With the flashlight gripped in her fist, Rae pushed her shoulders through the crawlspace beneath Miss Belle’s back porch. Colonel Healy had designed the addition in honor of their daughter’s birth nearly sixty years ago. Rae cast the light up at the floor boards. Nice solid heavy beams. They didn’t build houses like this anymore. She checked the closest footing, digging dirt away from the concrete.
“The porch and addition are in good shape, Miss Belle. Let me check the foundation real quick, but I don’t think you’ve got any problems outside the house. It’s good, real good.”
“Aren’t you afraid of spiders?” Miss Belle demanded. “It’s not natural for a young lady to be crawling around in dark spaces like that. Who knows what kind of creepy-crawlies are in there.”
In Rae’s experience, the creepy-crawlies weren’t bugs under a porch at all but real live people. “I’m fine, Miss Belle.”
She wiggled her shoulders deeper beneath the house to get a better look. The dirt was dry but rich, good smelling, not dank with mold or slime. Good stuff. But it was the foundation of the original structure that she most wanted to see.
She cast the light over the tight stones. This old plantation house put brand new tract homes to shame. “Looks good, Miss Belle. I don’t think you’ll have any leaking problems into your basement for years yet. I—”
“Why didn’t you call me?” A male voice interrupted. “I want to meet your contractor before you sign anything.”
Rae’s heart slammed against her ribs. Every feminine instinct screamed a warning. She froze, glad she was mostly under the porch. Except for her lower body. Shit, shit, shit. On her knees, ass in the air, dirt in her hair… And that voice…
Oh, God. Not him, please. Anybody but him.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Verrill. I can take care of myself.”
Relief washed over her and she let her forehead rest against her forearm a minute. She didn’t know any Verrill. Deep breaths, calm—she had no reason to be worried, let alone hopeful, excited, terrified…
“If you call me that, then I get to call you Grandma.”
“Oh, Conn,” Miss Belle growled out a laugh. Rae heard the slap on his arm. “I want you to meet someone.”
She couldn’t breathe. Five years might have passed, but he still possessed the ability to reduce her to a twenty-one-year-old English student again, drooling over her sexy professor. Betrayal choked her. The old lady had set her up. Had he been in on the joke? Furious tears burned her eyes.
Maybe the fantastic old house would suddenly break apart and bury her in rubble. She’d rather die than face him again.
He gave a low whistle. “Hello, gorgeous.”
Her brain skittered with panic, her sudden intake of breath echoing beneath the porch. Great, just great. He was staring at her ass. Heat flared beneath her jeans as if he’d smacked her. Again.
Maybe he won’t remember me.
Her heart clenched in agony.
“The Fix-It Lady has accepted my offer. Rae Lynn, come on out and meet my grandson.”
Wait a minute, meet? So maybe Miss Belle didn’t know the whole sordid truth.
The sudden intensity of his voice rocked her with panic. She scrambled deeper beneath the porch. He caught her foot, his powerful hands shackling her leg. She kicked back with her other foot, catching him solidly with her boot. Hopefully in the head.
He grunted but didn’t let go. Weight trapped her lower body, his arms snaking around her legs, hauling her back. She grabbed at the footing, missed, dug in the soft soil for a root, anything to slow him.
Miss Belle shrieked. If she’d carried a parasol, the old lady would be beating him over the head with it. “What are you doing? Let go of her this minute, Verrill Connagher! Don’t you know how to treat a lady?”
Grappled inch by inch backwards into the open, Rae wanted to die.
He flipped her over, his hands locked on her waist. One more tug and—
Blinded by the afternoon sun, she swung her fist at his head, grateful she couldn’t see. She didn’t want to see the face she’d daydreamed about all these years. Those incredible baby blues, changing with his mood from steel gray to brilliant sapphire. One look from those eyes and she’d be lost all over again.
Her heart pounded, her skull split open, her mouth dried like an old bone. She bucked and fought, trying to kick him again.
Don’t touch him. Don’t melt into his arms and burst into tears and wail that I wish—
Pinning her hands on either side of her head, he leaned down over her to block the sun. She squeezed her eyes shut and averted her face. She strained in vain, knowing he was too strong, always too strong, as strong as she remembered.
“Stop it,” he said gruffly, his voice tight. Anger? Or pain? Had he missed her? Why did the weight of his body against hers have to feel so damned good? “Are you hurt?”
She laughed, wincing at the ragged edge of pain and regret in her voice. “Get off me, Dr. Connagher.”
“I take it you two know each other?” Miss Belle sniffed loudly. “Honestly, Verrill, do as she says and get up. You can’t scare her off with your intimidation tactics—she’s the best contractor around!”
“Look at me,” he whispered fiercely, lowering his face within inches of hers. Steel-clad velvet, his voice reached into her chest and tugged on her heart.
His panting breath was hot and moist on her cheek, the leathered musk of his cologne achingly familiar. The heat of his body burned into hers, driving her into the ground, and she felt her muscles softening. She arched against him helplessly, but not to escape. Not this time.
So weak, so miserably weak. She braced herself to bear the intensity of his gaze, the force of his will. I can tell him no. I’ve learned that much in five years. Haven’t I?
Slowly, she turned her head and opened her eyes.
All hard angles and shadows, his face had aged, lined and worn but better for that aging. Like fine whiskey and Sean Connery, he merely got better, more distinctive and impressive over the years. His Oxford white shirt had a dirty boot print over his heart. Ironic, that.
Staring into his eyes, she felt her throat constrict with tears, her eyes filling. No, no, she wouldn’t cry. Not here. Not now.
The chips of ice glittering in his eyes thawed at whatever he saw in her gaze, but he held her pinned beneath him. “Don’t run out on me again.”
She nodded jerkily. He knew she wouldn’t refuse him. She couldn’t. That’s why she’d run the first time. Evidently she hadn’t learned a damned thing.
Immediately, he climbed to his feet and offered her a hand up. Belying the burning fierceness of his gaze, he said lightly, “Rae was a student of mine five years ago.”
“Oh!” Miss Belle clapped her hands, grinning ear to ear. “So you’re the one he spoke of so often. Fabulous. What a coincidence. I hope he gave you an A, Rae Lynn.”
Heat seared her face. Oh, he gave her an A all right.
Talking about coincidence… Suspicious, she glared at the innocent little old lady.
With a breezy smile, Miss Belle flounced back toward the rear of the house. “I’ll see you for dinner, dear.”
“Oh no you won’t,” Rae retorted, her stomach twisting into knots. “I’m not coming back.” Not if he’s here.
Turning slowly to look over her shoulder, Miss Belle arched a brow at her beneath the broad brim of her big straw hat. That look would have scared General Sherman away from Atlanta. “You gave your word, Rae Lynn. You accepted my offer, signed our contract, and I don’t tolerate fools or liars. Besides, remember your slogan.”
With that, Miss Belle disappeared down the trail skipping like a little girl.
Making It Right.
Clenching her teeth, Rae shook her head. It was too late to make it right with Conn.
Five years too late.