his calm eyes. Confusion flitted across her face and creased her brow before she smoothed it away. Silly, she told herself as she struggled to steady her pulse. Absolutely silly. He watched the shock, confusion and annoyance move across her face. Like a mirror, her eyes reflected each emotion.
“Thank you,” Gwen said, regaining her poise. “I don’t want to take you away from your work.”
“No hurry.” He hoisted her heavy bags easily. As he moved up the flagstone walk, she fell into step beside him. Even in heels, she barely reached his shoulder. Gwen glanced up to see the sun play on the blond highlights in his hair.
“Have you been here long?” she asked as they mounted the steps to the veranda.
“Few months.” He set down her bags and placed his hand on the knob. Pausing, he studied her face with exacting care. Gwen felt her lips curve for no reason at all. “You’re much lovelier than your picture, Gwenivere,” he said unexpectedly. “Much warmer, much more vulnerable.” With a quick twist, he opened the door, then again picked up her bags.
Breaking out of her trance, Gwen followed him inside, reaching for his arm. “How do you know my name?” she demanded. His words left her puzzled and defenseless. He saw too much too quickly.
“Your mother talks of you constantly,” he explained as he set her bags down in the cool, white-walled hallway. “She’s very proud of you.” When he lifted her chin with his fingers, Gwen was too surprised to protest. “Your beauty is very different from hers. Hers is softer, less demanding, more comfortable. I doubt very much that you inspire comfort in a man.” His eyes were on her face again, and fascinated, Gwen stood still. She could nearly feel the heat flowing from his body into hers. “She worries about you being alone in New York.”
“One can’t be alone in New York, it’s a contradiction in terms.” A frown shadowed her eyes and touched her mouth with a pout. “She’s never told me she worried.”
“Of course not, then you’d worry about her worrying.” He grinned.
Resolutely Gwen ignored the tingle of pleasure his touch gave her. “You seem to know my mother quite well.” Her frown deepened and spread. The grin reminded her of someone. It was charming and almost irresistible. Recognition struck like a thunderbolt. “You’re Luke Powers,” she accused.
“Yes.” His brows lifted at the tone of her voice, and his head tilted slightly, as if to gain a new perspective. “Didn’t you like my last book?”
“It’s your current one I object to,” Gwen snapped. She jerked her chin from his hold.
“Oh?” There was both amusement and curiosity in the word.
“To the fact that you’re writing it here, in this house,” Gwen elaborated.
“Have you a moral objection to my book, Gwenivere?”
“I doubt you know anything about morals,” Gwen tossed back as her eyes grew stormy. “And don’t call me that, no one but my mother calls me that.”
“Pity, such a romantic name,” he said casually. “Or do you object to romance, as well?”
“When it’s between my mother and a Hollywood Casanova a dozen years younger than she, I have a different name for it.” Gwen’s face flushed with the passion of her words. She stood rigid. The humor faded from Luke’s face. Slowly, he tucked his hands in his pockets.
“I see. Would you care to tell me what you’d call it?”
“I won’t glorify your conduct with a title,” Gwen retorted. “It should be sufficient that you understand I won’t tolerate it any longer.” She turned, intending to walk away from him.
“Won’t you?” There was something dangerously cold in his tone. “And your mother has no voice in the matter?”
“My mother,” Gwen countered furiously, “is too gentle, too trusting and too naive.” Whirling, she faced him again. “I won’t let you make a fool of her.”
“My dear Gwenivere,” he said smoothly. “You do so well making one of yourself.”
Before Gwen could retort, there was the sharp click of heels on wood. Struggling to steady her breathing, Gwen moved down the hall to greet her mother.
“Mama.” She embraced a soft bundle of curves smelling of lilac.
“Gwenivere!” Her mother’s voice was low and as sweet as the scent she habitually wore. “Why, darling, what are you doing here?”
“Mama,” Gwen repeated and pulled away far enough to study the rosy loveliness of her mother’s face. Her mother’s skin was creamy and almost perfectly smooth, her eyes round and china blue, her nose tilted, her mouth pink and soft. There were two tiny dimples in her cheeks. Looking at her sweet prettiness, Gwen felt their roles should have been reversed. “Didn’t you get my letter?” She tucked a stray wisp of pale blond hair behind her mother’s ear.
“Of course, you said you’d be here Friday.”
Gwen smiled and kissed a dimpled ch
eek. “This is Friday, Mama.”
“Well, yes, it’s this Friday, but I assumed you meant next Friday, and . . . Oh, dear, what does it matter?” Anabelle brushed away confusion with the back of her hand. “Let me look at you,” she requested and, stepping back, subjected Gwen to a critical study. She saw a tall, striking beauty who brought misty memories of her young husband. Widowed for more than two decades, Anabelle rarely thought of her late husband unless reminded by her daughter. “So thin,” she clucked, and sighed. “Don’t you eat up there?”
“Now and again.” Pausing, Gwen made her own survey of her mother’s soft, round curves. How could this woman be approaching fifty? she wondered with a surge of pride and awe. “You look wonderful,” Gwen murmured, “but then, you always look wonderful.”
Anabelle laughed her young, gay laugh. “It’s the climate,” she claimed as she patted Gwen’s cheek. “None of that dreadful smog or awful snow you have up there.” New York, Gwen noted, would always be “up there.” “Oh, Luke!” Anabelle caught sight of him as he stood watching the reunion. A smile lit up her face. “Have you met my Gwenivere?”
Luke shifted his gaze until his eyes met Gwen’s. His brow tilted slightly in acknowledgement. “Yes.” Gwen thought his smile was as much a challenge as a glove slapped across her cheek. “Gwen and I are practically old friends.”
“That’s right.” Gwen let her smile answer his. “Already we know each other quite well.”
“Marvelous.” Anabelle beamed. “I do want you two to get along.” She gave Gwen’s hand a happy squeeze. “Would you like to freshen up, darling, or would you like a cup of coffee first?”
Gwen struggled to keep her voice from trembling with rage as Luke continued to smile at her. “Coffee sounds perfect,” she answered.
“I’ll take your bags up,” Luke offered as he lifted them again.
“Thank you, dear.” Anabelle spoke before Gwen could refuse. “Try to avoid Miss Wilkins until you have a shirt on. The sight of all those muscles will certainly give her the vapors. Miss Wilkins is one of my visitors,” Anabelle explained as she led Gwen down the hall. “A sweet, timid little soul who paints in watercolors.”
“Hmm,” Gwen answered noncommittally as she glanced back over her shoulder. Luke stood watching them with sunlight tumbling over his hair and bronzed skin. “Hmm,” Gwen said again, and turned away.
The kitchen was exactly as Gwen remembered: big, sunny and spotlessly clean. Tillie, the tall, waspishly thin cook stood by the stove. “Hello, Miss Gwen,” she said without turning around. “Coffee’s on.”
“Hello, Tillie.” Gwen walked over to the stove and sniffed at the fragrant steam. “Smells good.”
“My favorite,” Gwen murmured, glancing up at the appealingly ugly face. “I thought I wasn’t expected until next Friday.”
“You weren’t,” Tillie agreed, with a sniff. Lowering her thick brows, she continued to stir the roux.
Gwen smiled and leaned over to peck Tillie’s tough cheek. “How are things, Tillie?”
“Comme ci, comme ça,” she muttered, but pleasure touched her cheeks with color. Turning, she gave Gwen a quick study. “Skinny” was her quick, uncomplimentary conclusion.
“So I’m told.” Gwen shrugged. Tillie never flattered anyone. “You have a month to fatten me up.”