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IN THE BOOK OF LOVE

Samantha Monroe planned to spend the summer swept away in a world of fantasy created by her favorite romance author. Then one day a real live fantasy man appeared before her on the beach.

Jason Armstrong seemed to have stepped from the pages of Love's Sweet Bondage. When he revealed himself as her beloved romance writer "Cathryn James", Samantha knew she was in trouble. Jason's cavalier attitude toward love was nothing like what she expected from a writer of romances. Samantha believed in love. Was it possible that even though Jason could capture a woman's most intimate fantasies on paper, he himself had no heart to lose?

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Originally published as Sandra Kleinschmidt · Previously titled Heaven on Earth · Harlequin 1986

First Time in e-book
The Unsung Hero

Contemporary

 

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Unsung Hero

Samantha Monroe cast a furtive glance in both di­rections before leaning down to rummage through the yellow canvas bag at her side. Sunglasses, sun block, a neatly folded beach towel... oh, yes, there it was. A smile of anticipation creased her lips as she lifted the thick paperback from her bag and placed it on her upraised knees. The beach was nearly deserted, but Sa­mantha was taking no chances. Her own eyes had widened considerably when she had spotted the two figures so intimately entwined on the book's cover, but she couldn't resist. Another romance by Cathryn James. It had been on the bestseller list for weeks already, and it was bound to be heaven.

Half an hour later Samantha was oblivious to any­thing and everything around her, her thoughts swept away to another time, another place. Moonlight illuminated the star-studded sky. A midnight breeze rip­pled through the branches of a palm tree. No longer was she Samantha, but Sabrina, alone on a lush tropical isle, alone with the man of her dreams. And he was all that she wanted... and more. Her eyes swept longingly upward to Marshall's face, lingering on the naked lines of his bronzed body. His eyes, those strange golden eyes, mirrored the hot naked desire scalding her veins. Soon... soon she would be carried away to a place she had never been before.

With a sigh born of envy, Samantha Monroe rested the paperback novel on slim bare thighs and gazed dreamily toward the sapphire-blue waters of the Pacific. Foam-flecked waves lapped gently on the sandy shoreline.

She could ask for little more on this beautiful June day. Today was the beginning of a well-deserved sum­mer vacation from her teaching job at Neskowin Elementary School. It was warm and sunny, she had the beach to herself, and, as usual in her rare and pre­cious spare time, she was totally engrossed in the lat­est historical romance by her favorite author.

A slim hand reached up to smooth a few glossy brown hairs that escaped her ponytail, woven into a loose knot on the back of her head. What would it be like, Samantha reflected musingly in a half serious, half jesting mood, to be Sabrina, the heroine of Love's Sweet Bondage--to be swept off her feet by a man like Marshall, to eagerly experience all the wondrous pleasures of love.

Her eyes became reflective at the thought. She had been swept off her feet once, and it might indeed have been a woman's ultimate fantasy--had it lasted. Yes, she and Alan had eyes only for each other, and just as it was in her favorite romance, nothing existed save their love. But unfortunately, juggling life and love was something to which neither one of them had given any thought. She and Alan had been barely twenty, maybe too young to cope with the added pressure that love and marriage had put on their lives. She smiled rather wistfully. No, she would never again be quite so innocent or quite so blind, but it was still nice to pre­tend, and to hope... although it really was a shame that a man like Marshall Devereau existed only in a woman's imagination. Eagerly she turned her attention to the book again.

... Marshall reached out to draw Sabrina's soft curves to his own lean hardness, his breath warm upon her cheeks as he sought her mouth with gentle hunger. She trembled against him—afraid, excited, somehow aware that no other man would ever exist for her after this night, but above all, longing desperately to learn the hidden secrets only he could teach her...

The Unsung Hero"Has the lady lost her virtue yet?" So deeply absorbed was Samantha in envisioning the book's rapidly unfolding love scene that she nearly leaped toward the sky at the intrusive sound of the deep male voice. Unfortunately, her old and rather rickety chaise lounge took exception to the jarring motion. The next instant Samantha found herself de­posited on her bottom in the sand, long legs atangle and her chair in a heap beside her.

Propping herself on one hand, she focused her startled gaze on a set of bare toes that paved the way to a pair of long muscular legs sprinkled with a fine sheen of masculine dark hairs. And what a pair of legs they were! She swallowed, vaguely aware of how ri­diculous she must look, but conscious of a strange curling sensation in the pit of her stomach. Her eyes traveled slowly upward over a strongly muscled chest liberally covered with a mat of dark wiry curls to the man's face.

"I've had a few women fall for me—" the soft laughter in the gentle tone completely slipped by Samantha, whose eyes were huge as saucers "—but never quite so hard." When this brought no response from her, the man gave a distinctly audible sigh. "Here, let me help you up."

A hand much larger than her own effortlessly raised her from the sand, but once on her feet, Samantha still couldn't take her eyes off the man. Again her eyes roamed over the stranger's features with a look of stunned surprise.

It was Marshall Devereau, the hero of Love's Sweet Bondage, come to life. Except, unlike Marshall in the scene still vivid in her mind's eye, he wasn't naked--at least not quite. This man wore a pair of swim trunks, but they rode so low that the creases of his lips scarcely hid his . . .

Rats. What the evil was wrong with her? This man bore little resemblance to the man depicted on the paper­back's evocative cover, but he looked exactly as she, Samantha Monroe, had conjured him up in her mind—-the same dark unruly brown hair, long straight nose and firmly chiseled lips.

Compelling, that's what he was, exactly the way the hero was so often described in her novels. And for the first time she knew exactly what the word meant. She caught her breath in mingled wonder and amazement.

"Hey, are you okay?"

At the glimmer of concern reflected both in his warm cocoa-brown eyes and smooth low voice, Sa­mantha snapped out of her trance--a little.

She still couldn't take her eyes from his face. How many times had she seen those ruggedly sculpted fea­tures in her mind? Was he real? Or--heaven for­bid!--an illusion? All she could manage was a shaky, "No, I—I'm fine."

"You're sure?" Warm hands skimmed the smooth bare skin of her upper arms in concerned explora­tion, sending a torrent of electricity vibrating through her. The man's eyes lowered to take in her skimpily clothed body. Suddenly she was acutely aware that, clad in a tiny black knit bikini, she was attired no more decently than he was.

"Yes." Her tone was breathless, but somehow she couldn't help herself. "Really, I'm fine."

"Good." He smiled, displaying a row of even white teeth, and Samantha felt as if a thousand tiny lights had exploded inside her. "Now," he said, his tone light, "since that's settled, will you tell me some­thing?"

The Unsung Hero"S-sure." She wanted desperately to tear her eyes away from his, but there was something almost mes­merizing in those deep brown depths.

"Am I all right?"

Slender arched brows drew together over Saman­tha's deep blue eyes as she searched his face. "I think so." Her eyes were confused as they again met his. "Why do you ask?"

One corner of his mouth tipped upward in an amused smile and one dark eyebrow arched . . . well, she couldn't help it. It arched ro­guishly. "The way you were looking at me I was be­ginning to wonder if I'd suddenly sprouted a nose like Pinocchio or a third eye in the middle of my fore­head—or maybe even both."

An answering yet tentative smile touched Saman­tha's lips, but she dropped her lashes for a moment, realizing she was still staring. Then she answered lightly, "No, you look—" perfect was the word that immediately came to mind, but she could hardly say that "--fine," she finished hastily. This behavior was a far cry from her usual calm demeanor, and for some reason she felt compelled to explain. "You just... startled me. This beach is rather secluded and I wasn't really expecting anyone."

Even to her own ears this sounded inadequate and not entirely believable, but the man did a creditable job of hiding his reaction. He dropped his hands from her bare shoulders and his gaze sharpened for a mo­ment.

"Have we met before?"

Samantha shook her head. "No, I'm sure we haven't." But a voice inside reminded her that she'd dreamed of a man like him, exactly like him, each and every time she picked up one of her beloved ro­mances.

Their eyes met and she felt a sudden wave of heat burn through her veins as he added softly, "I didn't think so. I wouldn't have forgotten you if we had."

He turned away and righted her chaise, then picked up her paperback from the sand, brushing a few tiny grains off the cover before handing it back to her. Sa­mantha accepted it gingerly, wondering a little at the sudden gleam in his eyes. Was he laughing at her? Rather uneasily she seated herself once again.

"You don't mind a little company, do you?"

At the sound of his voice she turned her head to find him already laying out a large beach towel on the sand, not more than a yard away from her. His shadow fell across her as she regarded him for a moment, won­dering what he would say if she told him to get lost. But that was the last thing she wanted at the moment.

The Unsung HeroFor two long weeks she had looked forward to this day, a day spent sunbathing and reading, reading and sunbathing, and now it seemed her well-laid plans were about to go sadly awry--though if she were hon­est with herself, she'd admit she didn't mind in the least. But how could she think, much less concentrate on reading, with this... this half-naked fantasy man lying beside her?

Willpower. That's what she needed. Determinedly she opened Love's Sweet Bondage to discover the outcome of Marshall's seduction of Sabrina. But it couldn't have been more than a few seconds before her gaze lifted and fixed on the male form stretched out beside her. The man was lying on his back, eyes closed, bristly dark lashes resting on his high cheek­bones. Unable to resist, her eyes traveled slowly down his muscular chest and long well-shaped legs, return­ing upward to linger with breathless intensity on the place where the wiry curls on his abdomen disap­peared beneath that damnably low waistband of his swimsuit. He was so close that all she had to do was reach out a hand to touch the bur­nished skin of his shoulder, knowing instinctively that his flesh would be warm and smooth, the muscles vi­brant and flowing beneath her fingertips.

Shocked by the urge to do exactly that, Samantha jerked her eyes away from the stranger and focused her attention elsewhere--to her book, since it hap­pened to be handy. But this time the words blurred together and all she could really see was the image of the man's rugged features and tough athletic body. She blinked and swallowed, but the harder she tried to shoo away the disturbing image, the more the black print on the pages seemed to swim and float away from her.

"That must be quite a book. It seems to have you spellbound."

Spellbound. That's what she was. For once, Sa­mantha realized it wasn't her book that held her spellbound, but a man. A man who existed not only in her mind, but in the flesh. This man. A deep breath and she felt her senses returning to normal.

Closing the paperback, she replaced it in the small canvas bag beside her. Looping her fingers around her knee, she smiled at the stranger rather shyly. "It is rather . . . captivating." She smiled to herself. Oh, if he only knew . . .

"Is that why you've been staring at the same word for the last five minutes?"

The question, combined with the realization that he'd been watching her all that time, sent a sudden rush of color into her cheeks. What could she say? That she was dazzled by the sun's rays glinting off the ocean? She was dazzled all right, but not by the sun.

Luckily there was no need for a response as he sud­denly reached out and caught her hand in a light grasp. "I've embarrassed you, haven't I?"

"Maybe a little." With her free hand, she pushed at a few more wispy strands of hair feathering across her cheek, returning his smile as she caught his eye. The glimmer of humor she saw there seemed to dissipate some of her natural reserve. When he smiled, which he seemed to do quite often, his face lost some of its harshness, though perhaps that wasn't quite the right descrip­tion. Strong . . .yes, that was it. He was strong, but with a gentleness in his eyes that seemed to reach out and enfold her in its warmth.

This man was straight from the pages of a Cathryn James novel, and since Samantha was hopelessly de­voted to romances, finding such a man in the flesh was almost too good to be true. Further, that it seemed Cathryn James was one of the few authors who had yet to put a vampire between the pages.

The Unsung Hero"In that case, maybe I'd better not press you for an answer to my original question." Samantha was in­creasingly conscious of his avid gaze roving over her features as he spoke. Did he like what he saw? She hoped so. Lord, but she hoped so!

She turned slightly to look at him. She felt silly, but she couldn't seem to stop smiling, even when he relin­quished possession of her hand. "What was the ques­tion?"

"Whether or not the lady had lost her virtue yet." As her eyes widened slightly, he laughed, a low mel­low sound that sent a flood of pure pleasure radiating through her body. "The lady in your book," he elab­orated dryly in answer to the question in her eyes. "Definitely not you. Believe me, I wouldn't dream of being so personal. At least, not on our first meet­ing," he added with a twinkle in his eyes.

 

Will there be a second? The question flitted through her mind, even as she laughed nervously. "Oh, that." She bit her lip and glanced over at him. "Actually, the answer is no, although I think in just a few more pages it would have been a very emphatic yes." A sudden thought struck her. "How did you know it was . . . well, that kind of book?"

"A steamy romance, you mean?" One corner of his mouth turned up in a lazy smile of amusement. When she nodded, he shifted his position on the towel so that he was facing her directly, his back to the gently lap­ping waves of the sea. "They're easy to spot," he of­fered in explanation. "What other book cover has a bare-chested man with his hands all over..." He stopped, his smile widening slightly as he took in Samantha's reddening cheeks. "Well, let's just say with a man touching a woman who isn't wearing a whole lot more than he is."

Samantha wasn't about to argue the point, since it was often true. Roses and leaves were . . . well, they got a little boring. Just like they'd gotten boring when that muscle-bound Italian oaf Fabio seemed to appear on every cover. 

She turned her eyes seaward for a moment, watching the white-crested silvery waves against the blue horizon. Several children scampered through the rolling surf, their cries of laughter echo­ing through the air. Her eyes drifted back to the stranger. "Do you do much reading yourself?" she asked curiously.

There was a slight twitch to the man's lips as if he was trying very hard to hold back a grin, but Saman­tha was much more involved in watching the play of muscles in his bare shoulders as he shrugged to really notice. "I've been known to frequent a few book­stores."

"Do you live around here?" There, it was out, the question she'd been wanting to ask since she'd first seen him. She held her breath, waiting almost pain­fully for his answer. Neskowin was a small town on the central Oregon coast; most tourists thronged to the larger towns north or south of the community, al­though a number of vacation homes nestled along this stretch of beach. Her own small house was bordered by one, though she'd never met the owner.

"No. I'm vacationing, although I expect to get a lot of work done while I'm here," he said with a lift of both dark brows.

How long was he staying? A week? Two weeks? And where was he staying? Was he married? No, somehow she knew he wasn't, and besides, her sub­conscious mind had already noted the absence of a wedding ring. She'd have liked to give voice to the questions tumbling around in her head, but somehow the words couldn't find their way out past the knot in her throat. Instead she murmured, "I see."

"How about you? Are you vacationing, too?"

Samantha smiled, pleased at his interest. "No, I live here." She gestured over her shoulder toward a small whitewashed house surrounded by a cluster of gnarled windblown trees just beyond the beach. "That's my house back there."

The Unsung HeroHe looked over her shoulder, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. "You live here year-round? I thought most of the homes here were summer places."

"Mine is one of the few that isn't. It's very quiet and peaceful--" she smiled, her gaze resting on her book for a fleeting second "--and although the town isn't booming with nightlife, I like it here."

"What's your name?"

"Samantha," she told him. "Samantha Monroe." She leaned forward and rested her arms on her knees. The sun beat down on her back—she really she apply some more sun block--but the shimmering warmth felt good on her bare skin. She was just about to ask a few questions of her own when his eyes caught hers and she found herself admiring him again.

"So tell me, Samantha," he said easily, his eyes never leaving hers, "what do you do in this life be­sides sunbathe on the beach on lazy June afternoons? Are you a--" he smiled as if he already knew the an­swer "--a member of the idle rich?"

Samantha laughed, a low tinkling sound that floated away on the brisk sea breeze. "Not exactly. I teach second grade at the elementary school here, and since school is out for the summer," she stated the obvious, "that explains why I'm idle, at least at the moment. And as for being rich, my savings account is practically down to zilch since I've been putting every spare nickel and dime I earn into fixing up my house. It wasn't exactly in mint condition when I bought it, but it's beginning to shape up pretty well."

"Mmm," he agreed, though from the direction his eyes were looking, it wasn't the shape of her house he was assessing, but rather the shape of her long slen­der legs. She felt a momentary discomfort and re­sisted the impulse to tug at the hem of her bikini bottom to hide the back of her thighs. But when his eyes rested once again on her face, she knew an undeni­able but all too brief thrill of satisfaction at the flare of undisguised appreciation in his eyes.

He tipped his head to the side and studied her for a moment. "So you're a schoolteacher," he mur­mured. "It fits... to a degree."

She stretched out her legs in a smooth supple mo­tion and leaned back again. "To a degree?" she re­peated, a little surprised at how much at ease she was with this stranger, despite the rather delirious way she felt when she looked at him.

He nodded and gave her a lopsided grin. "On one hand, you hardly seem like the typical schoolmarm of old—-prim and proper, stern and straitlaced--the type who won't stand any nonsense and who reigns over her classroom with a ruler in one hand and a paddle in the other."

"Sounds like my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Web­ster," Samantha recalled. "She was about six feet tall with iron-gray hair that she wore in a tightly coiled bun, and I never saw her smile once that entire year." She laughed. "I can't say I've ever had much of a dis­cipline problem with my second-graders, though I'll admit you're right. I certainly wouldn't look to a paddle as the solution."

"I think I know why you've never had any prob­lem. All the little boys in your class probably had a crush on you, and all the little girls undoubtedly wanted to grow up to be just like you."

"I'm not so sure about that," Samantha said with a grin, "but I do know that if I ever see another shiny red apple again in my lifetime, it'll be too soon. And to think I believed that was a thing of the past!"

His laughter joined hers for a moment before he spoke again. "You do give the impression of being rather quiet and studious, though, so I can't say I'm surprised to find your head buried in a book." He watched her for a few seconds, an easy smile lifting the corners of his firm mouth. "But I am surprised by your choice of... reading material."

Samantha tilted her chin and regarded him. "Why?"

The Unsung Hero"A teacher who likes romances?" There was a gleam of laughter in his eyes as he shaded them from the bright glare of the sun. "What would your stu­dents say if they knew you were reading tales of lust and passion? Worse yet, what would their parents think?"

Samantha arched a brow, still bristling a little. "They would probably think I was disgracefully de­praved," she said primly, then added, "or perhaps exceedingly deprived. But what I read I in my own time is my own business. But just to reassure you, I'll have you know I have a healthy appreciation for Steinbeck and Hemingway and I've read every single word of War and Peace!"

His eyes were a warm shade of toasty brown as he gazed across at her. "I think," he said dryly, "I've just discovered the true meaning of the phrase 'properly chastised.'"

A tingle of excitement raced down her spine at his look. She couldn't help it. She attempted to cover it by tucking her hair behind an ear. "And you seem to be rather well versed in his­torical romance jargon for a man."

The stranger's smile deepened. "What would you say if I told you I'd read a few?"

It took a moment for his words to sink in, but when they did, her mouth tightened. She observed his relaxed position on the sand, his bronzed skin a sharp contrast to the fluffy white beach towel. He looked very virile and totally masculine sitting there so casu­ally. He was as much an oaf as Fabio and yet... something told her he was perfectly serious.

A man who read romances. He was toying with her. With an effort she forced her eyes to meet his. "How . . . unusual."

"Yes, I suppose it is." A cocky grin split his lean features. "But just for the record, I only did it out of curiosity--and duty. Yes . . . duty."

Duty? This was growing stranger by the moment, she thought to herself. She was on the verge of ques­tioning him further when he reached out a long arm and plucked her paperback from the bag between them. "As a matter of fact--" there was a smile in his voice as he stared at the cover "--I'm extremely familiar with this author's books."

"You are?" A strange feeling of pleasure surged through her as she slipped her legs over the side of her chair and wiggled her toes in the warm sand. Was he mocking her? He didn't seem to be . . ."What a coincidence," she said. "Cathryn James is my favorite author. I love the way she writes and I never miss any of her books."

"Hmm." was his only comment. He rose lithely to his feet and took a single step backward. Her eyes fol­lowed his form, and she suddenly realized he was leaving. Of all the luck, she thought to herself irrita­bly. The dream of a lifetime and he was walking out the door after barely sticking his foot inside. What a lousy way to start her vacation.

But someone upstairs must have been watching out for her. She could hardly believe it when he held out a hand to her. "How about a walk on the beach with me?"

"Sure." It was all she could do to restrain herself from doing handsprings on the sand--as if she knew how--but she let him pull her up beside him.

"Tell me something," he said, looking down at her. "How do you say the name of this place?"

"Neskowin?" When he nodded, she smiled. "Nes-kow-in. Slight accent on the first syllable, silent 'w.'" The dazzling smile he gave her nearly took her breath away, but they hadn't gone more than a few steps when she tugged on his hand and halted. She glanced up at him, her look playful, as a belated thought suddenly occurred to her. "It might be nice if I knew who I was walking on the beach with."

His lips turned up in a barely discernible smile as he looked down into her upturned face. "Jason," he supplied softly.

The Unsung Hero"Jason . . . ?" To her surprise, at her question, he stopped and bowed down low before her with a flour­ish. When he returned to an upright position, his smile was transformed into a full-blown grin.

"Jason Armstrong is my name—" there was a brief but very effective pause "—also known as Cathryn James."

 

Chapter Two

Samantha stared at him for a moment, almost—just almost—tempted to believe he was actually serious. Then she turned on her heel and ambled down the beach, tossing back a comment over her shoulder. "Sure you are. And I'm Norman Mailer." Jason Armstrong caught up with her easily, his long-legged form falling in beside her. "You don't believe me?"

She sent him a sidelong glance. "Mr. Arm­strong—"

"Jason. Call me Jason."

"All right then." She gave him a saccharine smile and said mildly, "Not that I'm trying to criticize, but you are sadly in need of a lesson with regard to the written word—"

"Aha, now you're beginning to sound like the teacher you are."

She lifted a slender brow in reproach and contin­ued, "Men write science-fiction stories, fantasy and adventure stories—"

"Sleazy adventure stories?"

"Well, yes—" she frowned slightly at him "—with a lot of sex and violence--"

"And your romances aren't full of sex?"

"Not in the way you're thinking," she reproved confidently. "They're love stories, and there's a world of difference between love and sex." She halted, planting her feet firmly in the soft sand to look up at him. "Even if you are a writer--which I'm not convinced you are--you certainly couldn't write a romance."

"You sound very sure of yourself." He smiled down at her, laughter flickering in his eyes.

"I am. I've read dozens and dozens and dozens of romances, both histori­cal and contemporary, but I've never read one written by a man—"

"Oh, yes, you have." His tone was very soft, al­most caressing.

Samantha glowered up at him, beginning to won­der why he was persisting in his little joke. "I haven't," she insisted, a bit more bitingly than she in­tended. Taking a deep breath, she ran her fingers up­ward through the soft hair lying on her nape. "Look, I don't know why you insist on—"

"Would you rather have me lie?"

"No, of course not." The tiniest bit of exaspera­tion was beginning to gnaw at her, but as his eyes held hers, she saw something in the chocolaty-brown depths that caused a niggle of doubt to enter her brain. He couldn't possibly be serious... or could he?

She let him lead her over to a huge chunk of white­washed driftwood near the edge of the sand. With a gentle hand on her shoulder he pushed her down to a sitting position.

"This is just beginning to get interesting," he said as he sat down beside her.

Samantha eyed him rather warily. "What is?"

"Your views on why a man couldn't possibly write a romance." His eyes were full of mirth and his mouth kept twitching as if he was barely able to contain his laughter.

Again Samantha experienced a tiny spurt of doubt. She gazed at him hesitantly. "You really are a writer?"

"I really am a writer," he assured her. "And I make a very good living at it."

"A fiction writer?"

The Unsung Hero"A fiction writer. Now if you don't mind, pray tell me why you think a man couldn't possibly write one of your precious romances."

Samantha breathed a sigh of relief. At least this time he wasn't insisting he was Cathryn James! "Well--" a thoughtful frown creased her forehead for a mo­ment "--for one thing, I just can't see a man being able to get into the head of a woman the way another woman could."

"Cathryn James writes from a dual point of view, if you recall. The hero's thoughts and feelings are just as much in evidence as the heroine's."

Samantha's eyes flickered away from his steady gaze and she shifted uneasily. "Yes, that's true, but . . ." She stopped, not sure she wanted to go ahead with what she'd been about to say.

"But what?"

Jason lifted one of her hands from her thigh and began to lightly trace a pattern in the palm of her hand.

Her breath caught in her throat. His touch sent a wild swirl of emotion rushing through her. She was suddenly, acutely aware of the hairy thigh pressed against the smoothness of her own. Her heart flut­tered wildly in her breast.

"The emotional intensity," she began uncertainly, "particularly in the love scenes--" she swallowed, her voice a mere thread of sound, low and very hushed "—and especially Cathryn James's books, is de­scribed in such a way that . . . that when I read those scenes, it's as if I'm actually there." She paused for a fleeting second to sum up her rather tumultuous thoughts. "It's the emotion that touches me, know­ing what the heroine is feeling and..."

"Go on," he urged softly when she hesitated. His fingers feathered up to stroke the soft skin on the in­side of her wrist and Samantha had to consciously will her mind away from the feeling of excitement he roused in her.

"And no man could possibly describe how a woman feels inside, what she's thinking, when a man is...making love to her." Was she actually sitting here discussing sex with a man she'd just met?

"But what about men?" His low voice broke into her thoughts. "Are we incapable of the same emo­tions, are we heartless and unresponsive? Do you think that we don't feel the same way a woman does when a man touches her?" A finger under her chin gently turned her face to his, and she stared upward into Jason's rugged features, mesmerized by the liq­uid heat glowing in his eyes. "And she touches him?"

"I—I don't know." What a question, and for him to ask it now--now when she felt as if she was being turned inside out, her body vaporizing into a vast sea of sensations as his hands cupped her bare shoulders and his palms glided smoothly down her arms.

"A little insight and a little imagination is all it takes." Jason's murmured words were low and husky, his breath warm and caressing as it fanned her cheeks. "Do you want me to tell you how you feel, Saman­tha?"

"I...no, no!" Her heart beat furiously in her chest. She was trapped in a haze of conflicting emotions. She wanted to pull away, knew she should pull away, but her limbs felt curiously heavy and lethargic, while in­side she was strangely agitated, wanting, wondering, hoping this wouldn't end before it had even started.

Jason's hands moved up to frame her face, the pads of his thumbs tracing the delicate contours of her cheekbones over and over again before finding the throbbing pulse beneath her jaw line. "You like this, don't you?" he asked softly. Samantha nodded, una­ble to find the strength to speak, or to deny the invol­untary response of her body. "Your heart is pounding like a drum, your breath is coming as fast as if you've just run a four-minute mile—" His lips parted to re­veal the strong even whiteness of his teeth. "This is exciting to you, isn't it?"

Somehow she managed to shake her head this time. "No... stop!"

"Not yet." He moved his dark head closer, the words whispered against her cheek, stirring the soft tendrils of hair near her ear. "It's your turn, Saman­tha. As the saying goes, turnabout is fair play."

The Unsung HeroHer hands were lifted and placed against his shoul­ders. Confused, she raised her gaze to his, unpre­pared for the compelling glitter in his eyes--yet it thrilled her clear to the tips of her toes. "Go ahead," he chided softly, his voice curiously unsteady. "Touch me. Feel me. Do . . .anything you want."

The feel of the firm bronzed flesh beneath her fin­gertips and the chance to explore the sleek skin of his nearly naked body as she had so longed to do earlier, were too potent a temptation to deny. Her breath quickened even more in anticipation as her hands glided over the sinewy muscles of his arms in silent reciprocation of his actions. She heard his harsh in­take of breath at her first tentative touch and lifted her eyes again. A curious sense of power filled her as she beheld the fierce glow in his eyes once more.

Emboldened by his unexpected response, Saman­tha slid her slim tapered fingers up the strong column of his neck, delighting in the slightly roughened tex­ture of his clean-shaven jaw line. Her other hand rested lightly on the broad landscape of his chest, fingers twined seductively in the silky dark jungle of curly hair. As her fingers moved to explore the hard con­tours of his mouth, she could feel the slow steady beat of his heart increase its rhythm beneath her hand.

It was unthinkable that she should be behaving this way with a man she barely knew--so wholly out of character for her. But nothing really seemed to matter. She closed her eyes, reveling in this strange sensation, her senses expanding, widening, reaching out to ab­sorb the heat that seemed to flow from her body into Jason's, his into hers . . .

"You see?" His throaty whisper broke into the hazy shroud of pleasure surrounding her. "Would it be so hard for a person to describe the way you feel--what both of us feel?"

Samantha drew back a little, reluctant to break away from him, not wanting to shatter the web of en­chantment he had spun so easily around her. Jason Armstrong was magic. There was magic in his voice, magic in his touch, magic in his words.

"Not for a writer." A soft smile curved her mouth, and this time the inflection of disbelief was gone from her tone. "Are you really Cathryn James?"

"In the flesh," he said softly, tipping her face up to his to search her eyes. "Are you disappointed?"

"No," she answered honestly. Thunderstruck, maybe, but not disappointed, she thought to herself. But a second later a thought suddenly pricked her. She bit her lip and added quietly, "But I'm not sure you needed to go to such lengths to prove your point."

"The end justifies the means, you see," Jason said with a shrug that might have been an apology. "And while the motive and method might have been on Cathryn's behalf—" he studied her openly, his look growing more and more intent "—this is for me."

Before she could divine his meaning, his head blot­ted out the shimmering glare of the sun and her mouth was claimed with an urgency that left her breathless. Her hands caught at his shoulders, fingers clutching at the taut flesh as waves of pleasure swept through her, stronger than anything she'd ever thought possi­ble. Jason's arms drew her closer, his fingers tighten­ing almost convulsively on the soft flesh of her hips for just a moment.

"Miss Monroe! Hey, Miss Monroe!"

Recovering her senses far more quickly than she'd have expected under the circumstances, Samantha drew back from the circle of Jason's arms in time to see a small figure racing toward her.

"Hello, Kevin." Samantha couldn't help but smile at the towheaded youngster sporting a broad tooth­less grin who halted before her in a spray of sand.

The Unsung Hero"Notice anything different about me, Miss Mon­roe?"

Samantha reached out and gently pinched his sun­burned cheek. "You lost your other front tooth. Did you pull it out yourself, champ?"

"Nope," the little boy proudly announced. "It fell out while I was eating an apple just a few minutes ago and there was blood all over..." Samantha stifled a groan, glad when Kevin decided to go no further. He was hopping from one foot to the other, barely able to control his excitement.

"Hey, you want me to go get one for you? My mom brought a whole bunch along with us."She exchanged a subtle look of amusement with Jason, who was looking on quietly.

"No, thanks, Kevin." She bit her lip, trying hard not to laugh as she saw a slight tremor at Jason's mouth, as well. "I, um, I just had lunch not long ago and I'm really not very hungry."

Kevin's vivid blue eyes lost their hopeful gleam. "You sure?"

"I'm sure," she said gently. Then, at his crestfallen expression, she added, "Maybe next time. You will come and see me again, won't you?"

The little boy's face brightened immediately. "You betcha! I sure do miss you, Miss Monroe, even though I just saw you a couple days ago."

"I miss you, too, Kevin." Samantha reached out and ruffled his blond curls.

"I guess I better get back to my mom now. She told me not to bother you for long." He grinned up at her, then sent a shy but curious glance at Jason. "See ya later, Miss Monroe. Bye, Mr. Monroe."

Samantha laughed aloud as Jason's thick eyebrows shot up at Kevin's departing address. "Mr. Mon­roe?" he echoed doubtfully, amusement flickering in the eyes that met hers. "I think I've just been adopted--" his gaze grew warmer by degrees as it continued to rest on her flushed cheeks "--but you know, I think I like the idea."

She couldn't help but respond to his bantering tone. "But if you misbehave, I'll have to send you home to—" She stopped and looked at him quizzically.

"Los Angeles." His devastating smile sent waves of heat pouring through her veins. "I don't think you have to worry about it, though. I'll be close enough that you can keep an eye on me practically every min­ute of the day."

And night? Unbidden, the words came tumbling into her mind. The thought, as well as the memory of his recent kiss, kindled a kind of restless longing in her body. She turned her eyes away from his hurriedly, watching distractedly as the frothy surf raced toward them. But curiosity and maybe even reckless hope made her ask, "And just how close would that be?"

"Right next door."

Surprise widened her eyes before a hint of disbelief came into them. "That house is owned by a man named David Winters who lives in Portland, not Los Angeles," she said evenly, wondering if she'd been duped after all. "And he isn't a writer, he's—"

"An advertising executive," Jason finished for her smugly, and quite correctly.

Samantha frowned good-naturedly. "Next I sup­pose you're going to tell me that besides having a triple identity, you lead some kind of a double life."

"Nothing quite so melodramatic," he said with a chuckle. "David is an old college buddy of mine. He's letting me use his place for the summer." A long fin­ger reached out to tilt her chin up to his. "So tell me. Do you mind having me as a neighbor all summer?"

Samantha's heart fluttered wildly at his words. The whole summer . . . he was staying the whole summer! Part of her wanted to stand up and shout for joy while another part was very much afraid the word "neigh­bor"—people who nodded a civil hello on the way to the car or smiled politely while picking up the mail-- would dictate the bounds of their relationship.

She forced a light tone. "Of course not. So long as you don't peck away at your typewriter all night long or come pounding on my door at six in the morning to borrow the newspaper. I'm an absolute bear if I don't get my eight hours beauty sleep."

"I won't bother knocking then." With his even noncommittal tone it was hard to tell if he was seri­ous, but a quick glance revealed a tiny network of fine lines extending outward from his eyes, visible only when he smiled. "And as for getting your beauty sleep," he added, "you've obviously been getting plenty."

Samantha looked away in confusion. She supposed she was attractive enough, but she would never have called herself pretty. Her mouth was a little too wide, her nose too pert and uptilted, her hair a mousy brown. Of average height, her body was supple but lean. In high school she'd often despaired of having any bustline at all. "You're just a late bloomer," her mother had often laughed. And her mother had been right, though Samantha had thought the time would never come. But even now that her breasts were nicely rounded, her hips slightly fuller, she considered her eyes her best asset. Large and widely spaced, they were a clear shade of blue, which was further enhanced by a thick fringe of lashes.

The Unsung HeroPushing herself off the chunk of driftwood with both hands, she got to her feet. She ignored the warm rush of color staining her cheeks at Jason's knowing glance, once again conscious of the brevity of both their suits.

"Shall we get back?" she said quickly. "My house is unlocked and I don't like to stay away for long."

Jason glanced at his watch, a look of obvious re­luctance on his face as he rose to his feet. "I suppose so. I have a long drive ahead of me yet this after­noon."

"So soon?" she asked curiously. "You just said you were staying for the summer."

"Oh, I am. But I'm being interviewed on a radio talk show tonight in Seattle."

"Coming out of the closet?" Samantha asked, un­able to hold back a smile.

"In a way." He shrugged. "Word leaked out about a year ago that I was the man behind Cathryn James. My publisher wasn't exactly overjoyed until they found out it actually seemed to boost sales."

"Why did they mind so much?"

"It was my publisher's recommendation that I write under a female pseudonym," he explained. "They didn't think women would buy a romance written by a man." He looked at her out of the corner of his eye and raised a mocking eyebrow. "Sound familiar?"

"Now I'm the one who's been 'properly chas­tised,' " Samantha responded dryly. They lapsed into a companionable silence as they picked their way through a smattering of broken seashells and around a clump of seaweed, their bare feet weaving a mean­dering trail behind them in the sun-warmed sand.

When they neared her small sequestered home, Samantha's steps faltered. She was admittedly reluctant to see him leave so soon. Taking a deep breath, she turned to him. "Would you like to come in for a drink? That is, if you have time."

A quick glance at his watch and Jason assured her with a decided gleam in his eyes, "Just enough time. Lead the way, fair lady."

As she entered through the back screen door, golden rays of sunlight streamed through maple-stained shutters, which she had left ajar in her compact kitchen. Jason followed her. Her bare feet padded si­lently across the spotless tiled floor toward the refrig­erator. After a hasty glance inside, she bit her lip and turned toward him. "I hope you don't mind orange juice or iced tea. I don't usually keep liquor on hand unless I'm expecting company."

"Iced tea will be fine," he said easily. "I don't drink much anyway, especially with a lady around." Sa­mantha sent him a quizzical glance over her shoulder as she reached for the pitcher of iced tea. "It befud­dles the mind," he explained, an almost wicked glint in his eyes, "and dulls the senses."

"Not to mention what it does to a man's ability," she muttered under her breath, knowing full well she had fallen right into his trap. She poured the tea into two large chilled glasses and handed one to him.

"That goes without saying." He took a long draft of the amber-colored liquid, then grinned at her. "Can't say I've ever had that problem, though."

Looking at his trim muscular form, she could see why. The man positively reeked of virility, to say nothing of the very potent attraction he would pos­sess for many a woman. But for some reason, his re­sponse irked her to no end.

"Well," she muttered, turning on her heel and walking into the living room, "I don't suppose you could write the kind of love scenes you do without at least some experience."

"I suppose," Jason agreed mildly. He sat down across from her as she curled up on her favorite velour chair. His mouth twitched with amusement as he took in her suddenly distant expression. "Would you like it better if I didn't include sex scenes in my books? Your face looks like it might splinter into a thousand pieces if you even attempted a smile."

When she refused to say anything, he pressed fur­ther. "I write it and you read it," he said with a shrug. "So which of us would you call the worst degener­ate?"

"I don't think either one of us is," she admitted grudgingly after a moment's silence. It wasn't the in­clusion of sex in his novels that bothered her. Heaven knew she felt like melting into a mass of sizzling nerve endings when she read his love scenes. It was the fact that he might be drawing on his own experiences while writing them. She knew she had no right to feel this way, but the thought was little comfort.

"I think the difference between us lies in what you just said," she added with a slight bite to her tone. "You call them sex scenes and I think of them as love scenes."

Jason studied her averted profile silently, his smile slowly fading. "I guess that's what they're intended to be," he finally murmured.

The Unsung HeroSamantha blinked, then frowned. "Don't you know?" she demanded. "You certainly should--you've written dozens of love scenes! Why, love is what makes these books so special! Sex is nothing more than a biological function, a chemical reaction! I've read enough romances to know the difference be­tween an author who writes sex scenes and an author who writes love scenes, and yours are definitely love scenes!"

"I write what the reader expects and what my pub­lisher wants. In my opinion, my sex scenes--or rather love scenes--are a bit idealistic." He swirled the ice in his glass and shrugged indifferently. "Making love is physically fulfilling, emotionally satisfying, but as far as inducing a blissful state of euphoria a la the ro­mance novel—" he gave her a half-smile "—let's face it. These books are little more than fantasy."

Samantha stared at him incredulously, her momen­tary ire all but forgotten. "Just what are we talking about here? Love or making love?"

Jason smiled blandly. "I have the feeling you equate the two."

"Forgive me for being such a daydreamer—" her tone was even, but she could hardly believe what she was hearing "—but yes, that's how I see it. Love is more than just a state of mind, and making love should be the ultimate expression of the way two peo­ple feel about each other. Without it, it doesn't mean a thing." And that was how it had been for her and Alan, at least at first, especially at first. They had been wildly, madly in love their first year together, but two more years of marriage had found them drifting apart. And she knew from experience that once the feelings began to wane, so did the magic.

When Jason merely smiled and shrugged his shoul­ders dismissively, she leaned forward, her hands curl­ing into fists on her thighs. "In Conquer the Wind, your heroine said that the way she felt was like--" she searched for the phrase, snapping her fingers when she remembered "--heaven on earth. Are you saying that was pure bunk?"

"Oh, yes, the fair Rosalind," he murmured, cross­ing his long legs at the knee as if he hadn't a care in the world. "You, like Rosalind, have been bitten by the happily-ever-after bug. And maybe it's not pure bunk, but it's certainly exaggerated."

Samantha's temper was off and running at his cas­ual manner and offhand words. "What about this afternoon at the beach?" she charged hotly, cold fury beginning to burn inside her. This was deceit of the worst kind! "That bit about men feeling the same way women do--what was that? Exploitation? Research for your next book? When you said it was for Cathryn's benefit you certainly weren't kidding! The high and mighty Jason Armstrong certainly wouldn't have spoken so humbly! He's too much of a cynic, isn't he? I'll give you one thing, though, you're an even better writer than I thought for being able to fabricate that kind of emotional intensity!"

She felt a brief moment of triumph at the startled look on his face, the momentary confusion in his eyes as if she'd pointed out something he hadn't really considered. But when his features relaxed into that now-familiar but oh-so-maddening smile, it was too much. Samantha jumped up and started to brush past him, only to find herself caught around the waist and dragged down beside him on the couch.

"What's the rush?" he murmured into her ear.

As her bare skin pressed against the naked warmth of his furry chest, her pulses skittered alarmingly, but she ignored the sudden racing of her heart. "You're on your way to Seattle, remember?" she pointed out fu­riously. "I'm merely obliging you by leaving so you can be on your merry way!" This time when she started to rise, both of Jason's arms snaked around her and he held her firmly in place, grinning down into her mutinous face.

"Isn't this where you say, 'Let me go, you beast!'?"

Samantha didn't even bat an eyelash at his hysteri­cal falsetto. She glared up at him, holding herself rig­idly away from him, which proved to be nearly a circus feat due to his constricting grip. The dratted man was barely giving her room to breathe!

"A show of brute strength might be expected in one of your novels, Jason Armstrong," she announced tautly, "but as you so aptly pointed out, romances are pure fantasy, and I'm not about to reenact a scene from one of your books—or anyone else's."

"Why not? You might enjoy... a small dalliance." There was a gleam in his eye as he added hopefully, "Or maybe a big one?"

Samantha stared at the smooth firmness of the mouth smiling ever so slightly above hers. She sup­pressed an inward tremor and wished her earlier in­dignation would return to swamp the sudden churning of her insides. If only his breath on her cheeks was not so warm, so inviting.

The Unsung Hero"I don't think so," she said in a voice that wasn't entirely steady. "You see, I expect fireworks and sky­rockets, and maybe even a few shooting stars, and you've already told me I won't get that." She took a deep breath, finally finding the strength to turn her head aside. "And frankly, I'd be disappointed with anything less."

She could see that she had surprised him again, but this time felt no elation as she had before. The mock­ing light faded from his eyes but his smile was still faintly teasing as he looked down at her.

"To think I was actually looking forward to sub­duing a feisty wench just like one of my heroes," he said lightly. His arms dropped from her body. "And instead I find my head on the chopping block." He stared down at her motionless form, his eyes almost somber as they swept over her body. "We're bound to run into each other again this summer. Maybe we'll see each other soon."

"Maybe," she echoed quietly, watching uneasily as his long legs carried him across the floor and out the front door.

It seemed that, like it or not, she was stuck with Ja­son Armstrong for the summer, and right now the idea wasn't quite as appealing as it had been earlier.

Samantha did a fairly creditable job of dismissing Jason from her mind that day. But when she crawled into bed that night, she found herself reliving his kiss on the beach, the feel of his hands on her body.

Sighing defeatedly, she switched on the bedside lamp and reached for the copy of Love's Sweet Bond­age. But as she stared at the cover, a curious thing happened. The idea of reading Cathryn James's--or rather Jason Armstrong's—romantic storytelling suddenly lost all its appeal for her.

Almost as if she was saying farewell to an old friend she would never see again, she dropped the book in the wicker wastebasket near her bedside, conscious of an almost painful ache of her breast.

The memory of Jason's touch still filled her with a sense of wonder and excitement, perhaps even awe, but the magic of his words had palled... for the mo­ment.

And maybe even for good.

 

Chapter Three

Golden sunlight streaming through pristine white curtains prodded Samantha into wakefulness the next morning. With a muffled groan, she rolled onto her back and threw an arm over her eyes. Her lids drifted peacefully closed and she was ready to doze off again when suddenly a curious feeling prickled her skin.

Her eyes flew open as she quickly sat up, muscles tensed and ready to spring from the bed. "You!" she gasped at the sight of Jason Armstrong sitting non­chalantly on the side of her bed. "What are you doing in here?"

His grin was all too disarming, that beautifully shaped mouth was doing strange things to her in- sides. Samantha swiftly fought down the alarming flutter of her pulse. "I couldn't find you anywhere else," he said cheerfully.

"But you're in my bedroom! And—you're supposed to be in Seattle." Eyes that had been wide with shock narrowed suddenly. "Why didn't you ring the doorbell? Or at least knock?"

"I was in Seattle," he said mildly. "I missed you, so I drove back last night and got in early this morning. And as for knocking... well, I told you yesterday I wouldn't bother." There was a sudden twinkle in his deep brown eyes. "Serves you right, though, for leav­ing your door unlocked again. You're lucky it was me and not some other—" his look sharpened as his eyes ran boldly down her body, the gauzy material of her nightie concealing precious little of her flesh "—de­generate," he finally finished, his eyes lingering on the gentle thrust of her breasts.

The Unsung HeroSamantha grabbed wildly for the sheet. The fact that she'd forgotten to lock her door last night took a back seat to the wholly masculine glint of apprecia­tion in his eyes. When Jason leaned toward her, she flung out her other hand, her palm slapping against the unyielding muscle of his shoulder as she at­tempted to thwart his forward motion.

"Don't!" she gasped, her eyes running over his wide shoulders and naked hair-roughened flesh. Like the previous day, he wore only a brief pair of shorts. "My Gad, I know for a fact you're not a struggling writer scrimping and scraping for a living anymore! What have you got against buying clothes—oh, and what a novelty--wearing them!"

"Writers and artists are well-known for their eccentricities. And besides, I just finished a three-mile jog on the beach," he murmured, his mouth a mere breath away from hers. "And I came to see if what you said was true."

Even as he spoke, Samantha could feel a slight film of moisture beneath her fingertips where they curled around his shoulder. A languorous feeling pervaded her limbs, but she resisted the urge to explore the length of his back and the sinewy strength of his bi­ceps, tautly defined as he rested both hands against the mattress.

She swallowed nervously, stringently avoiding eye contact with him, as if that would somehow make her less aware of his overpowering maleness. "If what was true?"

"That you're a bear in the morning—like you said you were."

"I was right, wasn't I?" Her voice was little more than a ribbon of sound, her heart was beginning to thump with heavy, uneven strokes against her ribs. She really should be telling him to get off her bed and out of her house, maybe even out of her life. And she would—eventually.

"Maybe." He smiled and added lazily, "And then again, maybe not."

The soft velvet of his voice was as potent as a ca­ress. His eyes rested on her parted lips. Samantha's head tilted back in unconscious invitation as he leaned closer still, the delicate arch of her neck drawing his attention away from her mouth. She felt the ex­tremely heady sensation of his lips slowly journeying upward against the sensitive cord on the side of her neck.

A soft sigh escaped her when his mouth closed over hers. His arms enfolded her, gathering her body close to the solid warmth of his chest. She felt strangely giddy, light-headed, totally unlike herself. But then, ever since this man had first stepped into her life yes­terday, she hadn't been feeling quite like herself. She

led a placid, extremely tranquil existence. Only one other time had she acted so irrationally—and look where it had led. Disastrous was a harsh word to de­scribe her marriage, but certainly it had been a disap­pointment. After all, she'd thought it would last forever.

No, it wasn't often she was given to impulse; it wasn't often she let her emotions carry her away so quickly. But all thought of that long-ago time with Alan and anything else were quickly banished from her mind, and all she could think of was this man who seemed able to charm her at will. She was awash in a sea of sensation, acutely and vibrantly aware of everything about Jason—the smooth feel of his mus­cles beneath her fingers, the warm compelling touch of his mouth moving so enticingly on hers and the heady feeling it aroused, as well as the queer feeling that shot through her and made her fairly ache to ex­plore every taut inch of his spare muscular body.

"Mmmm, that was nice," Jason whispered into her hair when he finally lifted his head from hers a long time later. Samantha was left with a burning desire for another kiss—and more.

"Better than nice—it was fantastic."

She opened her eyes as she realized the husky voice had come from her own throat. Had she actually said that? She tried not to look stricken, but when Jason laughed softly she found her lips curving in an an­swering smile. She gasped with delight when his lips found the smooth skin of her shoulder once more be­fore he slid away from her.

As he stood up, he glanced idly at the nightstand. Samantha held her breath as his eyes sharpened, low­ering to the small wastebasket below it. Bending over, he retrieved the copy of Love's Sweet Bondage she had thrown out the night before.

A slight frown was etched between his dark eye­brows as Samantha met his eyes uneasily. "I've never known a faithful fan who threw away her favorite au­thor's books. At the very least, you could have given it to someone else. Didn't you like the ending?"

Damn, of all the things for him to notice! "I'm sure I would have liked it—- she smoothed a fold of the blanket and looked away "--had I gotten that far."

Jason moved a step closer, his shadow falling across her and somehow making the moment seem almost ominous. "How far did you get?"

"Only—as far as I got yesterday on the beach," she said in a low voice, feeling unaccountably guilty. "Less than halfway through."

"I thought you liked it."

"I...I did."

"Then why throw it out before you even finished it?"

Samantha shook her head, not quite sure how to respond. "I'm not sure you want to know," she said finally.

"Oh, yes, I do." Again Jason sat down on the bed. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes seemed to hold a challenge. "My biggest fan turned critic--this could be very enlightening."

Samantha's mouth tightened at the sarcastic drawl. Before she had felt like cringing inside, now sensing his displeasure, she was determined to give him no quarter. "All right then," she said, drawing a deep breath and looking him straight in the eye. "I couldn't read it because after finding out what you're really like, I'd have felt cheated. Maybe it's idealistic of me—" she emphasized the word with a downward curl of her lips "—but I like to think an author believes in what he's writing about. And frankly, reading one of your books now would be almost..." She halted, groping for the right word, her eyes flashing triumphantly when she found it. "Almost sacrilegious."

The Unsung HeroJason blinked in surprise, and his thick eyebrows drew together over that long straight nose before he smiled thinly. "So you don't like my philosophy on love. Is that what this is about?"

"Yes." She folded her arms firmly over the sheet where it covered her breasts and fixed defiant eyes on him. Now that she'd made her stand, she wasn't about to back down.

"And as for my books, you'd like me to say I write about love for the sake of love, because of my unswerving faith and belief in it."

She hesitated. She would like to hear that, but not if it wasn't true, and right now, if he swore on a stack of Bibles, she knew she'd never be able to believe him.

"It's too bad I broke your bubble, but believe it or not, I do write for love--love of money." There was a brief pause. "Although I suppose it's never too late to change."

Was that a twinge of regret she saw in his eyes? It was gone before she could really be sure. "Oh, don't worry," she said brazenly. "You know the saying about one bad apple? Well, just because I won't be reading any more of your books doesn't mean I've read my last romance. There are plenty of good au­thors out there and I'm sure I'll find a replacement in no time!"

He merely smiled at this as if she'd said something immensely amusing. "Are you a good teacher?" he inquired blandly.

The abrupt change in subject caught her by sur­prise. She glanced at him quickly. "I've only taught for two years," she said slowly, "but I didn't have any complaints and I was satisfied with my students' progress." She eyed him rather warily. "Yes, I'd say I'm a good teacher."

"Good." He nodded, a decidedly wicked gleam in his eyes. "So give me an education. Give me a lesson to last a lifetime. Show me how wrong I am about... love."

Samantha stared at him for what must have been a full minute. Talk about unpredictable, she thought to herself disbelievingly. Jason Armstrong was certainly that! She resisted the impulse to pull away from him when he reached out a forefinger and began to stroke the soft skin stretched across her collarbone.

"Jason Armstrong," she began carefully, "I wouldn't touch that offer with an insulated ten-foot pole." Come to think of it, about ten feet of insula­tion was exactly what she needed. Maybe then she wouldn't feel so shivery both inside and out the min­ute he touched her.

"Where's your sense of adventure?" That teasing voice contained more than a measure of cajolery. "Don't you ever crave a little excitement?"

"No," she retorted tartly. "My sense of adventure and excitement doesn't extend beyond occasionally trying a bargain-brand product at the grocery store."

"Oh, come on. The way I see it neither one of us can come out the loser."

Samantha drew a deep breath. Was it his male ego talking again? He certainly seemed to have been blessed with a healthy dose! And who was he trying to kid? He would come out ahead no matter what hap­pened. In her mind, she couldn't possibly emerge un­scathed.

"No way," she reiterated firmly.

"Why not?" he protested. "You've got an entire summer, and you just said you were a good teacher." He picked up her hand and began idly tracing a pat­tern on it.

"But this is different!" She snatched her hand away. "Loving isn't something you learn to do—it just hap­pens," she informed him exasperatedly. "I can't teach you how to change your attitude, your way of think­ing, and frankly, I think that's your problem. I'm a teacher, not a counselor. And besides..." Her jaw closed with a snap. She'd caught herself just in time.

"Besides... what?"

Samantha crossed her arms over her breasts defen­sively. "Nothing," she muttered. "Just forget it." She looked away from those knowing eyes, aware that they were alight with teasing laughter. What could she say? If she agreed, come September he'd be gone and she'd be left nursing a broken heart? A summer fling with Jason Armstrong might be fun. Fun? It would be heaven itself! But would it be wise? Never!

Jason got to his feet and looked down at her. "Tell me something," he said almost thoughtfully. "Do you ever take any chances? Ever gamble on anything?" When Samantha's jaw tightened, he smiled and looked leisurely around her bedroom, hands on his hips. "I wouldn't be surprised," he continued in the same thoughtful tone, "to find out you bought this house only after inspecting it from stem to stern half a dozen times."

The Unsung HeroAstute. That's what he was. She had to give him credit for that. Though it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about her whirlwind romance with Alan six years ago, somehow she had the feeling she'd still end up in the line of fire. But he was right about the house.

Already she could feel a guilty flush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks. She stared straight ahead and refused to look at him. She hated the smile in his voice when he said, "I hit the nail on the head, didn't I?"

"No," she muttered to the wall across from her. "It was only five times—not six."

Jason's laughter followed behind him as he strode across the room to the doorway. "Do me a favor." He turned to face her, an easy smile pulling at his firm lips. "Don't give up on Love's Sweet Bondage just yet. Shelve it if you want, but don't pitch it."

Just what on earth was that supposed to mean, Sa­mantha wondered irritably as she clambered out of bed after he had gone.

"Jason Armstrong," she muttered as she shed her nightgown, "you can save your verbal sparring for the worthy opponents in your novels. It's only nine o'clock in the morning and already I feel like I've been through the Hundred Years' War—twice!"

But inside the tiled shower, Samantha found her­self admitting that her feelings toward Jason were a muddle of confusion at best. There was no denying the magnetic pull she felt when she was around him. It al­most reminded her of the time with Alan, but even then she wasn't sure it had been quite so strong. But feelings of attraction aside, she didn't know if she could even like a man whose views on love were so different from her own. Face it, lady, she scolded her­self, you're a hopeless romantic, and you'll never be satisfied with a man who isn't the same. And even though Jason wrote the most divine love scenes im­aginable, she decided that he probably had no ro­mance left in his soul. Undoubtedly because he poured everything he had into his books, she decided with a rare touch of cynicism.

But dreamer that she was, with the warm steamy water spraying over her body and lulling her into lan­guid complacency, Samantha couldn't help but won­der what it would be like to have Jason Armstrong make love to her. Remembering the exciting warmth of his mouth and the lingering touch of his fingertips against her bare skin sent a fiery throb of awareness pulsing through her veins, making it only too easy to imagine the weight of his hard male body over hers, the heat of his naked skin scorching her own.

She shook her head disgustedly at such brazen thoughts, then laughed as she realized she was chid­ing herself for her "unseemly" daydreams unneces­sarily—exactly as if she was an eighteenth-century maiden instead of a modern woman. Still smiling, she turned off the spray and stepped out of the shower.

"God!"

Samantha whirled in surprise at the sound. Jason stood in the doorway, brown eyes exploring with keen and undeniable male interest the slender lines of her glistening body, still damp with moisture. Stunned by his unexpected appearance, she could only stare at him for what seemed an eternity before grabbing for a towel.

"Damn it, Jason Armstrong!" she sputtered hotly. She fumbled with the ends of the towel as she tried to secure it around her body. "I thought you left!"

"I did." A half-smile tipped his mouth as he stepped forward. "Here, let me." His eyes finally lifted to her face as he deftly tucked the ends of the towel between her breasts, his warm fingers brushing the delicate skin of the valley between.

Annoyed and despising herself for the flush she knew was staining her cheekbones at his intimate touch, as well as for being caught in the nude, she brushed past him into her bedroom. She jerked open a dresser drawer and grabbed a handful of underwear before turning to him.

"Next time you come into my house—or my bath­room," she told him heatedly, "knock!"

"I did." His eyes were full of humor as he watched her stalk to the closet, her jerky movements loosening the dampened towel precariously. "I didn't hear the shower, and when you didn't answer I assumed it was safe to come in. And the door wasn't locked, either."

The Unsung Hero"I don't usually lock it when I'm here by myself!" she muttered viciously, tugging at the towel and sur­veying the array of summer clothing. She glanced an­grily at Jason, who was leaning against the bathroom doorjamb. His arms were crossed over his chest, and there was an expression of amusement on his hand­some face. So he thought she was funny, did he? Well, she'd had enough of him laughing at her. Before the summer was over, the tables would be turned, she vowed silently.

"What do you want this time?" she asked tautly, marching back across the room. She held a brightly colored blouse, which had miraculously survived a vicious yank from the hanger.

He straightened up immediately, his smile fading. "First things first. Your mother phoned."

"I'll call her back after I'm dressed," she mut­tered, more to herself than to him.

"No, you don't need to."

"I don't?" Surprised, she stopped dead in her tracks. Surely her mother hadn't told him not to have her return the call. She never missed a chance to chat--never!

"Uh, no." Did he sound contrite? "She's on the line yet. That's why I came to get you."

"I got... sidetracked."

An exaggerated leer crossed his face as she glared at him and picked up the receiver. "Hi, mom," she said, forcing a cheery tone, feeling like a volcano about to explode when Jason sat down next to her and ran his fingers caressingly down the side of her arm.

"Sorry I took so long." She shot a pointed look at Jason while trying to inch away from his disturbing touch. But with his tall body on one side, the pillow and head­board on the other, she had little leeway.

"That's okay, dear. My nine o'clock appointment canceled at the last minute and my next one isn't until ten." Her mother owned a small beauty shop in As­toria.

"Business good so far this summer?" Samantha aimed a jab at Jason's ribs that he easily parried. His other hand feathered up to her neck and softly stroked the downy skin on her nape.

"Better than last year." Samantha could hear the anxious curiosity mingled with concern in her moth­er's voice. She anticipated the next question. "Who was the man who answered your phone?"

"A neighbor," she answered quickly, hoping her mother wouldn't think she and Jason... "I, ah, I was outside taking a quick swim--"

"So early in the morning? Wasn't the water aw­fully cold?"

"Yes... cold, very cold, stimulating," she said in a rush, the words tumbling out one after the other. "You know—" she gave a feeble laugh "—it gets the blood going." Why was she the world's worst liar?

"So why wasn't your neighbor in his house instead of yours?"

And why wasn't her mother one to mince words? "He... he heard the phone ring while he was passing by. He came to get me.. .which is why it took so long."

. "You really should lock your door when you're not home," came her mother's rather dry comment. "Do you know when you'll be coming to visit next?" Her mother continued while Samantha stifled a groan and looked at Jason. "I won't schedule any appointments while you're here. Lana can manage the shop for a week or so if you're planning on staying that long."

Despite the change of subject, Samantha had the distinct impression her mother hadn't believed a word she'd said; it didn't help when Jason's head dipped low to explore the sensitive place where her long neck joined one slender shoulder.

"Will you stop that?" she whispered fiercely, covering the mouthpiece with her hand. His head dropped lower still, and his mouth grazed the rounded tops of her breasts. "You...you sex fiend!" she hissed. Her fingers clutched convulsively at the wisp of nylon she still held in her other hand while she tried to ignore the tingle of pleasure racing down her spine.

"What was that, dear?"

"Uh... I was just saying... I have a friend in Seaside. Maybe I'll stop and see her on my way."

"Seaside? You've never mentioned her before. Who is she?"

The Unsung HeroSamantha groaned inwardly. If only her mother was a little less on the ball! "She's an old friend from college." She forced a laugh. "I'm sure I've mentioned her. Her name is—" her eyes lit on Jason's book lying on the nightstand "—Cathryn James." Lord, she had better hang up now! She'd find herself in over her head if this call didn't end soon. Thank heaven her mother hadn't picked up a book in years!

"That name does sound familiar, now that I think about it." The soft voice on the other end of the line sounded thoughtful. "Wasn't she your roommate during your freshman year?"

"Uh...yes, that's her. Mom, I really should be g-"

"Very pretty, I recall you saying once, but not ter­ribly bright."

Samantha was sinking ever deeper into a grave of her own digging. She knew she should end this con­versation right now, but she couldn't resist a back­handed swipe at Jason. He was watching her with a look that reminded her of a cat stalking a helpless mouse, only he was about to find out that the mouse had the jaws of a lion.

"That's her, mom," she said sweetly, glaring at Ja­son. "Big on looks, short on brains." At her mot­her's surprised silence, she amended hastily, "But she really is nice and I'm looking forward to seeing her again." At this, Jason, who had been shaking his head, grinned broadly.

"You still haven't told me when you're coming, dear."

"I'm not sure, mom." She glanced acidly at Jason, hardly able to believe he was actually behaving him­self, but grateful that the subject of "Cathryn" had been dropped. "Between teaching and working on my house all year, I've hardly had a minute to myself. How about sometime next month?"

"That's fine, Samantha. Try to let me know a few days ahead, though."

"Sure, mom. I'll call you later."

She'd barely pressed the 'off' button than Jason spoke up. "That was quite a performance," he chided mildly. "Do you think she swallowed any of it?"

"Probably not," Samantha answered shortly. "Since I've never lied to my mother before, I'm sure she knows the difference."

"The way you were hem-hawing around, I wouldn't be at all surprised." He raised an eyebrow. "Why didn't you tell her the truth about why I was here?"

Samantha was already feeling enough guilt without Jason adding to it. "The truth?" she snapped. "That we've known each other less than a day and already you're coming and going from my house exactly as you please? If you'll recall, I didn't know why you came back again--and I still don't!"

Jason merely smiled at her, clearly not at all dis­turbed by her anger. "I'm not sure you want to know right now," he murmured, rising lithely to his feet.

"You're right. I don't!" She pointed at the bed­room door, still standing ajar. "I think you've over­stayed your welcome."

He wasted no time in pouncing. "So you were glad to see me?"

"Of course I wasn't!" When was she going to re­member that this man made a living juggling words? She was going to have to watch what she said around him.

"Not even a little?"

The little-boy plaintiveness in his voice, whether feigned or real, reminded her for all the world of one of her second-graders. She felt her heart doing strange things in her chest. "Well... maybe a little," she re­lented cautiously. Jason Armstrong was impossible— irresistible! And she was a fool. There was no way someone as average in looks and manner as she was could ever hope to land a man like Jason Armstrong. Given his casual outlook on love, the odds for any woman were probably a million to one.

The Unsung HeroBut to her surprise, and then growing delight, he bent over and kissed her again, lightly at first and then with increasing urgency. His hands framed the oval of her face, and Samantha was aware of a yawning chasm of desire spreading through her body.

"Say yes," Jason murmured against her mouth, his tongue tracing the outline of her lips with moist sen­suous strokes. "Yes..."

All pretense of thought had long since vanished un­der the onslaught of his touch. Samantha lifted heavy eyelids to gaze up at him longingly. "Yes," she whis­pered in husky compliance, vaguely hoping he would continue this passionate assault on her senses. Her lashes drifted closed again.

A low laugh of satisfaction vibrated against her cheek. "I knew it." There was a kind of pleased self- complacency in his voice as his breath fanned her skin. "I knew I could get you to say yes." One last kiss against the corner of her mouth and Samantha was deprived of his vital male warmth. "Remember, seven o'clock tonight at my place."

At his abrupt withdrawal, her eyes flew open and she was brought to an almost painful awareness. She tugged at her rapidly slipping towel. "Wait!" she cried, seeing that Jason's long strides had already taken him halfway across the room. "Seven o'clock at your place...for what?" Dear Lord, what had she done? He could have demanded anything... anything! And after a taste of his abundant male charms, she realized that anything could very well turn out to be everything.

He paused at the doorway, one hand curled around the knob as he gave her a lazy smile. "Second thoughts already? I can guarantee you won't be disappointed."

That was exactly what she was afraid of. She swal­lowed nervously. "Disappointed in what?"

Jason shook his head, brown eyes glinting teasingly. "My, my," he admonished gently. "You'd make a terrible businesswoman. Don't you know you shouldn't sign your life away without first finding out the terms of the agreement?"

"Terms, nothing!" she sputtered. She was becom­ing a little annoyed with his deliberately evasive tac­tics. "All I want to know is what I'm in for tonight—if I decide to show up!"

"Oh, you will," he assured her smugly. He leaned against the door frame. "And you can expect delight and pleasure far surpassing anything you've ever known before." At her indignant gasp he continued as if he hadn't heard her, the firm lines of his mouth still turned up in that infuriatingly confident smile. "Something to tempt your awareness, whet your ap­petite, a total seduction of the senses  "

"No." Samantha shook her head. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the nagging feeling of disap­pointment rising within her. Jason Armstrong might take such things lightly, but she was one person who couldn't discard the principles of a lifetime for one fleeting moment of pleasure.

She looked up and met his gaze unflinchingly. "Let's get one thing straight," she said clearly. "I'm not coming—"

"You don't know what you'll be missing," he in­terrupted in a mocking tone that set Samantha's teeth on edge. "My lasagna is the best in the west. Are you sure—"

"Of course I'm sure!" she snapped. "I won't be there tonight and that's fi—" She stopped as his words finally sank in. "Lasagna?" she asked tentatively. "All that talk about temptation and seduction, and you were asking me for dinner?" At his nod, she bit her lip and laughed shakily. "Oh, dear, and I thought..." Her voice trailed off. She met his eyes hesitantly but dropped her gaze almost immediately.

"You have an overactive imagination, young lady. Probably comes from reading a few too many . . . There was a tiny rustle of movement as he straightened his long body. "I'll see you tonight."

Samantha looked up suddenly. "But I haven't said I'll co—"

"Oh, yes, you did," he reminded her smoothly. He reached again for the doorknob. "And surely you wouldn't deprive a man of a mere few hours of fe­male companionship, would you? Not when he's direly in need of a pleasure-filled evening. I'd even go so far as to say he's starving for a woman's com­pany."

"Starving!" Her eyes opened wide in disbelief. "Yesterday you were practically bragging about your experience with women, and now you're trying to tell me you need a woman—"

"But not just any woman," he cut in with a devas­tating smile that sent Samantha's blood pounding frantically along her veins. "Not just any woman," he repeated softly. There was a husky timbre in his voice that played across her skin, sending shivers of excite­ment through her body. "You... only you."

Jason's eyes impaled hers with gentle scrutiny from across the room. Samantha found she couldn't look away from those warm brown depths or the quiet in­tensity in his lean features, which, for once, bore no trace of laughter.

She shifted uncertainly, still perched on the edge of her unmade bed. His teasing remarks and gentle mockery were easier to deal with. At least then she could shield herself with a wall of annoyance and re­sentment. Did Jason Armstrong, with his glib and honeyed tongue, somehow present a threat to her rather staid existence?

He was exactly like the heroes in his books—strong, dynamic, a man who could take charge of any situa­tion and come out on top.

The Unsung HeroYet somehow she suspected that she was the one who had emerged the victor in their little skirmish yesterday, at least in Jason's eyes, but not without sustaining a loss of her own. Her gaze slid away from Jason's to linger on the copy of Love's Sweet Bond­age. A touch of wistfulness mingled with the almost poignant look in her eyes.

"I'll see you tonight," Jason repeated. Suddenly she knew that the choice, if it had ever been hers in the first place, had already been made for her. Aware that her silence affirmed her concurrence, she felt her heart thud heavily in her chest as he gave her another long slow look before stepping into the hallway. Once there, he stopped and looked over his shoulder, and it irked her for some reason to see the familiar teasing glint back in his eyes.

"By the way," he said with a wink, "I love your underwear."

His eyes dropped meaningfully to her lap. She looked down in puzzlement to find she still clutched the small scrap of cloth she had snatched from her dresser--it seemed like eons ago. To her horror, she discovered the tiny white bikini underpants were lib­erally dotted with shiny bright-red hearts, each one pierced with an arrow from Cupid's bow.

Embarrassment at having kept the silly gag gift from her mother, who was well acquainted with her daughter's penchant for romantic novels, was sud­denly turned into anger at Jason, who seemed to have an uncanny knack for catching her in the most ridic­ulous situations.

"I won't be there tonight," she yelled after his de­parting figure.

"Yes, you will," he called back in a tone of su­preme confidence. "I'm fixing dinner for two and I hate leftovers."

"That's your problem, not mine!" She was determined not to let him get the best of her.

She heard the low rumble of his laughter some­where in the vicinity of her kitchen, followed by the sound of the screen door slamming against the wooden frame.

Samantha gave a sigh of sheer exasperation, but smiled to herself a moment later. No doubt Jason thought he could twist her around his little finger with ludicrous ease, but he would soon learn differently. He hated leftovers? Well, she would show him! He'd simply have to stuff himself until he resembled an overgrown cabbage, because there was no way on earth she was going to have dinner with him that night!

 


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The Unsung Hero

 

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