The Long Hot Summer (Chapter Three)

Ryan walked back to his house, his mind filled with images of Kelly. During the evening meal he had watched her, admiring her natural beauty and the ease in which she seemed to accept her femininity.

She had sat upright, spine pressed against her chair, shoulders pulled back and her full breasts thrusting forward. He had felt like a voyeur whenever he watched her breasts rising and falling in an even rhythm. She had worn a lacy camisole under her blouse, and he had fantasized unbuttoning the blouse to run his fingertips over her skin.

Although he had been divorced for three years he had not lived a monkish existence. The day he signed his divorce papers he'd driven to Waynesboro, gone to a local bar and drank himself into oblivion. He woke up hours later in a woman's bedroom with a hangover that had him retching for hours. It was the first and last time he had gotten drunk.

Once he cleansed his mind and body of the alcohol, he'd called his father to let him know he was still alive. He spent the next day baring his soul to a stranger. Lisa – she wouldn't tell him her last name – was eight years his senior, but she had become his confidante and eventually his lover. Their on-and-off-again relationship ended abruptly last Christmas when she called him to say him she had decided to remarry her ex-husband. He wished her well, and mailed her a generous check as a wedding gift.

In light of his casual attitude toward women, he simply couldn't understand the intensity of his initial attraction to Kelly. There was something so deeply alluring about her that he wanted to lie with her, damn the consequences.

He arrived at his house and opened the door. The moment he walked inside he felt the emptiness. Whenever Sean spent the night with Sheldon or overnight with one of his little pals, the emptiness was magnified. He thought he would get used to the loneliness, but it never seemed to dissipate completely.

It had begun several months after he'd married Caroline Harding, a young woman he'd met in college. She had begun to withdraw from him the day she found out she was pregnant. As her pregnancy progressed she confessed to feeling trapped, that she hated living on the farm, and pleaded with Ryan to let her out of their marriage. He'd granted her wish, and she got into her car, drove away from Blackstone Farms two months after she had given birth to a baby boy – alone.

Climbing the staircase to the second story, he walked into his bedroom and prepared to go to bed – alone.

Even though Kelly had been in bed for eight hours, she woke up fatigued. She'd spent the night dreaming and tossing restlessly. She'd dreamed of making love with Simeon, but when she'd opened her eyes it wasn't her late husband's face staring down at her but Ryan Blackstone's.

She'd jumped out of bed, shaking uncontrollably as guilt assailed her. She'd been unfaithful to her husband's memory. It had taken half an hour before she fell asleep again only to be awakened by the same dream. This time she lay, savoring the pleasurable pulsing aftermath of her traitorous body. Within minutes she succumbed to a sated sleep and woke at sunrise.

Leaving her bed, Kelly padded to the bathroom. Peering into the face in the mirror over the sink, she searched for a sign of shame or guilt, but found none. She had to face the realization that she was attracted to Ryan because she was a normal woman with normal sexual urges. At thirty she was much too young to permanently forego sexual gratification with a man. That was what her sister Pamela had tried to tell her. I'm certain if you'd died instead of Simeon he wouldn't stop seeing other women, Pamela had said repeatedly. So why have you set yourself up as the martyred widow?

I don't know, she had told Pamela over and over. And she hadn't known – not until now. What Pamela and Leo Porter and even she hadn't known at the time was that she had not met the right man.

But, was Dr. Ryan Blackstone the right man? "No," she said to her reflection.

She reached for a facial cloth in a small plastic container and wet it. Using a circular motion, she washed her face, then splashed cold water over her tingling skin before patting it dry with a fluffy towel. She filled the tub with water, adding a capful of perfumed oil, and brushed her teeth and tried to dismiss the erotic musing about a certain veterinarian from her mind.

Ryan raised his head to peer at the clock on the bedside table, groaning under his breath. It was minutes before three, and he hadn't had more than two hours of sleep since retiring for bed at ten-thirty. He knew the reason for his insomnia was Kelly Andrews.

It was as if he still could see the play of sunlight on her warm brown skin, the contrast of her white blouse against her velvety throat, and the lush curves of her hips in the slim skirt. What had surprised him was that she hadn't worn any makeup other than a soft shade of orange-brown lipstick, and still she was stunning.

Everything about her, from the way she'd dressed, her poise and the way she spoke screamed big-city sophistication. A wry smile curved his mouth, and Ryan wondered how long would it take before she tired of smelling hay, horse urine and manure. And when the weekends came would she be content to stay on the farm or would she head to the nearest big city for some real fun?

Throwing back the sheet, he sat up and left the bed, knowing he wasn't going back to sleep. Twenty minutes later, dressed in a plaid cotton shirt, jeans and a pair of old boots, he walked to the stables.

Sensors lit up the area where the prize horses were stabled for the night. Placing his right hand on a panel, he waited until a flashing red signal switched to a steady green before he punched in a code. The lock to the stable was deactivated. Sliding back a door, Ryan walked into the dimly lit space, and closed the door behind him.

He stopped at the stall of an exquisite foal, smiling at the potential Triple Crown winner. The colt, Shah Jahan, was the product of Blackstone Farms' winningest mare and a former Preakness winner. He had the bloodlines of a potential Thoroughbred champion.

Ryan lingered in the stable, checking on each horse, and when he walked out the workers were arriving with the rising sun. The build-up of heat had begun to burn away the haze covering the valley as he had made his way to his house, a weighted fatigue settling over him. His eyelids were drooping but he managed to shower before falling across his bed and into the comforting arms of Morpheus.

He slept deeply, not waking until late afternoon – well after the Blackstone Farms Day School's open house ended.

Kelly stood in the doorway to the brick structure, noting the curious expression on the face of a little girl. She was expecting a total of five children, ranging in ages from three to five. Two were brothers – identical twins Trent and Travis Smith. One glance at the redheaded, freckled, green-eyed twins signaled trouble – double trouble. Sean Blackstone, Allison Cunningham and Heather Whitfield had also come to the open house. Delicate Heather had arrived first, her large brown eyes widening when she spied the area Kelly had set up as the housekeeping corner, followed by the twins, then Allison.

"You may go look at it," she urged in a gentle voice. Heather raced over to the play stove, turning knobs and stirring a pot with a wooden spoon.

Sheldon walked in with Sean clinging to his hand as if he feared his grandfather would disappear if he didn't hold on to him.

"Good morning, Sean." He stared up at Kelly, eyes wide.

"Miss Kelly spoke to you, Sean," Sheldon admonished.

"Good morning, Miss Kelly," he mumbled under his breath.

"Come in and join the others. We're going to have juice and cookies." Sean gave Sheldon a lingering look before he walked over to the other children gathering in the housekeeping corner.

Kelly smiled. "Please wait while I get the children settled."

Three women sat on a sofa and two of the four club chairs covered in supple black leather, talking quietly. A glass-topped black lacquered coffee table set on an area rug with a distinctive Asian motif in black and red mirrored the farm's silks. Solid brass floor lamps with pale linen shades completed the inviting sitting area. Kelly planned to use this area to meet with parents to discuss their children's progress or her concerns.

Sheldon sat down. His penetrating gaze swept around the large space, cataloguing everything. Flowering plants lined empty bookcases under a wide window with southern exposure. A colorful plush area rug with large letters of the alphabet covered the gleaming wood floor. An entertainment center contained a wall-mounted, flat-screen television, VCR and DVD player. Oversized throw pillows were positioned on the floor in front of the screen.

The science corner held a tank of colorful tropical fish. Posters of farm animals, flowers, birds and fish graced another wall. Cubbies with hooks and the names of each child stood ready for sweaters, coats and boots with the change of seasons. Half a dozen portable cots were stacked against another wall. He was amazed that it had taken Kelly only a month to order the supplies and furnishings she needed to set up her classroom.

He watched her firmly, yet gently, steer the five children to a sink in a far corner. They washed their hands and dried them on paper towels before racing to a round table with half a dozen chairs. Each one claimed a seat, waiting patiently as Kelly filled plastic cups with apple juice and placed a large oatmeal raisin cookie on the plate at each setting.

"After you finish your cookie and juice, you can watch a movie while I talk to your parents. Take your time, Travis," she admonished softly when he stuffed a large piece into his mouth.

Ten minutes later, cups and plates stacked on a tray for a return to the dining hall, the five children settled down on the large pillows to watch their movie.

Kelly walked over to the sitting area, joining the parents. Smiling, she said, "The Blackstone Farms Day School will open officially Monday morning, and I want to reassure you that your children will be exposed to a safe and positive environment while in my care….

It was noon when the parents pulled their reluctant children away from the blank television screen, promising them they would come back in two days.

"Are you going to be here on Monday, Miss Kelly?" Sean asked.

She smiled at the expectant look on his face. "Of course I am, Sean. I'm going to be here for a very long time." She knew a year was a long time to a four-year-old. He smiled at her, his expression so much like his father's, and then skipped away to catch up with Sheldon.

Once everyone left, Kelly sat down on one of the club chairs, rested her feet on a corner of the coffee table, and closed her eyes. The open house had gone well. She waited half an hour, then began the task of unpacking and cataloguing books into a database of the personal computer Sheldon had given her for the school's use. It was later, well after the dinner hour when she slipped behind the wheel of her car and drove back to her house.

Kelly showered, changed into a pair of shorts and top, and then went into the kitchen to prepare her dinner, a small salad, which she devoured hungrily. She had just dried and put away her dishes when the doorbell rang. The sound startled her. It was the first time anyone had rung her bell. Drying her hands on a terry-cloth towel, she made her way out of the kitchen, through the parlor and to the door.

"Yes?" She had lived too many years in New York City to open the door before identifying who was behind it.

"Ryan."

The sound of his voice made her heart skip a beat before it settled back to a normal rhythm. "What do you want?"

"Open the door, Kelly," he said after a pregnant silence. "Please."

Her hand was steady as she unlocked the door, opened it and looked at Ryan staring at her as if he had never seen her before. It was only when she noticed the direction of his gaze that she realized her state of half-dress – a pair of too-tight, low-riding shorts and a revealing midriff top. The narrow waistband on her black lace bikini panties and the outline of her nipples under the white top were ardently displayed for his viewing.

Tilting her chin, she said, "What do you want?" she repeated. The question was filled with fatigue.

Ryan closed his eyes, but he still could see the soft curves of Kelly's body. Why was it whenever he met her one-on-one she was half-dressed?

He opened his eyes, forcing himself to look at her face and not below her neck. "I missed you at dinner. I just came by to check whether you'd eaten."

She nodded. "I had a salad."

He lifted a raven eyebrow. "Just a salad."

"I was too tired to fix anything else. I've had a long day."

"I thought I told you that you could order from the kitchen."

Kelly gave him a smile. "I know you did, but – "

"You're working too hard, Kelly."

"I'm not working too hard, Ryan," she countered. "I had a deadline to meet, and I met it."

He smiled, tiny lines fanning out around his eyes. "Congratulations. Do you want to celebrate?"

Vertical lines appeared between her eyes. "Celebrate?"

His smile vanished. "I'm certain you're familiar with the word."

"Celebrate how?"

He shrugged a shoulder. "Go into town."

Her gaze narrowed. "And do what?"

"Talk. If you want we could share a drink."

Kelly recalled her erotic dream earlier that morning and she fought the dynamic vitality Ryan exuded. She knew she wasn't immune to him, but she had no intention of permitting herself to fall under his sensual spell. She had come to this part of Virginia to teach, not become involved with a student's father or have an affair with her boss.

She offered him a conciliatory smile. "I'm flattered that you asked, but I'm afraid I have to decline. First of all, I'm tired. It's been a very exhausting week for me."

Ryan noticed the puffiness under her eyes for the first time. "And the second reason is?"

Her expression changed, hardening. "I've made it a rule not to date my boss." Much to Kelly's surprise, he threw back his head and let out a great peal of laughter. She frowned. "What's so funny?"

He sobered enough to say, "You."

"Me?"

"Yes, you, Kelly. Let me remind you that I'm not your boss. I didn't interview you, hire you or sign your contract. And that translates into my not being able to fire you. Only my father can do that." Crossing his arms over his chest, he angled his head. "Now, you're going to have to come up with another reason for rejecting my offer."

Bracing her hand on the door, she smiled. "That's an easy one." Without warning she closed the door and locked it. "Good night, Ryan," she said loud enough for him to hear.

Ryan stood motionless, staring at the door. She'd closed it in his face. "Well, I'll be damned," he whispered.

Kelly had called his offer to take her out a date while he thought of it as a meeting. Sean had come home that afternoon bubbling with excitement when he'd talked about his new school. It had been the most spontaneity he had seen in the child in over a year. He wanted to talk to Kelly about his son, but was he using Sean as an excuse to spend time with Kelly? In any case, meeting at her place was out of the question. The last thing he wanted was to generate gossip about the boss's son coming on to the new schoolteacher. As it was, there was enough gossip circulating around Blackstone Farms to fill a supermarket tabloid.

He chuckled in spite of his predicament. In that instant he realized he liked Kelly Andrews. He'd found her poised and beautiful. But he also knew she had a lot of fire under what she'd projected as a dignified demeanor.

Unknowingly she had issued a challenge when she closed the door in his face. And Ryan Blackstone had never walked away from a challenge.