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Sarah's child (Chapter 7)

The small bell above the crafts shop door rang at ten min-utes after five, signaling the arrival of someone else. The bell jangled all day long, surprising Sarah with its frequency, and she looked up automatically. Just as automatically, her heart-beat increased and her skin flushed as she met Rome's dark eyes across the width of the store.

She was waiting on a customer, so he didn't approach her. He lifted a straight black brow at her and began to wander through the aisles, examining the merchandise, his hands shoved into his pants pockets, his suit jacket open. He'd loos-ened his tie; the silk noose now allowed a good two inches of freedom about his neck. Sarah tried to help her customer, but at the same time she wanted to watch Rome; she felt nervous, and anxious for his approval, like a mother whose child was debuting in a school play. What if he made some comment of unenthusiastic praise? She didn't know how she'd take it.

The middle-aged woman finally bought several skeins of yarn and a book of afghan patterns. As she left, Derek came out of the back and approached Sarah. "I've put that dead-bolt lock on the back door and cleaned up in back. Are you clos-ing at five thirty? If you are, I won't start painting that other room until tomorrow."

Rome was slowly approaching, still looking over the mer-chandise, and Sarah eyed him over Derek's shoulder. "Yes, five thirty's closing time."

"I'll follow you home, Mrs. Matthews," Derek offered, but somehow it was firmer than an offer.

"That's all right," Rome said easily, coming up behind the boy. "I'll stay with her until closing, if you want to go on home."

Derek turned, his golden brown eyes meeting Rome's darker ones. He'd seen Rome at a distance, so he knew im-mediately who the older man was, but they'd never been in-troduced. Sarah took care of that. "Rome, this is Derek Taliferro. Derek, my husband, Rome."

Rome held out his hand, man-to-man, and Derek took it with complete ease, as if he'd expected nothing else. "Sir," he said with his unshakable good manners.

"I'm glad to finally meet you," said Rome. "Sarah raves about you. From what I hear, she wouldn't have been able to open so soon without your help."

"Thank you, sir. I was happy to help, and I like working with my hands."

Evidently feeling that he'd said all that needed saying, Derek turned to Sarah. "I'll go home, then. I called Mom after I got out of school, and she told me that she's working on an article, so that probably means she's forgotten about food. I'd better stuff a sandwich down her before she gets too weak to type. I'll see you tomorrow, Mrs. Matthews."

"Fine. Be careful," she admonished.

He flashed her a brilliant smile, so bright, it was startling. "I'm always careful. I can't afford to get stopped."

When Derek had gone, Rome said suspiciously, "How is he getting home?"

"Driving," Sarah said, grinning.

"And he's just fifteen?"

She nodded. "But he never gets stopped, because helooks old enough to have a license. He's an extremely good driver, of course. I can't imagine him being anything else." Then she couldn't stand it any longer, and she burst out, "Well, what do you think?"

Again he lifted a sardonic eyebrow, leaning against the checkout counter. "About the store, or Derek?"

"Well…both."

"I'm surprised as hell," he said bluntly. "By both Derek and the store. I was expecting a lot of bare space, not this perma-nent, been-here-for-centuries feeling. The handmade stuff is really something; where do you find it?"

"People bring it here. I sell it on commission. People will pay dearly for handmade quilts and pottery."

"So I saw from the prices on those quilts," he murmured. "Derek is something else too, isn't he? Are yousure he's only fifteen?"

"Marcie swears he is, and she should know. He'll have a birthday next month."

"Sixteen doesn't sound that much better. The kid's a rock."

"I've hired him to help me in the afternoons and on week-ends. He was working in a grocery store, but one of the cashiers was chasing him, so Marcie asked me if I'd hire him. I snapped him up."

"He's young to be working like that."

"He's saving for college. If he wasn't working here, he'd be working somewhere else, whether Marcie liked it or not. I get the feeling that once he's decided on his course of ac-tion, a stick of dynamite couldn't blow him off it."

Their conversation was interrupted when the bell jangled again, as a young mother entered with a toddler in her arms and a boy of about five right on her heels. Rome glanced at her; then he saw the two children and something congealed in his eyes. He went still, a blank mask taking all the life from his face. He moved back, and Sarah gave him a helpless glance as she walked over to offer her assistance to her new customer. The young woman smiled and expressed interest in a collection of clowns with stuffed bodies and china heads and limbs. Her mother collected clowns and was having a birth-day soon. As the woman examined the selection, she put the toddler on the floor; the older boy hung over the counter, staring wide-eyed at the clowns.

It was a moment before either Sarah or the young mother noticed that the baby had strayed. "Justin, come back here!"

The baby giggled and toddled around the end of the counter, heading straight for Rome. A spear of pain had gone through Sarah at the mention of the baby's name, and she al-most cried out when she saw the chalky look on Rome's face. He stepped aside, avoiding the baby, not even looking down at it. "I'll wait in the car," he said in a harsh, strained voice that didn't sound like his, and he walked out, his back stiff. The young woman hadn't noticed Rome's reaction; she scooped up her errant offspring, tickling his stomach and mak-ing him laugh. "I guess I'll just have to hold you, you big lug!"

She bought two of the clowns, and as soon as she'd left, Sarah flipped the sign to CLOSED and began locking up. Her heart was pounding heavily, and she wanted to go to Rome. Peering out the window, she saw him sitting in his car, parked just a few parking spaces down the street, staring straight ahead.

Deciding it was better to give him a few minutes alone, she finished securing the store for the night, then went out back to her own car. When she drove out of the back alley onto the street, Rome's car nosed in behind her.

He was completely silent on the elevator going up to the apartment, his jaw set, his eyes bleak. Sarah said "Rome?" hes-itantly, but he didn't look at her or indicate that he heard her.

She waited until the door was closed behind them in the apartment; then she put her hand on his arm. "I'm sorry. I know how you feel – "

"You damned well don't know how I feel," he said harshly, throwing off her touch. "Let me know when dinner's ready."

Sarah stood in the foyer for a moment after he'd turned his back and walked off, feeling as if he'd slapped her. Moving as if in shock, she took off her coat and hung it up, then went into her bedroom to change into older clothes before starting their dinner. Her face in the mirror was pale and taut, her eyes darkened with hurt. She set her mouth and deliberately blanked her expression. She'd overstepped his boundaries and been coldly rebuffed for it. He wanted a distinct emotional distance between them, and she had to remember that.

She didn't allow herself to hide in her bedroom, though she felt a need to lick her own wounds. She went out to the kitchen and began calmly preparing the meal she'd already planned, not letting herself think about his absence from the kitchen. He usually helped, and she was accustomed to having his tall form taking up a lot of space, to talking to him while they worked.

She called him to the table, her manner carefully free of reproach or hurt. He didn't initiate any conversation, so she didn't either. When they were finished, he lingered for a mo-ment at the table, as if searching for something to say. Not wanting him to feel uncomfortable, Sarah kept herself busy clearing the table and cleaning up the kitchen, even humming quietly to herself as she worked, though she couldn't have identified what tune she was humming. Then she said casu-ally, "I'm going to take a shower and make an early night of it, since this is a chance to catch up on my sleep."

He didn't reply but watched her narrowly as she went to her room.

She didn't tell him good night after she'd taken her shower and put on a nightgown; there was a limit to her self-control. She simply turned out the light and went to bed, then lay curled on her side, staring at the wall, unable to fill the empti-ness inside her.

Much later she was still awake, listening to him in his own room, hearing his shower running. The water stopped, and she heard no other sounds. When her door was opened, she jumped, startled, and rolled over onto her back.

He was a darker outline against the night. He pulled the covers back and bent over her, pulling the nightgown over her head and dropping it to the floor. Sarah felt his hands on her breasts and thighs; then his heavy weight came down on her and his mouth closed fiercely over hers. A shudder of relief shook her, and she put her arms around his neck, letting him part her legs and take her.

"All of me," he demanded harshly, as she lifted her hips up to him. "Take all of me. More. More! Yes, like that. Just like that!"

He was silent then, taking her with barely controlled vio-lence. Sarah gave herself up without a struggle to the tumul-tuous responses he demanded of her, knowing that the comfort of her body was the only comfort he'd accept from her. She quickly reached her pleasure, and he slowed then, forcibly bringing himself to an easier rhythm and a lighter touch. When she began to move under him again, telling him with-out words that the tension was building in her once more, he unleashed his strength and drove into her with a power that took her breath and shattered her senses, sending her spi-raling over the edge of pleasure again. Never before had he taken her like that, with such raw, unbridled need, holding her so tightly that she felt crushed. But when it was over, he began moving away from her, and panic seized her.

Before she could stop herself, she reached out for him. "Please," she whispered tightly. "Hold me, just for a little while."

He hesitated, then stretched out on the bed and pulled her up against him, settling her head on his shoulder. Sarah clenched her fingers in the hair on his chest, as if she could hold him in place during the night. She melted against him, her soft body flowing to meet the contours of his, adjusting and fitting. Suddenly she felt herself going to sleep, as her body relaxed and a sigh of contentment escaped her.

Several minutes later she was almost asleep when she was awakened by the feel of him moving away from her, cau-tiously disengaging their limbs. He eased himself out of the bed, obviously trying not to awaken her, and she forced her-self to lie still, her eyes closed until she heard him leave the room and close the door behind him. Then her eyes flared open, hot and bright with unshed tears. She curled into a tight little ball and thrust her hand against her mouth to stifle the sound of the sobs that couldn't be controlled.

Over breakfast the next morning he said abruptly, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings last night."

Reminding herself not to overreact and blunder past his boundaries again, Sarah gave him a smile that was friendly but faintly aloof. "That's all right," she said, shrugging it away, then changed the subject by asking if he had any suits that needed to be cleaned.

He regarded her thoughtfully, and there was a hint of iron in the set of his jaw. Sarah braced herself for one of his patented interrogations that were the terror of Spencer-Nyle, but she reminded herself that she was no longer an employee of the company and didn't have to let him delve into her emo-tions. Perhaps he sensed how remote she was, for after a mo-ment he accepted the change of subject.

As he left he said, "I have a business dinner tonight, so I'll be late getting home."

"All right," she replied calmly, not asking him where he'd be or what time she could expect him.

A frown touched his brow, and he paused. "Would you like to come along? You know him, Leland Vascoe, with Aames and Vascoe. I can call him and have him invite his wife too."

"Thanks, but I'll pass. Derek and I will be painting this af-ternoon, so we'll probably be working late anyway." The smile she gave him was casual, as was the kiss he leaned down and took. She sensed that he would have made the kiss deeper and longer, but she moved back, still smiling. "I'll see you tonight."

The hint of iron was stronger in his expression as he left.

Determined not to fall into the mopes, Sarah didn't let her thoughts linger on him during the day. She kept busy, and whenever the store was empty of customers she went back to the other rooms and worked on them. Derek came in as soon as school was out, with a hamburger in one hand and a large soft drink in the other.

When no one else was in the store, Derek was warmer and friendlier. He grinned at her and held up the burger. "Mom's really into that article. I'll probably have to live off these things until she gets it finished."

Sarah smiled in return. "I tell you what, Rome's working late tonight, so when we get finished here, why don't we pick up a super pizza and take it home for dinner? Maybe we can entice your mom away from the typewriter."

"Put pepperoni on the pizza, and I'll guarantee it," he said placidly.

He painted by himself until Sarah closed the store; then she put on a pair of coveralls and helped. With both of them work-ing, it was finished by seven, and Derek went home while Sarah drove to a pizza parlor and ordered the largest pizza they made. When she drove up to the condo, Derek came out to get the pizza, and she knew he'd been standing in the entrance, watching for her.

As they entered the ground floor apartment he and Marcie lived in, he whispered, "Watch this. Ten seconds at the most." He walked over to the closed door from behind which came the staccato clattering of typewriter keys, and he gently waved the pizza box back and forth. In a few seconds, the clattering faltered, then stopped altogether.

"Derek, youfiend !" Marcie shrieked, and the door was wrenched open. "Give me that pizza!"

Laughing at her, he held it out of her reach. "Come on, sit at the table and eat it like it should be eaten; then you can go back to the typewriter and I swear I won't say a word to you about eating until sometime tomorrow."

"Like breakfast, tomorrow?" asked Marcie whimsically. Then she saw Sarah. "Are you in on this plot too?"

Sarah nodded, admitting everything. "We're calling it the Pepperoni Plan."

"It works, damn it," sighed Marcie. "All right, let's pig out on pizza."

The family warmth, the unquestioning love between Marcie and her son, lured Sarah like a magnet, and she lin-gered in their apartment long after the pizza was gone. Her own apartment, which she'd tried so hard to make into a warm, secure haven, was painfully empty because it wasn't filled with the one thing that was most important to secu-rity: love. Marcie filled her in on how the article was de-veloping, then excused herself and locked herself in her study again. Derek invited her to play a game of gin, but halfway through the game they began talking about black-jack, and the game was abandoned while Derek began teaching her how to be a card counter, employing the one system most likely to get a gambler invitedout of any casino in the world. From there he went on to the different types of poker, and Sarah decided that Derek was a cardsharp as well as a wonder kid. He was sharp in reading people too, because she sensed that he knew she was at loose ends, and was devoting himself to keeping her entertained until she felt she could go to her own apartment. He was a kind boy, wise beyond his years.

At ten o'clock she said good night to Derek and went home, opening the door to rooms that were dark and chilled. Hurriedly she turned on the lights, then the heat. She hadn't been home five minutes when the door slammed shut, sig-naling Rome's arrival. She was in her bedroom, preparing to take a shower, and she went to the door to greet him. They al-most ran into each other, and she stepped back hastily.

"Where the hell have you been?" he barked, coming into her bedroom and standing over her like an infuriated angel of vengeance. "I've been ringing the phone off the hook since seven thirty, and don't tell me you were at the damned store, because I tried there too."

Sarah looked at him, stunned, unable to think why he was so angry. And he was angry, blazingly so. His eyes were black with fury. And he'd said "damned store." Did that mean any-thing? She'd thought he approved of the idea of her having another job, but there had been disparagement in his voice and words. She wasn't good at arguing, at countering a display of his temper with her own, as Diane would have done. Instead she withdrew into herself, erecting a mental shield against any hurt he might deal her.

"Derek and I painted until seven; then I bought a pizza and shared it with Marcie and Derek, rather than eating alone. Derek and I have been playing cards since then. Why were you trying to call me?"

Her calm, cool, remote voice seemed to inflame him even further. "Because," he ground out from between his clenched teeth, "Leland Vascoe brought his wife and they wanted you to join us. You didn't have to eat with the Taliferros, if eating alone was your only problem. I'd already invited you to have dinner with me, but you had to paint some grim little back room instead. Now you tell me that you were finished by seven, and you could've had dinner with me anyway. Your support is overwhelming," he said with biting sarcasm.

Sarah was very still, her delicate shoulders erect. "I didn't know what time we'd finish painting," she said quietly.

"Damn it, Sarah, you worked for years for the corporation, and you know the routine. I expect you to be available for these mixed business and social meetings, not puttering around in that – "

"Grim little store," she finished for him, not flinching or looking away from him. She was beginning to feel sick in-side, a cold feeling spreading through her chest. "Before we married, you said that we'd respect each other's business re-sponsibilities. I'm willing to attend whatever business dinners you want me to attend, and after the repairs are finished at the store, I shouldn't have to stay late. But that isn't the real issue, is it? You don't want your wife to work outside the home at all, do you?"

"There's no need for you to work," he rapped out.

"I won't sit here all day and twiddle my thumbs. What else is there for me to do? I can only dust so many times in one day before even that fascinating occupation becomes boring."

"Diane wasn't bored."

The lethal jab was right on target, and Sarah's eyes widened, but that was the only clue she gave as to how much that hurt. Staring bleakly at him, she said, "I'm not Diane."

That was the whole problem, she thought, turning away from him. She couldn't stand there and let him cut her to ribbons. Diane would have been jaw to jaw with him, and their argument by now would have deviated far from the original subject. In another two minutes they'd have been kissing and falling on the bed, which was how Diane had told her they always ended their arguments. Sarah couldn't do that. She wasn't Diane, but her-self, lacking Diane's fire and strength. That was the one thing Rome could never forgive her for: not being Diane.

At the bathroom door, she turned to face him again, her ex-pression a pale mask. "I'm going to take a shower and go to bed," she said without inflection. "Good night."

Rome's eyes narrowed, and suddenly, chillingly, she knew she'd made a mistake by retreating. It was his ag-gressive male nature, as a hunter, to pursue his fleeting prey. Sarah froze, expecting him to spring across the room and capture her; it was in his eyes, in the tension in his stance. Then he visibly controlled the urge, dampening it down, though his eyes were like black marble as he stared at her. "I'll be in later," he finally said, his voice a deep purring threat.

Sarah took a deep breath. "No. Not tonight."

The primitive male rose up in him again, and like a great stalking cat he crossed the floor to her, cupping her chin in his hand. "Are you refusing to go to bed with me? Be care-ful, babe," he warned, still in that dangerous purr. "Don't start a war that you can't win. We both know I can make you beg for it."

Sarah went even whiter, and the force of his hard fingers left reddened imprints on her jaw. "Yes," she admitted in a sti-fled tone. "You can make me do anything you want, if that's really the way you want it to be."

He looked down at her, at her colorless face and closed ex-pression, and something savage moved in his eyes. Then he dropped his hand to his side, releasing her jaw. "Have it your way," he snapped, striding out of the room and closing the door behind him.

Shaking, Sarah took a shower and went to bed, lying awake for a long time and waiting to see if he'd come to her in the later hours, as he'd done the night before, but she heard him go to his own room and this time her door remained closed. Her eyes burned rawly as she stared into the darkness. How ironic that she should have to defend her outside work, when her dream had always been of a typical, traditional family life. It should have been Diane passionately defending a woman's right to a career: she'd never been short of arguments or opin-ions. Their plans had been derailed, and they had each taken the route meant for the other one. Diane was to have been the career woman, while Sarah was the housewife. Now, even more ironically, Sarah had the chance to devote herself to her husband, only to find that she had to cling to her career in order to keep some stability in her life. Rome wasn't offering her anything more than convenience and sex, and she needed more. She needed a place where she belonged, and that be-longed to her, where she felt safe. If she had Rome's love, she knew she'd feel safe anywhere, but she didn't have his love. She was still on the outside, wistfully peering through the win-dow.

Rome lay awake too, his gut twisting with anger and frus-tration. It made him see red when she froze up on him like that! He'd wanted to apologize for the night before, when he'd hurt her by rejecting her offer of sympathy, but she'd put up that damned blank wall and refused to respond or let him make it up to her. She'd beenhumming , as if it didn't matter to her what he did. It probablydidn't matter, he thought savagely. But when he'd gone to her room and made love to her, she'd taken down the barrier and turned as hot and sweet in his arms as she always did. He'd wanted to grind his flesh into hers, to make her forget about keeping him at a distance, and he'd thought he'd succeeded; then that morning, she'd been as cool and remote as ever, as if she hadn't gone wild beneath him.

That damned store was more important to her than any-thing else, including him. He'd asked her to go with him, but the store came first. He'd known how devoted she was to working, and he'd proposed to her, knowing that she'd expect the same priority for her work as he expected for his. He'd agreed to give her the room she needed, and now he found it was driving him insane. Whenever she put up those frosty bar-riers of hers, he wanted to smash them down and take her in the most primitive way, until she couldn't build them again. She didn't even care enough to argue; she simply stated her position, then turned away. The disdainful lift of that little chin had almost broken his control, but she'd made it plain that if he'd taken her to bed, it would have been rape, and he'd forced himself to leave before he sank to that. He didn't want to hurt her – he wanted to possess her, totally and irrevoca-bly. He wanted never to see that reserved, distant expression on her face again. And he wanted that shining eagerness that she reserved for that damned store to be for him. The chal-lenge she represented was becoming an obsession for him, until even at work he found himself thinking of ways to break through her defenses. So far, the only way he'd found had been through sex, but that was only temporary.

He wanted her now. He was burning with need, and he moved restlessly on the bed. He waited, knowing that if he went in to her now, she'd fight, and he didn't want to put her through that sort of experience; he wasn't certain of his abil-ity to control himself. He didn't want her unwilling body; he wanted her all soft and melted beneath him, clinging to him with all the silky strength of her arms and legs, her cool image shattered by the earthiness of the act. For that, he'd wait.

When Sarah got up at her usual time the next morning, she was surprised to find Rome already up, with the preparations for breakfast almost finished. She looked at him warily, but the hard-edged anger had left him, though she still sensed an indefinable tension in him that made her keep her greeting merely polite.

"Sit down," he said, and the words were a command, not an invitation.

Sarah sat down at the small table, and he served the meal, then took his place across from her.

They were almost finished eating when he spoke. "Are you going to keep the store open all day today?"

Cautiously, Sarah placed her coffee cup on the table. "Yes. Mr. Marsh, the previous owner, said that Saturday was always his biggest day. He closed for half a day on Wednesdays, and I think I'll keep doing that too. People like a familiar schedule."

She'd expected him to object, but instead he gave a curt nod. "I'll go with you today. I'd like to look things over more carefully than I did before. Have you got your bookkeeping system set up yet?"

"Not completely." Grateful that he wasn't going to pick an-other argument, Sarah relaxed her guard and unconsciously leaned toward him a little, the unusual deep green of her eyes beginning to warm. "I've kept a record of everything I've spent, and of what I've sold, but I haven't had time to begin organizing it yet."

"If you don't have any objections, I'll set the books up for you," he offered. "Have you thought about buying a personal computer and putting your inventory on it? For that matter, you need your bookkeeping system on computer too. It would be a lot easier to work with."

"I'd thought about it, but a computer will have to wait. The store needs a new roof, and I've got several ideas for ex-panding the merchandise selection. Then there's a burglar alarm system that I want installed too. I've just about used up all my savings, and I need to build a little working capital."

"You used your savings?" he snapped, his heavy dark brows drawing down, and Sarah automatically withdrew from him again, the barrier springing into place to protect her. His jaw set as he saw her change of expression, and grim deter-mination rose in him. He wasn't going to let her lock him out this time; he was going to go over that damned wall as if it weren't even there, ignoring its existence.

He reached out and snared her wrist, wrapping his hard fin-gers around the fragile bones. "That was the wrong way to do it," he said, releasing all the irritation he felt. "You don't spend your capital; you use it as collateral. Borrow the money, and let your own money collect interest while you use someone else's. The interest you pay on the loan is tax-deductible, and believe me, babe, you'll need every tax break you can get. Don't wait for a profit to make those improvements; borrow the money and do itnow. If I'd been here when you bought the store, I'd have marched you down to a bank to set up a business loan."

Sarah relaxed, her eyes widening. She could handle his criticism and advice on business matters; she even welcomed it. She'd have to be a fool not to trust his business sense.

"You'll also need a good accountant," he continued. "I'd volunteer to do your taxes, but I have to spend too much time away from home. If you're going to do this, do it right."

"All right," she agreed mildly. "I didn't know all that. My instinct is to pay for everything outright, so it's legally mine and can't be taken away from me. I've never been interested in the ins and outs of business finance, but if that's the way you say it should be done, I'll take your word for it."

His dark eyes sharpened, and like a hawk he swooped down on the most significant thing she'd said. The morning after their wedding, when she'd come unglued because the apartment was unfamiliar to her, he'd realized that she liked everything in its place. She was, in fact, almost fanatic about it. But now this second statement alerted him to a deep-seated insecurity in her that he hadn't realized before. "Taken away from you?" he asked casually, though there was nothing ca-sual in the way he watched her. He felt as if he were on the verge of finally getting around that barrier inside her, of knowing what went on in that reserved mind of hers. "Do you really think I'd let you go belly up if you enjoyed the store that much? You don't have to worry about bankruptcy, ever."

Sarah shivered, a movement that he felt immediately, as he was still holding her wrist. She stared at him across the cold, empty wasteland of her childhood; then her lashes dropped as she tried to push the emptiness away. "It isn't that," she vaguely explained. "I just needed to feel that it wasmine , that I belonged… I mean, that it belonged to me."

"Do you realize I don't know anything about your family?" he asked conversationally, and she flinched, telling him with-out words that he was on the right track. "Where are your par-ents? Did you have a deprived childhood?"

Abruptly Sarah looked at him, awareness dawning in her eyes. "Are you psychoanalyzing me?" she asked in an attempt at lightness. "Don't bother. I can clear it up for you; it's no big mystery, though I really don't like to talk about it. No, I didn't have a deprived childhood, not in material things anyway. My father is a successful lawyer, and we were definitely upper-middle-class. But my parents weren't happy together, and they stayed married only because of me; when I started college and was officially launched, they promptly divorced. I've never been close to my parents. Everything was so… socold at home, so polite. I guess I grew up knowing how shaky everything was and expecting it to fall apart without notice. I intended to make my own little nest, where I'd feel safe," she confessed.

"And you're still doing it."

"I'm still doing it. I pull things in around me and pretend that nothing will ever change." She darted a look at him and shifted uncomfortably, aware that she'd bared a large part of herself to him. He was watching her with a look in his eyes that she took for pity, and she didn't want that. She forced her-self to shrug and say lightly, "Old habits die hard, if they die at all. I don't easily accept any changes in my life; I have to think about things for a while and become accustomed to them, then gradually move things around. Except for the store," she added thoughtfully. "I wanted the store immedi-ately. It has such a permanent, homey feel to it."

So that was what those barriers were all about, he thought. The wonder was that she'd married him at all, if she disliked changes so much. Probably she'd taken the step only because he'd assured her he wouldn't interfere with her life, and since their marriage, he'd been trying to force himself past her re-serve, while she'd been frantically trying to keep it in place. If he eased up, she'd gradually relax with him and accept his place in her life. She wasn't cold and aloof at all, something he should have known immediately from the passionate way she responded to him in bed. She was more like a shy, wary doe, and she'd have to trust him and accept his presence be-fore she'd let him venture close to her. Physical closeness and mental closeness were two very different things for her, and he'd have to remember that.

She wasn't Diane. Diane's personality had been firmly based on a loving, secure tightly knit family, and she'd had the inner self-confidence to handle his temper and dominant personality, while Sarah felt threatened by it. She was far softer, far more vulnerable, than he'd ever imagined.

She shifted, freeing her wrist from his grip and rising to her feet, smiling a bright smile that didn't fool him in the least. "I have to hurry, or I'll be late opening the store."

"Go on and get ready; I'll clean up in here." He stood too, but halted her departure with a hard hand on her waist. "Sarah, understand one thing: An argument doesn't mean your life is going to be torn apart. I was worried last night when I couldn't find you, and I blew up. That's all there was to it."

Her eyes were bottomless pools of green, and she stood motionless under his hand. If he wanted to think that was why she'd been so upset, let him. Better that than his knowing that he could hurt her deeply just because she loved him.

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