Rich Man's Fake Fiancee(7)

By: Catherine Mann


He appeared completely confident and unfazed by their near-death experience. The small square bandage on his temple offered the only sign he’d blasted into a burning building and saved her life.

Her throat closed up again as she thought of all that could have happened to him in that fire. She needed to establish distance from him. Fast.

He held a long-stemmed red rose in one hand. She refused to consider he’d brought it for her. He’d undoubtedly plucked it from one of the arrangements already filling the rolling tray and windowsill. He twirled the stem between his thumb and forefinger. Why had he stuck around Charleston rather than returning to his family’s Hilton Head compound?

Ashley cinched the belt on her hospital robe tighter. Her other hand clutched the travel pack of shampoo, mouthwash and toothpaste. “I didn’t, uh, expect….”

He didn’t move other than a slow blink and two twirls of the flower. “I knocked.”

She unwrapped the towel, her hair unfurling down her back. “Obviously I didn’t hear you.”

Silence mingled with the scent of all those floral arrangements. Matthew stood. Ashley backed up a step. She hooked the towel over the doorknob and looked everywhere but at his piercing green eyes that had so captivated constituents for years.

Everyone in this part of the country had watched the four strapping Landis brothers grow up in the news, first while their father occupied the senate. Then after their dad’s tragic death, their mother had taken over his senatorial seat.

Matthew had followed in his family’s footsteps by running for the U.S. House of Representatives after completing his MBA, and now that his mom was moving on to become the secretary of state, Matthew was campaigning for her vacated senate seat.

The name Landis equaled old money, privilege, power and all the confidence that came with the influential package. She wanted to resent him for being born into all of those things so far outside her reach. Except his family had always lived lives beyond reproach. They were known to be genuinely good people. Even their political adversaries had been hard-pressed to find a reason to criticize the Landises for much of anything other than their stubborn streak.

He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”

She spun to face him. “I’m fine.”

“Ashley.” He shook his head.

“What?”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I’m a politician. Word nuances don’t escape me. ‘Fine’ means you’re only telling me what I want to hear.”

Why did he have to look so crisp and appealing while she felt disheveled and unsettled? The scene felt too parallel to the one they’d played out just this morning. “Well, I am fine all the same.”

“It’s good to hear that. What’s the doctor’s verdict?”

“Dr. Kwan says I can leave in the morning.” She skirted around Matthew toward the bedside table to put away her toiletries. “He diagnosed a mild to moderate case of smoke inhalation. My throat’s still a little raw but my lungs are fine. I have a lot to be grateful for.”

“I’m glad you’re going to be all right.” Still he watched her with that steady gaze of his that read too much while revealing only what he chose.

“I’ve sucked down more cups of ice chips than I care to count. I’m lucky, though, and I know it. Thank you for risking your life to save me.” She tightened the cap on her toothpaste, then rolled the end to inflate the thumbprint in the middle. The question she’d been aching to ask pushed up her throat just as surely as the toothpaste made its way toward the top of the tube. “Why did you come back this morning?”

“I forgot my briefcase.” He set the flower aside on the rolling tray.

Her thumb pushed deeper into the tube of Crest. She looked down quickly so he wouldn’t be able to catch her disappointment. “I hope you didn’t have anything irreplaceable in there because I’m pretty sure that even if it didn’t burn up, the papers are suffering from a serious case of waterlog.”

She tried to laugh but it got stuck somewhere between her heart and her throat. For once, she was grateful for the cough that followed. Except she couldn’t stop.

Matthew edged into sight, a cup of water in his hand. She took it from him, careful not to brush fingers, gripped the straw and gulped until her throat cleared.

Ashley sunk to the edge of the bed, gasping. “Thank you.”

“I should have gotten you out faster.” His brow furrowed, puckering the bandage.

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m alive because of you.” Her bare feet swinging an inch from the floor, she crumpled the crisp sheets between her fingers to keep from checking the bandage on his temple. “Uh, how bad was the damage to Beachcombers? Starr gave me some information, but I’m afraid she might have soft-soaped things for fear of upsetting me.”