~21~

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As soon as Lexi leaned into him, Luke swept her off her feet and carried her toward the estate. He couldn't decide which he enjoyed more; having Lexi fall into his arms, or seeing the stupefied look on Z's face when she did it. But Luke didn't waste time gloating. Lexi had a lot on her mind, and she used the trip to verbally lambaste the boy who had caused her grief.

"I have never met a more idiotic, arrogant, muscle-headed moron in my life. If you're going to brag about how competent you are at something, you better damn well prove it."

"I completely agree," he said.

"Why do boys have to be so full of themselves? Don't answer that. I know why. They have egos the size of Mount Everest. Too bad their brains are the size of walnuts. If they weren't so obsessed with outdoing everyone who challenges them, they might actually realize that women have more to offer than pouty lips and child-bearing hips."

"Right again."

"I don't have a lot of experience with men, but I'm not gullible. I won't fall for just anyone. My man will respect my mind and take me seriously when I say I'm going to kick his ass."

"I can't argue with that."

Lexi fell silent, and Luke worried he had stifled her rant. He was enjoying himself. "I apologize for going off like that," she said finally. "I'm not usually so whiny."

"Whiny is the last adjective I would use to describe you. And you don't need to apologize to me. Your anger is perfectly justified. Will behaved like a clod."

The others were still trying to catch up when they arrived at the footpath to the swimming pool, and Luke had enjoyed every moment of their journey. Some of it was spent in conversation, but the gazes that lingered were his favorite part. She fit so well against him, with her arm wrapped around his neck and her hand resting on his chest. Her closeness made him acutely aware of his quickening pulse, and an odd lightheaded feeling had him nearly stumbling over the uneven terrain.

"You might want to soak in a hot bath," he offered as the trail dropped them off at the pool deck. "You probably strained a few muscles breaking your fall. A medicinal oil like clary sage makes a soothing rub."

"You're right. A good soak is just what I need." Lexi lifted her eyes, catching him in a fierce, blue gaze and hastening his pace. Her lips were so close. "You can drop me off here."

Lexi pointed to a chaise next to the pool, and Luke forced his feet forward to set her on it. He watched as she took stock of her injuries, a grimace finding her face as she pressed on her left elbow and hip. She followed this up with a stretching maneuver toward her feet as she pulled off her boots and socks.

With her toes bare, she stood and walked to the edge of the swimming pool. She offered him a cheeky grin as she took aim and dove in, clothes and all. Luke found himself laughing despite the seriousness of Lexi's recent trauma. Her fiery enthusiasm continued to delight him.

"When I said a hot bath, I was not thinking of the swimming pool," he said as her head broke the surface.

"Au contraire. It was the perfect suggestion. The pool is heated. Care to join me?" She smiled up at him, her mouth glistening with moisture, and he nearly burst with the desire to kiss her.

Wasting not a moment, Luke kicked off his shoes and dove in. Lexi was swimming toward him when he came up for air, her lips still wet and beckoning. Had she noticed the moisture clinging to his lips? She stared at them without restraint. Did she want to kiss him? Now? Here? He heard voices on the path.

"Thanks for carrying me home," she said as she floated up to him. "You'd make a decent hero."

He smiled. "If that is to be my role, I will fulfill it to the best of my ability."

Lexi bit her lip. A sign she was holding back. Was she stifling a comment, or deciding whether or not to kiss him? Did she want him to kiss her? They would not be alone for long. Luke reached for her hand and held it gently, hoping she wouldn't pull away. She didn't. He knew it was all they had, for a moment later, Lexi's mother appeared at the shrubbery and gasped.

"Lexi, are you okay? You're swimming in your clothes." She looked sidelong at Luke, who might have appeared a tad guilty.

"I'm okay, Mom. I just wanted to take a swim without the hassle of changing." Lexi dipped under the water and swam away from Luke, making for the edge of the pool where her Uncle Z stood. After piercing Luke with a narrow-eyed threat, Z softened his gaze for Lexi.

"How do you feel, young 'un?" Z asked. "Did you break anything...besides that poor boy's ego?"

"Nothing broken. I'll be fine. Thanks for coming to my rescue, though."

"Well, it appears you didn't need my help today, but you can always call on me if anyone else tries to put you on your back."

Z made no effort to hide his scowl as he turned abruptly and stomped away, probably to find a bucket of ice to soak his fat head in. Luke could take a lot of provoking before engaging in a fight. Avoiding them first had always been his tactic, and he certainly didn't want to battle Z here. Lexi's positive opinion of him was paramount, and not for the reasons he originally intended.

No, it seemed Luke's plan to deflower the Maxwells' virtuous daughter was changing as fast as thunder followed lightning. Along with Lexi's spark, he had found her spirit, and he knew the spirit needed to be tended. A solicitous man would walk away and not put the fair maiden at risk, but Luke had never been overly solicitous, although he did love challenges. There were more endearing qualities to Lexi than pouty lips and child-bearing hips. That was abundantly clear. And Luke was hoping to uncover them all.

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