Cole hopped the fence and tromped toward the beach. After trekking over the dunes, he saw the little duck he'd rescued. "Hi, babe," he said as the mallard waddled up to him. "Why'd you leave? Did the hammer noise bother you?"
The duck quacked and he found himself grinning. "Maybe I was making more noise than necessary." He squatted beside the bird and stroking its downy head. "That woman drives me nuts."
The duck quacked and shook out its feathers starting from her head and ending at her tail. Cole chuckled. "Yeah, she affects me that way, too."
He stood and ambled closer to the water. Deciding he needed to exercise his stress away, he shucked his work boots and socks. Then, damning Miss Sancroft for having such a bizarre affect on him, he doffed his jeans. Naked, he strode into the surf, executing a racing dive into the waves. As he skimmed through the water, he faced the fact that he might have to swim all the way to Brazil to exercise her out of his system. Or was the correct word 'exorcise'.
Thirty minutes later he swam back toward shore, noticing someone standing on the beach. There was no mistaking who she was, idling there beside a duck roosted on a pile of denim. In waist deep water he stood up, shoving hair out if his face.
She squinted at him, her hand shading her eyes. She wore a white, silky blouse and peach colored skirt. The light fabrics clung to her body in the sea breeze, leaving nothing of her shape a secret. Her figure was curving and regal, nice hips tapering into luscious legs. Her waist was slim, her breasts, firm and high-perched. In the sunset, her loose auburn hair fairly glowed like flame. His gut tightened like an angry fist.
"I thought maybe you'd drowned," she called. "Too bad."
He didn't need sarcasm right now. Vowing to show her how untroubled he was by the sight of her, he put on an unperturbed face. "Is there something you wanted?"
She shrugged. "No, I was just walking."
He cocked his head, eyeing her for a few seconds while she stood there looking unforgivably beautiful. "Well, go on," he shouted. "Don't let the fact that I'm not dead hamper your good time."
She crossed her arms before her. "Are you naked?"
Her blunt question surprised him. "Why? Are you the nudity police?"
She rubbed her hands on her skirt then clasped them. "That's a yes?"
Her lips dropped open for a second before she regained herself. "Have you no shame?"
He found that question ironic. "Me? I'm not the one interviewing for a husband."
Even from the distance where he stood, and with the sun low in the west, he could see her expression close in a scowl. "For the last time, my motives are absolutely pure. Don't change the subject!"
Okay. You're welcome to swim in the nude, too. It's a free country."
"Yeah, you'd love that!"
"I probably would," he muttered, taking a couple of steps toward her. The water level moved slightly lower on his belly.
"What?" she shouted. "I couldn't hear that."
"I said, I'm coming out.” Trying to shake a wayward vision of her romping nude in the surf, he strode another few steps in her direction. The water lapped several inches below his navel. If he knew Miss Priss, the prospect of seeing a naked man tramping toward her would have her on the run in a flash.
Her eyes went wide in what appeared to be shock. "You're not!"
"Why? Do you expect me to sprout fins and live out here?"
She shooed the duck off its denim nest and grabbed his jeans, wadding them. "Here!" She threw them at him, but they fell a car-length short. He headed toward them with no intention of hunkering in the surf to hide his lower half. As he approached the bobbing jeans, he heard her shriek and looked up in time to watch her whirl away.
He felt a surge of satisfaction for being right about her. "Really, Miss Sancroft--" he called as he yanked on the jeans. "--for a woman bent on bagging a man, you're pretty skittish about looking at one."
"You should cultivate some decency!"
"You should cultivate some common sense." After fastening his pants, he resumed his trek toward shore.
"Are you decent, yet?"
"Absolutely." Rancor sharpened his voice. "Have you cultivated any common sense, yet?"
When he reached the water's edge she twisted toward him. "You're biased on the subject because of what happened to your father, so keep out of my business!"
"One man's bias is another man's truth, Miss Sancroft."
"Don't spout platitudes to me!"
"Okay, okay," he said, coming toe to toe with her. "But I have a question."
She cranked her shoulders back and met his gaze like a defiant little general. "Just one? Well, by all means, ask it so you can go away!" She swallowed, and Cole could tell she was not as self-assured as she wanted him to believe.
"How can you respect a man who would marry you for such deplorable reasons?"
She hesitated looking indignant, even stricken. The glint of distress in her eyes unnerved him. "There's nothing deplorable about choosing a mate with sober logic," she said, her face suddenly ashen and sober. "Facts you can cling to! Emotions just float away! It's safer, cleaner and less messy this way than leaving the decision to things as untrustworthy as hormones!"
Cole was momentarily mute in his surprise. "Less messy?" he repeated, curious. "This logical husband hunt isn't only about granny and grandpa finding love after marriage, or mom and pop, the well-oiled but loveless team, is it?"
The sheen of threatening tears in her eyes betrayed great pain. "You don't know what you’re talking about."
Damn if he didn't! She had obviously been hurt in the past, terribly hurt, and she never intended to trust her heart again. He experienced a squeezing ache of sympathy in his chest but shook it off. Just because she'd had her heart broken, didn't make this foolishness any more excusable.
"Playing it 'Better safe than sorry' isn't always better," he said, less gruffly.
"Most of the time it is better!"
He shook his head, more pitying than angry. "Trying to cage your heart is impossible. If you marry one of those candidates for all your logical and emotionless reasons, then what happens on that day you wake up and find yourself in love with someone else?"
"You can't control falling in love," he said. She bit her lip, looking uneasy. A thought struck so he went with it. "How did today go? Perfect?"
She looked away, apparently no longer able to meet his gaze. "Not one hundred percent perfect," she mumbled. "But nothing's perfect."
"Exactly my point." Her attention shot to his face. "Not even the happiest marriage is perfect, so anybody who goes into a marriage based on compromise is a fool."
She continued to trouble her bottom lip as tears welled. Still, she managed to lift her chin in defiance, an act of courage he found endearing. "Why don't you lecture on the subject of what makes a good marriage," she said, hoarsely. "As a bachelor, I'm sure you're an expert!"
From the book BRIDEGROOM ON HER DOORSTEP, by Renee Roszel
Published by Harlequin books S.A. Copyright © 2002 by Renee Roszel
Publication Date (USA), November 2002, ISBN # 0-373-93725-2
Interested in purchasing this book?
For more info about Harlequin Books click on the Harlequin Romance logo on Renee's Home page.