“No! I’ll come out there. Just give me a minute.” Tossing aside the towel and grabbing for his clothes, he stumbled toward the door, intent on making sure she remained on the other side. “Where are you planning to have this snack? I’ll meet you there.” There was no answer, only further unidentifiable sounds from the hallway. With frantic alacrity, he hauled up his trousers and fastened the fly, shrugged on his shirt and clutched it across his still-dripping body just as the door swung open and Peg, tray in hand, backed in. “What are you doing?”
Obviously a foolish question, for which she had a breezy reply. “What does it look like I’m doing?” She turned and closed the door with one bare foot. Peg too had changed, he noted with a jolt. She stood before him in pajamas, her hair hanging loose over one shoulder and a loaded tray balanced on one hip as she shot the bolt on his door. “Can you give me a hand, please? I’m about to drop this.”
He moved like a man caught in a strong current, fully aware he was in danger of being towed under. “Peg, this is not a good idea. You shouldn’t be here.”
“What?” He set down the tray and tried to cover himself. “Dressing. You should have waited in the hallway.” His fingers fumbled the buttons, and Peg grinned.
“Don’t do that on my account. I’m sure you’ll be cooler like that.” She sank to the floor on her knees and began to sort the fruit and sandwiches on the tray. “I hope ginger ale is all right. I thought we could share a bottle.”
“That’s fine. But I still think we should take this someplace else.”
“I suppose we could go to my room.”
“Then we might as well stay here. Sandwich?” She held out a triangular wedge of bread and what appeared to be ham and cheese, and he sank to his knees, surrendering to the inevitable.
“Why not. If you’re not worried about getting caught, I don’t suppose I should be.”
“Adamson and Mrs. Leary have both gone their rooms for the night. I turned off my light, so if Simon is watching from over the garage, he’ll just assume I’ve gone to bed.”
He gasped, inhaling the first bite of his sandwich, “Simon lives over the garage! What if he’d heard us the other night?”
Doubling over, he coughed up bread crumbs as Peg went on calmly. “He wasn’t there. He goes to check on his mother on Sundays whenever we’re in for the night. I knew that, silly. There was nothing to worry about.” She took a delicate bite of an apple and scowled at him. “Relax, Kendall. I would never risk getting you in trouble. Besides, this is my house. I can use any room I want for anything I want, can’t I?”
“If you say so. Pass me that bottle, will you?” He took a long drink of the lukewarm ginger ale and cleared his throat. “I’m just thinking of how this would look to anyone who happened to find us here. . .like this.” He again tried to close his shirt but found it had plastered to his skin.
“You’re wet. Why don’t you just take it off?” She casually munched a grape, offering him the bunch with her free hand. “I won’t mind.”
“Absolutely not.” He got to his feet and headed for the bathroom where he snatched his dressing gown from the back of the door. Making sure he was out of her line of sight, he peeled off the shirt, wiped his chest dry with it and shrugged on the robe, belting it snuggly closed. When he returned to his place on the carpet, she grinned.
“Suit yourself. You look very dapper in that.”
He knew she was playing with him, he just couldn’t quite make out her game. Sitting across from him, the tray between them, she appeared completely innocent, almost childlike. Had he not already seen that innocence mutate into passion in the blink of an eye, he might have enjoyed the sight of her. Her pajamas, tailored shirt and baggy trousers of white satin with dark blue piping, were designed for practicality, but the way they clung to her body suggested an absence of anything beneath. Unable to find a suitable place to rest his gaze, he tried to focus on her hair, waving softly around her shoulders, but that too led him into dangerous waters.
“Did you enjoy the movie?” He blinked stupidly at her question. “You know, Ivanhoe?”
“Yes. Did you?”
“Sure. Elizabeth Taylor is so beautiful, don’t you think?” Another grape, this one poised between her teeth for an instant. “Or do you like the Joan Fontaine type better?”
He might be safe with this kind of chatter, he decided. “Um. I find Miss Taylor a bit too lush for my taste. I prefer slender women, so I suppose Miss Fontaine is more my type. Although I’ve always thought she was bit limp, if you know what I mean. But I would have thought you’d have your eyes glued to Robert Taylor. All that heroic masculinity.”
“Not really. He’s too old. And if you really look at him, he’s not that handsome. Although he does have nice blue eyes.” She held out the grapes again. “These are really sweet. You should try some.”
He accepted the bunch and Peg brushed her hands together before running them up into her hair. With an exaggerated stretch of her arms above her head, she yawned.
“Getting sleepy?” Was that hope or apprehension that caused his voice to catch?
“A little. The breeze is wonderful in here.” With one graceful move, she laid full length on the floor, spreading her hair on the carpet around her. “This is nice, isn’t it?”
“Um. Isn’t what nice?” Impossible not to stare at the glory spread before him.
“Just being together like this, eating and talking. It’s kind of cozy, like a slumber party.”
He nearly choked again, this time on a grape. “Good heavens, Peg! I hope you haven’t been to any slumber parties in men’s bedrooms. Really, brat, you’ve got no business being in here.”
She rolled on her side, raising herself on one elbow. “You really want me to go?” That innocence had shifted into flawless feminine allure. Eyes reflecting the lamplight, hair cascading over one shoulder and lips curved in a half-smile of seductive perfection, she literally took his breath away.
“No” he managed to gasp. “But that’s beside the point.”
Leaning back, she folded her arms behind her head. “Until you want me to leave, or I’m ready to leave, I think I’ll stay.” For a moment, she stared thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Kendall?”
“Yes?” Wary, but warming to her game, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees for a better view. No harm in appreciating the beauty of her silhouette from afar.
“Have you ever been in love?”
He hesitated, trying to guess where she was leading. “I thought so once.”
“Things didn’t work out.”
When she turned her head, her expression was soft, sympathetic. “Why not?”
“We weren’t suited, I suppose.” She continued to stare expectantly and he felt compelled to go on. Where was the harm, as long as he kept strictly to the admissible facts? “You really want to hear this?”
“Yes. But come over here first. Please.” She held out a hand. Helpless to resist, he moved aside the tray and slid closer, offering no resistance when she settled her head in his lap.
He couldn’t look down into her face as he began, preferring to stare at the wall opposite. “It was my first year at Oxford. I met a girl, another music student, piano. Things happened the way they do, you meet, you talk, you kiss and before you know it, you think you’ve found the love of your life.” He stopped, the vision floating before his eyes unbearably clear.
“What happened to her?” The question was too intuitive. He looked down at her, saw the compassion in her eyes, and felt his chest tighten.
"She had a kind of emotional breakdown before the end of the term. I suppose the pressure was too much, and apparently she’d never been very strong. I heard from her father later that she’d gone into a private asylum for treatment.”
Reaching up, she pressed her hand against his cheek. “That’s so sad. You loved her very much, didn’t you?”
“I thought I did.” He shook free of the memory. “But that was a very long time ago. I don’t know how you got me talking about it.”
She rose to her knees, turning to face him. “I’m glad you told me. It’s as if you gave me something of yourself, something important.” Another instant passed, during which her eyes misted with tears, and she slid her arms around his shoulders, drawing him close.
He didn’t question what happened next. Once they were side by side on the carpet, clasped in each other’s arms, he had no doubt of what she wanted and what he could give. It was enough at first to hold and be held, to kiss her gently and allow her to touch him with hands that comforted rather than aroused. Unlike the night before, he had no thought of making love. They lay together for long enough that he lost all sense of time or place, something he had not done with a woman in all the years since that first sweet winter of falling in love.