The Long Hot Summer (Chapter Two)

Kelly parked her Honda between two late-model pickup trucks and stepped out into an area set aside for parking. It was fifteen minutes before six, yet the lot was almost filled to capacity. She hadn't taken more than a few steps when she saw him.

Ryan was dressed in black: linen shirt, slacks and low-heeled boots. The color made him appear taller, more imposing. Although he'd slowed his stride to accommodate the pace of the young child clinging to his hand, Kelly still admired the fluidity of his beautifully proportioned physique. There was something about Ryan that reminded her of her Simeon even though the two men looked nothing alike.

"It's a beautiful evening, isn't it, Miss Kelly?" Cooling mountain breezes ruffled the leaves of trees, bringing with it the cloying sweetness of wildflowers blooming throughout the valley.

Kelly stopped in midstride, her breathing halting momentarily before starting up again. Ryan had also stopped and turned around to face her. He stood several feet away, flashing a wide, white-tooth smile.

Recovering quickly, she returned his smile. "Yes, it is, Dr. Blackstone." Her gaze shifted to the boy staring up at her. Kelly knew the child was a Blackstone. He had inherited his father's features. His eyes were a mirror image of Ryan's. She extended her hand. She knew from the records Sheldon had given her that Sean Blackstone had recently celebrated his fourth birthday.

Bending at the knees, she said, "Hi."

Ryan placed a hand on his son's head. "Sean, this is Miss Kelly. She's going to be your teacher. Miss Kelly, this is my son, Sean."

Sean stared at her hand and inched closer to his father's leg. Vertical lines appeared between his large eyes. "I don't want to go to school."

Ryan hadn't registered his son's protest because all of his attention was directed at the woman dressed in a sheer white silk blouse, slim black linen wrap skirt and black heels.

He hadn't known Kelly was behind him until he'd detected the scent of her perfume. Her exposed arms and legs shimmered with a dewy glow from a scented cream that sent a jolt of electricity through his body. Biting down on his lower lip, he struggled for control.

Sean tugged at his father's hand. "Do I have to go to school, Daddy?"

"Yes, you do."

Sean pushed out his lower lip. "But I don't want to."

"We've talked about his, Sean." Ryan's voice held a thread of hardness.

"No! I'm not going. I hate school!"

Kelly stared at Sean for several seconds. It was apparent the child was as stubborn and opinionated as his father. "School's not so bad," Kelly said, trying to calm the little boy down. "How about coming by the schoolhouse after dinner to check it out?"

Tears filled the boy's eyes. "No!"

Ryan opened his mouth to reprimand his son for being rude, but Kelly shook her head. Threatening or bullying the child was not the solution. She'd discovered gentle persuasion usually worked well with young ones.

She met Ryan's gaze. "I'm going to hold an open house for all of the children tomorrow morning at ten to show them their new school." She stared at Sean. "You are more than welcome to come."

She hadn't planned to show the children their new classroom until Monday morning, but she would make an exception if it meant winning Sean over.

Tightening his grip on Kelly's elbow, Ryan led her and Sean toward the entrance to the dining hall. Leaning closer, his moist breath sweeping over her ear, he whispered, "Thank you."

Holding the door open, Ryan permitted Kelly and Sean to precede him into a large, one-story brick building that had been referred to over the years as the dining hall. The entryway was crowded with people, some he had known for most of his life. The tantalizing aromas coming from the kitchen reminded him that he had come home.

He reached for Sean's hand while his free hand rested at the small of Kelly's back as if it were a gesture he'd done many times before. She stiffened slightly before relaxing her back beneath his splayed fingers.

Closing her eyes briefly, Kelly endured Ryan's touch and his closeness. It reminded her of what she had missed. There was never a time when she went out with Simeon that he hadn't silently announced she was his. Whether it was cradling her hand in the bend of his elbow, or circling her waist with an arm, he'd communicated possession and protection. She opened her eyes to find Ryan staring at her, his expression impassive.

"Have you met everyone?"

Kelly shook her head, thick dark strands moving fluidly with the slight motion.

"I haven't had the time," she explained in a soft voice. "It took me a week to settle into my bungalow, and all of my free time has been spent readying the classroom for Monday."

He frowned. "Why didn't you get someone to help you?"

"I did. Your father made Dennis available for me whenever I needed to move or lift something heavy."

Kelly, Sean and Ryan walked into the central dining hall amid a rousing round of applause and whistles. Sheldon stood under a colorful hand painted banner reading: Welcome To Blackstone Farms. Red and black helium-filled balloons – the colors of the farms' silks – tied with contrasting ribbons served as centerpieces for each white cloth-covered table. A dozen tables, each with seating for four, were filling up with employees who lived on the property.

Sheldon motioned Ryan closer. "You, Sean and Miss Kelly will sit with me."

Ryan pulled out a chair for Kelly, seating her while Sheldon performed the same motion for his grandson. He ruffled the child's curly black hair.

Kelly removed the strap to the tiny black purse she'd slung over her chest, placing the crocheted bag on her lap. Her gaze swept around the large room.

The exterior of the dining hall, as with most of the buildings on the farm, was deceiving. Simply constructed of brick or wood, the interior was extraordinary. The dining hall's furnishings rivaled those of any upscale restaurant in any major city. Dark paneled walls with decorative moldings, wide windows with stained-glass insets, plush carpeting, cloth-covered mahogany tables, Tiffany-style table lamps, fine china, crystal stemware, sterling silver and softly played taped classical selections set the stage for exquisite meals prepared by a resident chef.

Blackstone Farms was a thriving, profitable working horse farm and Sheldon had made certain it maintained a certain image given the numerous purses won by Blackstone champion Thoroughbreds over the years.

Still on his feet, Sheldon held a goblet filled with sparkling water. Raising a hand, he signaled for silence. "This isn't going to take long." A ripple of laughter followed his announcement.

"Yeah, right," Kevin Manning, the head trainer called out.

Sheldon put down his glass and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at his lifelong friend. "You keep running off at the mouth and I'll pull out my prepared speech."

"No!" came a collected groan from everyone in the room.

Kelly glanced at Ryan when he threw back his head and laughed. Her gaze was fixed on his strong throat. So, she thought, he can laugh. The gesture changed his face, softening it.

Sheldon inclined his head. "May I continue?"

"Please," Kevin said, raising a hand in supplication.

"Tonight is very special not only to me," Sheldon continued, "but to everyone at Blackstone Farms. I get to have my son and grandson back for what I hope is more than a few months, and I want all of us to welcome the newest member of our farm family, Miss Kelly Andrews, the new teacher and director of Blackstone Farms Day School."

All gazes were fixed on Kelly. She felt a wave of heat sweep up her chest and settle in her cheeks as everyone applauded. She was grateful for her darker coloring otherwise they would have been able to see the blush burning her face. She jumped noticeably when Ryan placed a hand over hers.

"You're expected to say a few words," he whispered, his mouth pressed to her ear. She jumped again, this time from the moist breath flowing into her ear. Rising, he pulled back her chair, assisting her as she stood up. He stood beside her, his left hand resting against her spine.

Composing herself, Kelly flashed a smile, eliciting gasps of appreciation from several men seated at a nearby table. "I'd like to thank Sheldon and everyone for their kindness and assistance in helping me set up the school." Her beautifully modulated husky voice was hypnotic. Her gaze swept around the room and settled on Sean. "I'm hosting an open house at the schoolhouse tomorrow morning at ten for everyone, especially the children, to give you an idea of what I've planned for the coming year. School begins officially Monday morning at eight o'clock, but for parents who want to drop their children off earlier, please let me know tomorrow." She smiled again. "Thank you."

Ryan seated Kelly, flashing a smile that signaled his approval. Listening to her speak, it was easy to tell she wasn't a Southerner. It was also obvious that she wasn't married, and in that instant he knew he wanted to know more about Miss Kelly Andrews. He knew he could go through her personnel file to glean her vital statistics, but it was the personal information he wanted. Did she have an ex-husband or a lover?

His musings were interrupted when a young woman approached the table to take their orders. Kelly studied the printout of the dinner choices. Appetizers included curried corn-crab cakes, sesame shrimp with a miso dipping sauce, and skewered spiced pork and red pepper with a spicy mango sauce. Entrees included grilled steak, broiled salmon, and roast chicken along with an assortment of steamed and grilled vegetables.

Leaning to her right, her breast brushed Ryan's shoulder and he turned and stared at her, the dark pupils in his eyes dilating. Their gazes caught and fused as their breathing found a common rhythm. Within a matter of seconds Kelly registered the overt virility Ryan exuded just by breathing. His warmth, the clean masculine scent of his body, the sensual fragrance of his cologne, and the penetrating gray eyes that appeared to see everything, miss nothing.

"What do you recommend?"

"Everything," he said in a soft voice as he continued to stare at her under lowered lids.

"How's the salmon?"

A slight frown marred his smooth forehead. "You've never eaten Cook's salmon?" Salmon had become a regular Friday night selection.

"I've never eaten dinner here."

His frown deepened. "Where have you been eating?"

"I cook for myself."

"Why would you cook for yourself when we have a resident chef?"

Kelly heard the censure in his question. "I've been working long hours, and by the time I leave the schoolhouse the dining hall is closed."

"You can always put in a request to have your dinner delivered to you."

She lifted a shoulder. "No one ever told me I could do that."

"Well, I'm telling you."

Kelly studied his grim expression, willing he smile again. Raising her dimpled chin slightly, a smile trembled over her full lips, drawing one from him. "Thank you for the information, Ryan." His name had become a whispered caress on her lips.

Sheldon sat across the table from his son and Kelly, watching a subtle game of seduction being played out in front of him. He doubted whether Ryan or Kelly were aware of their entrancement with the other.

Less than an hour ago he and Ryan had had a short and pointed discussion about his decision to hire Kelly Andrews. And it was the first time in years that he had used his status as majority owner in Blackstone Farms to counter Ryan's opinion. Ryan thought they should've hired a teacher with more experience. Sheldon had ended the conversation, stating that Ryan should find a woman to release his sexual frustration, and then walked out of the room leaving his firstborn with his mouth gaping.

It was never Sheldon's intent to become a matchmaker, and he knew Ryan had never been involved with any woman who lived or worked at the farm. But, watching Kelly the past three weeks he suspected she would be able to handle herself when it came to his son just fine.

She had proven that once Dennis Poole had tried to come on to her when she'd asked him to move several boxes that had been delivered to the schoolhouse. Dennis had confided to one of the grooms that Kelly told him that if he ever tried to touch her again she would change his gender in a New York minute. Dennis wasn't certain what she meant by the statement, but had decided it wasn't worth the risk to find out.

Sheldon gave his dinner selection to the waitress, thinking it would be nice to have another grandchild before he turned sixty. Ryan had made him a grandfather once already, but he looked forward to spoiling more than one of the next generation of Blackstones.

Kelly thoroughly enjoyed her dinner. The salmon was exquisite. The freshly caught fish, packed in ice the day before, had been flown from the Northwest. Dinner conversation was light and entertaining as she listened to Sheldon and Ryan talk about horses while Sean politely interrupted his father several times to ask a question. Kelly found the boy quiet and somewhat withdrawn, and she wondered how much contact he'd had with his mother.

Two hours after dinner began, people began drifting over to the table to introduce themselves to Kelly and to welcome Ryan and Sean back home. Young children hid shyly behind their parents when Kelly told them she expected to see them the following morning at the schoolhouse.

Touching her napkin to the corners of her mouth, she pushed back her chair. Smiling at Ryan and Sheldon, she said, "Thank you, gentlemen, for your company. Dinner was wonderful." Both Blackstone men came to their feet, Ryan helping her to stand. She smiled at Sean, who wouldn't look at her. "I hope to see you tomorrow morning, Sean." Frowning, he pushed out his lower lip.

Sheldon winked at Kelly. "I'll take care of everything."

Picking up her crocheted purse, she opened it, and took out her keys. "Good evening."

Ryan reached for her hand, tucking it into the curve of his elbow. "I'll walk you to your car."

Her eyes widened. "That's all right. I believe I can find my way to the parking lot." There was a hint of laughter in her voice.

"I want to apologize to you."

"For what?"

He leaned closer. "I'll tell you later."

Sean rounded the table and tugged at Ryan's arm. "Daddy, can I stay with Grandpa tonight?"

Ryan glanced down at his son before looking at his father. Sheldon nodded. "Of course. You have to listen to Grandpa or it will be a long time before you'll be permitted to sleep over again. Do you understand?"

Sean flashed a wide smile, showing a mouth filled with tiny white teeth. "Yes, Daddy." Turning, he launched himself against Sheldon's body.

Ryan escorted Kelly to the parking lot. "My father will bring Sean to your open house tomorrow."

"Are you sure he'll be able to get him to come?"

"My father can get Sean to do anything. The child worships him because Sheldon spoils him."

Standing next to her car, Kelly smiled at Ryan in the waning daylight. "That's what grandparents are suppose to do – spoil their grandchildren."

He nodded, extending his hand. "Please give me your keys."

She tightened her grip. "Why?"

"I'll drive you back to your place."

"Don't be ridiculous, Ryan. I live less than a quarter of a mile from here."

Reaching for her hand, he gently pried her fingers apart. "I know where you live."

"But Ryan – "

"But nothing," he said softly, cutting her off.

"How will you get back?"

"I'll walk."

Opening the passenger-side door, he held it open for her. His gaze lingered on the expanse of her bare legs and feet in the high heels as her skirt shifted upward when she sat down. Rounding the car, he slipped in behind the wheel, adjusted the seat, and put the key in the ignition in one, smooth motion. The engine turned over and he backed out of the lot. Three minutes later he parked her compact sedan alongside Kelly's bungalow. The sun had set, leaving the sky with feathery streaks of orange crisscrossing a backdrop of navy-blue. Pinpoints of light from millions of twinkling stars emerged in the encroaching darkness.

Within minutes the landscape was completely black, except for an occasional light coming from windows in buildings spread out over the seventy-two hundred acres making up Blackstone Farms. The farm was laid out in a quadrangle: the main house, dining hall, and school in one quad; the barn, stables, paddocks and grazing area in the second; the cottages for resident employees in the third, and the last quadrant left for future expansion.

The farm was secure and protected by closed-circuit cameras strategically placed throughout the property, and at no time could anyone arrive or leave undetected.

Kelly waited for Ryan to come around and assist her. He opened the door and she placed her hand on his as he tightened his grip and pulled her gently to her feet. He was standing close, too close, but she did not attempt to pull away.

Holding out her hand, she said, "My keys, please."

Ignoring her request, he led her up the porch and to the door. He unlocked it, pushed it open, and then dropped the keys in her palm. The glow from a table lamp in the parlor spilled a ribbon of light out into the night.

"Thank you for seeing me to my door."

The sultry sound of Kelly's voice swept over Ryan like an invisible caress. "Thank you for a lovely evening. Sharing dinner with you helped make my homecoming even more special."

Kelly stared at the highly polished toes on Ryan's low-heeled boots rather than look into his eyes. "Good night."

Reaching out, his right hand cupped her chin, forcing her to meet his gaze. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" Her voice had dropped to a whisper.

"For using profanity, for being rude and for acting like a complete ass."

"Ryan!"

He flashed a wide grin. "I could've said ass…"

"No," she screamed, covering her ears with her hands.

Releasing her chin, he curved his arms around her waist. "Don't tell me you're a prude, Miss Kelly."

She placed her hands over his chest. "I'm not a prude. It's just that I've heard enough profanity to last two lifetimes. You can't imagine the words I've heard from kids as young as five or six. A lot of them can't string a sentence together using the correct verb, yet they can cuss you out using words that can make the most jaded adult cringe."

Ryan lifted an eyebrow. "Whenever I cursed as a kid my mother used to wash my mouth out with lye soap. After awhile I learned never to curse in front of her. She refused to accept my rationale that if Pop said it, then it had to be all right."

"I hope you don't use those words around your son."

He shook his head. "Never."

"Good." She eased out of his loose embrace. "I have to go in now."

He did not want her to go in. He wanted to sit out under the stars and talk – talk about…

"Good night, Kelly."

She stared at him for several seconds. "Good night, Ryan."

Kelly stood on the porch, watching Ryan as he turned and walked away. Within minutes he disappeared and was swallowed up by the warm early summer night.