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Shades of Twilight (Chapter 19)

"When your parents died?"

"Then, and later, until-until I was seventeen." Until Jessie died, she meant, but she didn't say it. "I was always afraid that if I didn't measure up, I'd be sent away."

"That would never have happened," he said firmly.

"This is your home. Lucinda wouldn't have made you leave." She shrugged.

"They were talking about it. Lucinda and Jessie, that is. They were going to send me away to college. Not just to Tuscaloosa; they wanted me to go to some women's college, in Virginia, I think. It was someplace far enough away that I couldn't come home regularly."

"That wasn't why." He sounded shocked. He remembered the arguments. Lucinda had thought it would be good for Roanna to be away from them, force her to mature, and Jessie, of course, had egged her on. He saw now that, to Roanna, it must have seemed that they didn't want her around.

"That's what it sounded like to me," she said.

"Why did it change when you were seventeen? Was it because Jessie was dead and wasn't there to keep bringing up the subject?"

"No." That remote look was still in her eyes.

"It was because I didn't care anymore. Going away seemed like the best thing to do. I wanted to get away from Davencourt, from people who knew me and felt sorry for me because I wasn't pretty, because I was clumsy, because I was so socially graceless." Her tone was matter-of-fact, as if she were discussing a menu.

"Hell," he said wearily.

"Jessie made a career out of making you miserable, didn't she? Damn her. It should be against the law for people under the age of twenty-five to get married. I thought I was king of the mountain when I was in my early twenties, so damn sure I could tame Jessie and turn her into a suitable wife-my idea of suitable, of course. But there was something missing in Jessie, maybe the ability to love, because she didn't love anyone. Not me, not Lucinda, not even herself. I was too young to see it, though." He rubbed his forehead, remembering those last horrible days after her murder.

"Maybe she did love someone, though. Maybe she loved the man whose baby she carried. I'll never know."

Roanna gasped, shock running through her. She turned to face him.

"You knew about him?" she asked incredulously. Webb straightened away from the railing, his gaze sharpening.

"I found out after she was killed." He caught her shoulders, his grip urgent.

"How did you know?"

"1-I saw them together in the woods." She wished she had controlled her reaction to finding out he knew about Jessie's lover, but it had been such a shock. She had protected that secret all these years, and he'd known anyway. But she hadn't known that Jessie was pregnant when she was killed, and that made her feel sick.

"Who was it?" His tone was hard.

"I don't know, I'd never seen him before."

"Can you describe him?"

"Not really." She bit her lip, remembering that day.

"I only saw him once, the afternoon of the day Jessie was killed, and I didn't get a good look at him. I didn't tell you then because I was afraid .. ." She paused, a look of unutterable sadness crossing her face.

"I was afraid you'd fly off the handle and do something dumb and get in trouble. So I kept quiet."

"And after Jessie was killed, you didn't say anything because you thought I would be arrested, that they'd say I killed her because I'd found out she was cheating on me." He'd kept his silence on the same subject and nearly choked on his bitterness. It made him ache inside to know that Roanna had kept the same secret and for the same reason. She had been so young, already traumatized by finding Jessie's body and briefly being suspected of murder herself, hurt by his own rejection of her, and still she'd kept quiet. 323

Roanna nodded, searching his face. The sunlight was fading fast, and the shades of twilight were veiling them in mysteriously shadowed blues and purples, wrapping them in that brief moment when the earth hovered between day and night, when time seems to stop and everything seems richer, sweeter. His expression was guarded, and she couldn't tell what he was thinking or feeling.

"So you kept it to yourself," he said softly.

"To protect me. I'll bet you nearly choked on it, with Jessie accusing us of sleeping together when you'd just seen her with another man."

"Yes," she said, her voice strained as she remembered that horrible day and night.

"Did she know you'd seen her."

"No, I was quiet. In those days I was good at sneaking around." The glance she gave him was full of wry acknowledgment of what an undisciplined handful she had been.

"I know," he said, his tone as wry as her look.

"Do you remember where they met?"

"It was just a clearing in the woods. I could take you to the area but not to the exact spot. It's been ten years; it's probably grown over by now."

"If it was a clearing, why couldn't you see the man?"

"I didn't say I couldn't see him." Feeling uncomfortable, Roanna moved restlessly under his hands. "I said I couldn't describe him."

Webb frowned.

"But if you saw him, why can't you describe him?"

"Because they were having sex!" she said in stifled exasperation.

"He was naked. I'd never seen a naked man before. Frankly, I didn't look at his face!"

Webb dropped his hands in astonishment, peering at her through the fading twilight. Then he began to laugh. He didn't just chuckle, he roared with mirth, his entire frame shaking. He tried to stop, took one look at her, and started again.

She punched him on the shoulder.

"Hush," she muttered.

"I can just hear you telling Booley about it," he chortled,

almost choking with laughter.

"S-sorry, Sheriff, I didn't notice his f-face because I was looking at his-Woof!" This time she punched him in the belly. The breath rushed out of him and he bent over, clutching his stomach and still laughing.

Roanna lifted her chin.

"I was not," she said with dignity, "looking at his woof" She strode into her room and started to close the veranda doors in his face. He barely slipped through the rapidly shrinking opening. Roanna set the alarm for the doors, then pulled the curtains closed over them.

He slipped his arms around her before she could move away, pulling her snugly back against him.

"I'm sorry," he apologized.

"I know you were upset."

"It made me sick" she said fiercely.

"I hated her for cheating on you."

He bent to rub his cheek against her hair.

"I think she must have been planning to have the baby and pretend it was mine. But first she had to get me to have sex with her, and I hadn't touched her in four months. There was no way in hell she could pass it off as mine as things stood. When she caught us kissing, she probably thought all her plans had gone up in smoke. She knew damn well I wouldn't pretend the baby was mine just to prevent a scandal. I'd have divorced her so fast her head would spin. She was crazy jealous of you anyway. She wouldn't have been nearly as furious if she had caught me with anyone else." "Me?" Roanna asked incredulously, turning her head to stare at him.

"She was jealous of me? Why? She had everything."

"But you were the one I protected-from her, most of the time. I took your side, and she couldn't stand that. She had to be first in everything and with everybody."

"No wonder she was always trying to talk Lucinda into sending me away to college!"

"She wanted you out of the way." He brushed her hair to one side and lightly kissed her neck.

"Are you certain you can't describe the man you saw her with?"

LINDA HOWABD

"I'd never seen him before. And since they were lying down, I couldn't really see his face. I got the impression that he was older, but I was only seventeen. Thirty seemed old to me then." His teeth nipped at her neck, and she shivered. She could feel him losing interest in his questions; quite literally, in fact. His growing erection pushed at her bottom, and she leaned back against him, closing her eyes as warm pleasure began to fill her.

Slowly he slid his hands up her body and put his palms over her breasts.

"Just what I thought," he murmured, moving his love bites to her earlobe.

"What?" she gasped, reaching back to brace her hands on his thighs.

"Your nipples are already hard."

"Are you fixated on my breasts?"

"I must be," he murmured.

"And assorted other body parts, too."

He was very hard now. Roanna turned into his arms, and he walked her backward to the bed. They fell down upon it, Webb bracing his weight on his arms to keep from crushing her, and in the cool darkness their bodies came together with a fire and intensity that left her weak and shaking in his arms.

He held her close to his side, her head cradled on his shoulder. Left weak and boneless, utterly relaxed, Roanna felt drowsiness begin to ease over her. Evidently he was right about her insomnia: tension had kept her sleepless for ten years, but after his lovemaking she was too relaxed to resist. But sleep was one thing; the sleepwalking was something else entirely and disturbed her on a much deeper level. She said, "I need to put on my nightgown."

"No." His refusal was instant and emphatic. His arms tightened around her as if he would prevent her from moving.

"But if I walk in my sleep-" "You won't. I'm going to hold you all night long. You won't be able to get out of bed without waking me up." He kissed her long and slow.

"Go to sleep, sweetheart. I'll watch over you."

But she couldn't. She could feel the tension coming back, invading her muscles. A habit of ten years' duration couldn't be broken in a single night, or even two. Webb, might understand the dread she felt at the thought of walking through the night so defenselessly, but he couldn't feel the panic and helplessness of not waking up in the same place where she'd gone to sleep, not knowing how she'd gotten there or anything that had happened.

He felt the tension that kept her from relaxing. He held her closer, tried to soothe her with reassurances, but finally he evidently came to the conclusion that nothing would help except complete exhaustion.

She had thought she was accustomed to his lovemaking, that she already knew the extent of his sensuality. She found that she was wrong.

He brought her to climax with his hands, with his mouth. He put her astride his hard, muscled thigh and rocked her to completion, though she clutched at him and begged him to fill her. Finally he did, pulling her off the bed and turning her so that she was on her knees, bent over with her face buried in the covers. He drove into her from behind, slamming into her buttocks with the force of his thrusts, reaching around to the front of her sex to caress her at the same time. She cried out hoarsely and stifled the sound against the mattress as she climaxed a fourth time, and still he wasn't finished. She was dissolving, going beyond peaks to a state where the pleasure simply went on and on, like the waves of the tide. It happened again, fast, and she reached back to grab his hips and pull him hard into her as she pulsed around him. Her action caught him by surprise and with a low, savage cry he joined her, shuddering and jerking as he came.

They were both shaking violently, so weak they could barely crawl back onto the bed. Sweat dripped from their bodies, and they clung together like shipwreck survivors.

This time there was no way to fight off the sleep that claimed her as surely as he had.

She woke once, only enough to be aware that he was still holding her, just as he had promised, and she drifted back to sleep.

The next time she awoke she was sitting up in bed, and Webb's fingers were hard around her wrist.

"No," he said softly, implacably.

"You aren't going anywhere."

She went back into his arms, and began to believe.

She woke for the last time at dawn, when he got out of bed.

"Where are you going?" she asked, yawning and sitting up.

"To my room," he replied, pulling on his pants. He smiled at her, and she felt herself melting inside all over again. He looked tough and sexy, with his dark hair tousled and his jaw darkened with beard stubble. His voice was still rough with sleep, and his eyelids were a little puffy, giving him a heavy-lidded, just-had-sex look.

"I have to get something," he said.

"Stay right there, and I mean right there. Don't get out of bed."

"All right, I won't." He left by the hallway door, and she lay back down and cuddled under the sheet. She wasn't certain she could get out of bed. She remembered the night that had just passed, the things that had happened between them. She ached deep inside, and her thighs felt weak, sore. That hadn't been mere lovemaking, that had been a melding that went beyond the mere physical. There were deeper levels of intimacy than she had ever imagined, and yet she knew there were still delights as yet untasted.

He was back in only a moment, carrying a plastic bag with a pharmacist's name on it. He placed the bag on the bedside table.

"What's that?" she asked.

He shucked off his pants again and got into bed beside her, tucking her close to his side.

"An early pregnancy test." She stiffened.

"Webb, I really don't think-" "It's possible," he interrupted.

"Why don't you want to know for certain?"

"Because I-" She stopped herself that time, and her eyes were somber when she looked up at him.

"Because I don't want you to feel obligated."

He went still.

"Obligated?" he asked carefully.

"If I'm pregnant, you'll feel responsible."

He snorted.

"Damn right. I'd be responsible."

"I know, but I don't want … I want you to want me for myself," she said softly, trying to hide the longing but knowing that she hadn't quite succeeded.

"Not because we were careless and made a baby."

"Want you for yourself," he repeated just as softly.

"Haven't the last two nights given you an idea about that?"

"I know you want me physically."

"I want you, period." He cupped her face in his hand, stroking his thumb over the soft curve of her mouth. His eyes were very serious. "I love you, Roanna Frances. Will you marry me?"

Her lips trembled under his touch. When she'd been seventeen, she had loved him so desperately that she would have jumped at any chance to marry him, under any conditions. She was twenty-seven now, and she still loved him desperately-loved him enough that she didn't want to trap him into another marriage in which he would be miserable. She knew Webb, knew the depths of his sense of responsibility. If she were pregnant, he would do anything to take care of his child, and that included lying to the mother about his feelings for her.

"No," she said, her voice almost soundless as she refused what she wanted most on this earth. A tear slipped from the corner of her eye.

He didn't insist, didn't lose his temper, though she had halfway expected that. His expression remained serious, intent, as he caught the tear with a gentle thumb.

"Why not?"

"Because you're asking in case I'm pregnant."

"Wrong. I'm asking because I love you."

"You're just saying that." And she wished he would stop Saying it. In how many dreams had she heard him whisper

LINDA HOWURD

those words? It wasn't fair that now he should say it, now when she didn't dare let herself believe him. Oh, God, she loved him, but she deserved to be loved for herself. At last she knew the truth of that, and she couldn't cheat herself of that final dream.

"I'm not 'just' saying anything. I love you, Ro, and you have to marry me."

Under the serious expression was a certain smugness. She studied him, looking beneath the surface with her somber brown gaze that saw so much. There was a self-satisfied glint deep in his green eyes, a fierce triumph, the way he had always looked when he'd pulled off a difficult deal.

"What have you done?" she asked, her eyes widening with alarm.

Amusement curled the edges of his mouth.

"When Lucinda and I talked last night, we agreed that it would be better to leave the terms of her will as they stand. Davencourt will be better off in your hands."

She went white.

"What?" she whispered, something almost like panic edging into her tone. She tried to pull away from him but he forestalled the movement, cuddling her even closer so that her next protest was muffled against his neck. "But it's been promised to you since you were fourteen! You worked for it, you even-" "I even married Jessie for it," he finished calmly.

"I know."

"That was the bargain. You'd come back if Lucinda changed her will in your favor again." She felt a great hollow fear growing in the pit of her stomach. Davencourt was the lure that had brought him back, but she and Lucinda had both been aware that he had built his own life in Arizona. Maybe he preferred Arizona to Alabama. Without Davencourt to keep him here, after Lucinda died he would leave again, and after these past two nights she didn't know if she could stand it.

"That's not quite true. I didn't come back because of the bargain. I came back because I needed to tie up old loose ends. I needed to make my peace with Lucinda; she was a big part of my life, and I owe her a lot. I didn't want her to die before we cleared the air between us. Davencourt is special, but I've done all right in Arizona," he said in calm understatement.

"I don't need Davencourt, and Lucinda thought you didn't want it-" "I don't," she said firmly.

"I told you, I don't want to spend my life in business meetings and studying stock reports. " He gave her a lazy smile.

"Pity, when you're so good at it. I guess you'll have to marry me, and I'll do it for you. Unlike you, I get my kicks making money. If you marry me, you can very happily spend your time raising kids and training horses, which is what you would have been doing even if Lucinda had left Davencourt to me. The only difference now is that it will all belong to you, lock, stock, and barrel, and you'll be the boss."

Her head was whirling. She wasn't quite certain that she'd heard what she thought she'd heard. Davencourt was going to be hers, and he was staying anyway? Davencourt was going to be hers … "I can hear those wheels turning," he murmured. He tilted her head up so that she was looking at him.

"I came back for one final reason, the most important one. I came back because of you."

She swallowed.

"Me?"

"You." Very gently he stroked one finger down her spine to the cleft of her buttocks, then retraced the caress up her back. She shivered delicately, melting against him. He knew what he was doing with that small, delicate touch. His purpose wasn't to arouse her but to soothe her, reassure her, reestablish the trust with which she gave her body over to him during lovemaking. The very fact that he wasn't making love to her now was proof of how intent he was on accomplishing his aim.

"Let me see if I can make this any clearer," he mused softly, brushing his lips against her forehead.

"I loved you when you were a snot-nosed kid, into so much mischief it's

a wonder my hair didn't turn prematurely gray. I loved you when you were a teenager with long, skinny legs and eyes that broke my heart every time I looked at you. I love you now that you're a woman who makes my brain go soft, my legs go weak, and my dick get hard. When you walk into a room, my heart damn near jumps out of my chest. When you smile, I feel as if I've won a Nobel Prize. And your eyes still break my heart."

The soft litany washed over like the sweetest of songs, soaking into her flesh, her soul, her very being. She wanted so much to believe him, and that was why she was afraid to, afraid she would let her own desires convince her.

When she didn't speak, he began those gentling caresses again.

"Jessie really did a number on you, didn't she? She made you feel so unloved and unwanted that you still haven't gotten over it. Haven't you figured out yet that Jessie lied? Her whole life was a lie. Don't you know that Lucinda dotes on you? With Jessie dead, she was finally able to get to know you without Jessie's poison ruining everything, and she adores you." He picked up her hand and carried it to his lips, where he kissed each fingertip, then began nibbling on the sensitive pads.

"Jessie's been dead ten years. How long are you going to continue letting her ruin things for you?"

Roanna tilted her head back, searching his expression with solemn, wondering eyes. With a sense of amazement, she realized she had never seen him look more determined, or more intent. That hard face looking back at her was the face of a man who had made up his mind and was damn sure going to get what he wanted. He meant it. He didn't want to marry her because she would have Davencourt, because he could have had it without any strings. Lucinda would have honored her bargain. He didn't want to marry her because she might be pregnant As if he were reading her mind, and perhaps he was, he said, "I love you. I can't tell you how much, because the words don't exist. I've tried to count the ways, but I'm no

Browning. It doesn't matter if you're pregnant or not, I want to marry you because I love you. Period."

"All right," she whispered, and trembled at the enormity of the step she was taking, and from the joy that was blooming inside her.

Her breath whooshed out of her as he crushed her to his chest.

"You know how to make a man sweat," he said fiercely.

"I was getting desperate. What do you think about getting married next week?"

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