Excerpt from California Caress

     "You rat," she hissed, her lips thinning into a hard white line. "You knew he wouldn't stop, didn't you?" She paused, taking a deep gulp of air. "Of course you knew. That's why you didn't stop me from making a total idiot out of myself, isn't it? Because you knew he wouldn't care enough about what was happening in here to even think about offering help."
     "Don't be a fool," he scolded, his tone patronizingly dry. "Of course I knew he wouldn't stop. Yelling and screaming goes on around here night and day. Nobody thinks a thing of it. Where are you going?" To his surprise the woman gathered the cloak tightly around her and marched with rigid determination toward the single window behind his chair.
     "As far away from you as I can get," she informed him briskly as she gave a push to the smeared bottom pane of glass. Her heard skipped as beat as the wooden frame stuck, then slid high. Unfortunately, it slipped down just as easily, but that minor hindrance could be worked around. She was feeling braver, more confident with the cool night air wafting around her, clearing her senses. Her headache receded to a dull throb.
     "We're on the second story," he informed her, his tone dry and unemotional. From the sound of his voice, he hadn't bothered to get up; a fact that hardly surprised her. "It's quite a fall."
     "Not if I land on that drunk," she said as she peeked out the window and saw the sprawled from of a man lying face first in the dirt. She wasn't sure, but she would have sworn it was the same one who had almost smacked her in the face with the swinging bar door.
     By the time Hope felt the viselike grip wrap around her upper arm, she had already managed to swing both legs out the window and was perched on the sill. She used one hand to prop up the frame above her head while the other steadied her precarious balance. The rose-colored skirt was hoisted well above her knees, exposing more than a proper amount of creamy calves and delicately turned ankles. The folds of her cloak, still inside the room, floated down the wall and draped over the crudely planed floor.
     "You're not going anywhere, young lady," the man growled as a hand wrapped around her other arm. It was all she could do to keep the window from falling on her legs as she was forcefully dragged back inside.
     As her back came up hard against his chest, she suddenly prayed Luke would disobey her as he always did and come looking for her, fast. The sight of her gigantic brother would certainly knock that overly inflated ego down a peg or two, something this man sorely needed.
     "Let go of me this instant, you idiot," she demanded, trying to twist away from his grasp. She might as well have been heaving herself against a brick wall for all the good it did her.
     In a repeat performance of what she had done to Luke, Hope pulled back her foot and kicked for all she was worth. Apparently she was worth more than she thought, especially if the man's grunt of pain was anything to judge by.
     "Stop it," he ordered as the heel of her boot collided with his shin yet again.
     "Not until you let me go," she snapped, slammer her heel down on his toe. Unfortunately, his boots made sure the blow did little damage. She resorted to kicking again.
     This time the man waited until her foot was drawn back and ready to strike, the unexpectedly let her go. Hope, unprepared for the sudden release, tumbled backwards, her bottom meeting the hardwood floor in a bone-jarring collision. The force of her momentum thrust her backward, her legs pinned by the twisting skirt and cloak. It was sheer luck that she was able to reach out in time to stop her head from hitting the floor.
     So much for fighting fair! She thought as she staggered to her feet and faced her opponent. Expecting a man the size of the rest of the prospectors of Thirst Gulch, it was not a pleasant surprise to see that this one towered over her by almost a full head. Her courage floundered.
     "Are you done?" he asked bitterly. Like a dancer, he balanced his weight on one foot while the other rubbed against his sore shin. He wasn't taking the chance of bending to inspect the damage, she noted, and surmised the reason as a rightful mistrust of what she might do next.
     "Are you going to let me out of here?" she countered with an indignant toss of her head. A mistake, that, as her pounding temples were quick to inform her.
     The gesture made the chestnut curls ripple over her shoulders, swaying freely at the small taper of her waist. In the scuffle, her cloak had parted, the front pleats working their way to the back so the coarse wool now flowed freely over her shoulders. The parting served only to draw attention to the low-scooped neckline of her dress.
     Noticing where the man's attention lay, she quickly flipped the cloak into place, nestling into its folds as though she hadn't so much as a stitch on beneath. Indeed from the way those sea-green eyes had ravished her exposed flesh, she might as well not have. There were rumors of the way some men could look at a woman as though undressing her with their eyes, but never had she experienced the sensation—until now.
     Planting balled fists on her hips, she valiantly gathered what was left of her courage and proudly returned his glare, measure for angry measure. "I demand you let me out of here."
     One golden brow arched, and she would have sworn she saw a fleeting trace of amusement. "You demand? You demand?" The chuckle that filled the room was brief and filled with sarcasm. "You are hardly in a position to demand anything, sunshine. And I'm not your jailer. If you want to leave, leave." The tanned brow was much too innocently smooth for Hope's liking as he cut a mock bow and swept the interior of the room with a large palm. A crooked smile twisted his lips. "If you can."
     Instantly, she turned back to the window, but the voice behind her stopped her cold before the pane was halfway up.
     "But not that way."
     She dropped the heavy casing as though it had just burst into flames. The thing crashed down onto the sill, the echo of splintering wood loud against the backdrop of piano music drifting up from downstairs.
     Hope whirled on him. Not since her mother died could she remember being so angry. Her hands clenched and unclenched at her sides, itching to reach out and slap his arrogant face, and at the same time not daring to do so.
     Taking a deep breath, she took hold of her emotions and forced her expression into simpering sweetness. "Whah, mistah, ah don't know why yer so suspicious of a little ol' gal like me." The man turned slowly around and regarded Hope as though she'd just sprouted another head. She batted her dark lashes and smiled coyly. "Ah assure you, sir, ah mean ya no harm."
     The trace of a grin tugged at sensuous lips as his assessing gaze raked her full length, twice. "You've got to be kidding me."
     "Rotten Yankee," she muttered under her breath. Crossing her arms over her chest, she tapped out an aggravated rhythm with her toe. "How the hell do you expect me to leave when you've bolted the door and won't let me out through the window?"
     "Locked the door," he corrected, slipping his hand into the front pocket of his trousers and extracting a key. He swung it teasingly beneath her nose. "Ah don't know where y'all are from," he said with a heavily satirical, and dreadfully bad, southern accent, "but 'round here, we'all call 'em locks."
     She made a grab for the key but his lightning-quick reflexes easily snatched it away. She watched glumly as he tucked it back in his pocket, a cocky smile curling his lips.
     "As for leaving," he shrugged. "You got in here all by yourself—you can leave the same way."
     "The door wasn't locked when I came in," she reminded him, her gaze spitting fire as it settled on his smug countenance.
     "It is now," he countered, just as coldly. "You're a smart girl. Figure it out."
     If she thought it would have done any good, Hope would have lunged for his throat the second he turned his back on her and returned to his chair. There was nothing hurried in the way he lifted his feet and crossed his ankles atop the ivory comforter. Was his position supposed to be a mockery of her first true look at him, she wondered? Probably. The only difference was, where before his arms had rested on the wooded armrests, they were now crossed over the sinewy chest. From his viewpoint, she had ample opportunity to scrutinize each well-defined muscle that bulged from shoulder to elbow. The sight did nothing to bolster her rapidly dwindling confidence.
     All right, she thought with a sigh of annoyance. If playing the rat's silly little game was what it took to get her out of this damn room, then fine, she would play it. But she would settle for nothing less than winning.
     The lines were drawn, the battlefield mapped. If she wanted to leave, she was going to have to do it alone. No help would be offered from her stone-faced adversary.
     The only two options that presented themselves were the obvious: the door and the window. The latter was forbidden, while the former was locked—not bolted, locked. That, however, was not an insurmountable obstacle. Every lock had a key, and this one's just happened to rest in a certain pocket. With the man sitting in that particular position, lifting the key off of him without his being aware of what she was doing was impossible, no doubt the reason he had chosen it.
     Perhaps if she tried reasoning with him, or tried desperately pleading her case? No, she'd tried that already and it hadn't worked. The fool hadn't believed a word she'd said.
     She scowled. Wait a minute. Hadn't her mother once told her that even the hardest of hearts could be swayed by the sight of a woman's tears? Yes, she had. But then, her mother had never met this particular man. A harder heart Hope doubted she'd find. Sighing, she closed her eyes and sent up a silent prayer. For once, please God, let Mother be right about something!
     She decided to give the man one more chance before trying anything so desperate. "Sure you won't change your mind and unlock the door?" she asked sweetly as the man leaned over and plucked up his bottle of gin.
     Okay, the matter was settled. Crying it was. Now, how did one go about forcing oneself into a fit of tears? Crying was not a weakness she liked to see displayed, in herself or others. Even now, it was hard to recall the last time she had allowed herself to indulge in self-pity of any kind. Or was it?
     The memory came on her slowly, like the curling vapors of an early morning mist rolling over the water and onto the coast. Slowly, she walked over to the window and leaned against the wooden frame, the man behind her completely superseded by the memories clouding her mind.
     They were unclear, fuzzy, fragmented in no discernible order. There was dark, then light. The face of her father, strained with fear as she had never seen it before. She saw her brother through the grimy glass, ten years old and fighting to rub the sleep from his eyes. There was smoke, everywhere there was smoke. She could smell the cloying odor now as surely as if it floated in the air. And pain. Gasping aloud, Hope flinched. Never would she forget the searing pain.
     She hugged her arms tightly around her stomach. The tears streaming down her cheeks, the sobs shaking her body, were as genuine as the horrid piano music drifting up through the cracks in the floorboards.
     The chair scraped against the floor. Muffled footsteps slowly approached from behind. She ignored the sounds as she sniffed and wiped her nose on her sleeve. The large hand that suddenly draped over her shoulder was not so easily ignored. The warmth of his palm penetrated the wool of her cloak and melted through the rosy muslin gown. It caressed the flesh beneath and made it tingle in a way no other touch had ever done.
     "Whatever you're pulling, sunshine, I warn you it won't work." The ominous tone was touched with a trace of sympathy the man would rather not have felt.
     She stiffened and jerked away. "Don't touch me, you bastard," she hissed, and with a quick sidestep slipped past him. Angrily, she wiped at the tears that streamed down her cheeks with balled fists, and inwardly flung a string of curses a mile long at the man behind her. It was his fault that she had been forced to dredge up memories better left forgotten; memories better left buried in the tiny cemetery in Clairmont, where the ashen remains of her mother's body lay. Of course, it never once occurred to Hope that it had been her idea to bring on those tears in the first place. No, far better to lay the blame on a stranger's doorstep rather than her own.
     A sarcastic chuckle echoed through the air behind her as the man dragged his fingers through his hair. "Please, spare the theatrics. I've seen acting jobs in a bordello better than the one you just tried to pull off."
     "You're despicable," she spat.
     "Hmmm," the man breathed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her statement. "I've been called worse."
     "Somehow that doesn't surprise me." Swallowing the lump in her throat, she willed her painful memories back into the shady corner of her mind where they belonged. Many years of practice made the task surprisingly simple.
     His brows rose mockingly high, crinkling his sun-kissed forehead. "Do I detect a note of sarcasm? You know, if you're tired of my company there is a way to leave. Just tell me who sent you to my room tonight and why. Then I'll be more than happy to unlock the door. In fact, I'll even escort you downstairs myself."
     His voice had grown soft, cajoling. The change in timbre served to make her all the more leery. "Are we back to that again?" she asked with weary annoyance. "Lord, but I've never met a man as suspicious as you. How many times to I have to tell you? No-one-sent-me-here-I-stumbled-into-the-wrong-room!"
     "About as many times as I have to tell you that I-don't-believe-you." His look darkened. "I want the truth."
     He was sick in the head, plain and simple. What other explanation could there be? She had told him the truth. How many times now? Six? Seven? Did it matter? The man was no closer to believer her now than he had before. What more could she do to convince him? And why the hell did this have to be the first time in his life that Luke did what she'd told him to do!
     "Look, mister, it's getting late and I'm tired. I still have a lot to do, and if you don't let me out of here pretty soon I'll—" What? Break the door down? She had already tried. The result had been the same as screaming her head off—fruitless. Spinning on her heel, she glared into that narrowed gaze. "All right, you want the truth? You really want the truth? Fine, I'll tell you. If you must know, the man who sent me is named Bart Bennett." Her hands rose, then fell and slapped her thighs helplessly. "There, does that make you happy?"
     The golden brow knit in a frown as he ran a palm over the bristle of stubble coating his chin. All the while, he gazed at her thoughtfully. "Bart Bennett?" he squinted, shaking his head and searching his memory. "Never heard of him."
     Hope sighed in disgust. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me either, considering he sent me here to meet someone else. Now, I told you what you wanted to know and you agreed to unlock the door in return." She waited patiently, but the man made no attempt to move. "Well? Are you going to let me out of this dump or are we going to stand here and argue all night?"
     "Who the hell is Bart Bennett?" he demanded, ignoring her last comment entirely.
     "My father." She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming. Good God, the man's skull was thick. At this rate she'd be lucky to get out of here before dawn! "Now will you please unlock the door?"
     In one long stride, he closed the distance between them. Hope stiffened, refusing to be intimidated by that bullying glare, even when his fingers bit painfully into her shoulders.
     "That does it," he barked angrily. "I want the truth and I want it now or so help me I'll—"
     "Do what?" she taunted, lifting her chin with a courage she did not feel. "Take me over your knee? I'm a little too big for that, don't you think?"
     "No, I don't!"
     The loudness of his voice echoing in her hears did nothing to alleviate the throbbing that was quickly returning to her temples. It did, however, intricately combine with the strength in his fingers and the anger shimmering in his eyes to effectively bring home the vulnerability of her position here. The man was quickly losing what little restraint he had. If he kept goading her, and she kept responding, God only knew what would happen.
     I have to get out of here, she thought wildly, and I have to get out of here quick! Desperation made her act impulsively, in the only way Hope knew how. The man held her shoulders, but not her arms. Her lips curled into a cold smile as she did something she'd been longing to do since she had first opened her eyes. She didn't just slap that arrogant face, she balled up her fist, pooled all of her anger into her hand, and punched him as hard as she possible could. The force of the blow made his head snap back. His hands instantly released her shoulders.
     Skillfully, she lifted the key from the man's pocket before he could utter his first grunt of pain. By the time he had reached out a hand to steady his balance against the wall, shaking his head to clear it, she had the door unlocked.
     Throwing it wide, she allowed herself a small, heady giggle of triumph. Her giggle turned into a full-fledged laugh when she saw the towering form of her brother standing with his hand poised mid-knock.
     If Luke Bennett had been a smaller man, he might have been sent tumbling backward at the force of his sister flinging herself into his arms. But he wasn't, and Luke didn't so much stagger as he accepted her weight and wrapped a large arm around her shoulder. Confused, he looked down at the top of his sister's head as it nestled into his shoulder, then let his gaze scan the room as he stroked the silky mane of chestnut hair.
     The sight of the ugly bruise quickly beginning to swell on the blond man's jaw told Luke all he needed to know. His own deep, rumbling chuckle joined his sister's as he asked, "I guess he said no, huh?"
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