He continued to row, long, lazy strokes that belied

“He continued to row, long, lazy strokes that belied the intent look that leapt into his gaze. “What do you mean, to save your reputation?”

She glanced out the side of the boat to dry land, recognizing the scenery and guessing they were a good mile and a half away from her cottage. She felt as though they were in another country altogether.

“After you left, rumor of my involvement with you spread.” Catching the frown that formed on his brow, she explained, “Someone must have seen us together, and guessed at our relationship. Since my virtue was in question, my father pushed for marriage between David and me. My father was determined to salvage the family name, and my reputation, so when David proposed, I accepted.” As always, she’d done the right thing, showing her father that she was a “good girl”.

A large tree shaded them, and Ford stopped rowing the oars, letting the boat glide lazily on the surface of the glossy water. “Did you love David?”

Not like the way I loved you . “I cared for him,” she admitted. “But we married for all the wrong reasons, and when I couldn’t get pregnant, that just put an additional strain on our relationship. After five years of trying to make the marriage work, we finally divorced. According to David’s mother, he’s doing well in Norfolk with his new family, so I’m happy for him.”

Ford nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

She smiled, feeling close to Ford, and emotionally connected. “It all worked out for the best.”

“Yeah, I suppose it did,” he agreed, putting his own spin on her words. With a reciprocating smile, he stretched the muscles that had tightened from his sitting position. “If you expect me to row all the way back to the cottage, you’d better feed me and give me the strength.”

Rolling her eyes at that, she sat up on her knees and reached for the sack of goodies they’d brought along. The boat rocked gently, but Ford’s widespread feet and solid body kept her from swaying off balance.

“Easy does it,” he murmured humorously. “Or else we’ll be taking a swim.”

Crossing her legs in front of Ford, she spread their light fare on napkins on the blanket. She placed a slice of cheese on a cracker and lifted it to his lips. He accepted the snack while she opened a bottle of apple juice to share. Then she opened the container of sliced apples, took out a wedge, and offered it to Ford.

“Mmm, apples,” he said, seemingly relishing the juicy slice she’d slipped into his mouth. “Do you know what apples remind me of?”

Oh, she knew exactly what the crisp, tart fruit reminded him of, because it reminded her, too. “What?” she asked, not wanting to be the one to bring up such a sensual memory.

His gaze glowed warmly with the recollection. “It reminds me of the day you’d stopped by my house to bring me the fresh apple pie you’d baked just for me, along with two roast beef sandwiches you’d made from your family’s previous night’s left overs.”

She nodded, remembering painfully well the way he’d accepted the meal graciously, his hunger pangs obviously winning over pride. His own mother hadn’t bothered to shop for groceries or give him money for food—she’d spent her paychecks at After Hours after working her shift as a cocktail waitress, forgetting that she had a son starving at home.

“You found me out in that dilapidated old barn behind the house, trying to chop the beams into pieces of wood to use in the fireplace so I’d have a little warmth at night.” He ate another slice of apple, savoring the taste on his tongue. “I hadn’t eaten anything substantial in two days and was so hungry, not that you could have known. I ate those sandwiches and half of that pie so fast that it nearly gave me a belly ache.”

She laughed at the pained look on his face, and waggled a finger at him. “I warned you to slow down.”

He caught the offending digit, and held her hand. Bringing her fingers to his mouth, he kissed the tips of each. A soft breath exhaled out of her, and she melted inside.

“I thought you were an angel for bringing me that food,” he said, his voice low and husky. “All I meant to do was give you a soft kiss of thanks, but you tasted even sweeter than that apple pie, and when your lips parted on a soft sigh, I couldn’t resist . . .””