Mystic Creek Series
Harrigan Family Series
Coulter Family Series
Kendrick Family Series
Other Contemporary Romance
Valance Family Series
Coulter Family Series Historical
Other Historical Titles
(reissue with new cover from January 1996)
Stunned, Alex watched Annie touch a hand to her throat and coyly bat her lashes at the stuffed gentleman. Then, to his amazement, she stepped around the makeshift table, took the dummy's arm to embrace him, and fell into a perfectly executed waltz step, her skirt swirling as she swept around the room.
A beautiful young woman, dancing to music no one else could hear, in the arms of a man she'd created with talented hands and a vivid imagination. With the dummy, she could be someone, a privilege that the rest of the world, including Alex, had denied her.
Without intending to, Alex shifted his weight, and a floorboard gave slightly beneath his foot. With the sharpened senses of a deaf person, Annie felt the wood give and immediately froze, her eyes huge and wary as she searched him out in the gloom.
Alex could see that she was frightened. After what had happened between them in the stable, knowing as he did that she expected him to beat her if she sneaked off, he was surprised she'd even found the courage to come here again. Not that he blamed her for taking the risk. In this make-believe parlor, she could be whomever she wished, do whatever she wished. In comparison, the world that awaited her downstairs probably seemed like a prison. Stupid Annie, expected to eat what was set before her, to bathe when told, to dress like a ragamuffin child. She was a lump of flesh they tended, kept in a room with a barred window half the time, watched over as though she were a toddler the rest of the time. In her shoes, he would have risked a beating to come up here, too.
Moving cautiously, ever so cautiously, he closed the distance between them. It was a gamble. He knew that. This was her world—a secret world—and he hadn't been issued an invitation. But it was the only way he could think of that he might reach her.
When he came within arm's length, he tapped her lifeless dance partner on the shoulder. Executing a polite bow, he said, "May I have the honor of this dance?"
A study in motion, Annie still stood frozen with one foot extended to take a step, her slender body slightly off balance, the dummy clutched to her breast. Limned by silvery light from the windows behind her, she might have been an ice carving, too fragile and delicate to withstand the touch of a man's hands. In the hollow of her throat, he could see a pulsebeat, and by its frantic rhythm, he took measure of her fear. He knew she might try to flee. He couldn't blame her for that. After Douglas's treatment of her, he hadn't come into her life with much to recommend him, and in the time since, he'd done little to rectify the lack.
"Please, Annie? Just one dance," he said huskily. "Surely your card isn't full."
There it was again-that confused, uncomprehending expression in her eyes. He'd seen it dozens of times before and mistakenly believed it to be a reflection of her stupidity. Wrong. If anyone was an idiot, he was. While executing the bow, he had bent his head as he was speaking. The reason she looked bewildered was because she had missed part of what he said. That was why she always stared so intently at his face when he spoke to her, why she sometimes seemed confused. Not realizing she was deaf, he had probably turned his head in the middle of a sentence. Or spoken indistinctly. Dear God. The girl was anything but stupid. That she had learned, all on her own, to lip-read and mimic speech was indicative of an intelligence well above average.
Talking more slowly and forming each word precisely so it would be easier for her to follow him, Alex repeated himself. Eyes large and luminous, she continued to stare at him for what seemed like endless minutes, each of which broke his heart just a little bit more. Moving cautiously so as not to frighten her, he extended his hand.
Trying to see things from her point of view, Alex doubted she would find the courage to refuse him. He, the possessor of the razor strop? He was standing nearly on top of her now and blocked her path to escape. She either had to dance with him or suffer the consequences. He felt bad about using her fear to his advantage. It was a poor way to start a friendship. On the other hand, it was better than making no headway at all. There would be time later to revise her opinion of him.
Looking none too sure of her decision, she finally relented and set her other dance partner aside. The poor fellow took a tumble and landed in a lifeless heap, which was exactly where Alex hoped he would stay. This was his dance. His wife. He felt like a man who had accidentally stumbled upon the end of a rainbow.
No, not a rainbow, he though nonsensically. More like a beautiful butterfly emerging, almost magically, from its chrysalis.
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