“Being a fool's got nothing to do with this, and you know it. We're talking about a guy who likes to swim in the buff and probably walks around his house in the buff, too.”
“Aw, Papa.” Tess cradled the side of his face in her hand, gently running her thumb over some of his wrinkles. “People do that all over this state and even this nation, except for the deeply conservative areas, and they got problems I wouldn't even want to get into.”
His shaggy brows drew together.
“He'll be a perfect gentleman with me from this moment forward, I swear,” Tess said. She pulled back her hand and gave him the Boy Scout salute, which she had taught to Tommy Minelli and a lot of the other neighborhood boys.
Her father's expression said she was nuts. “From this moment forward?” His frown deepened. “Did he make a pass at you already?”
Tess forced herself to look surprised, even as her skin tingled to the memory of their kiss. No matter how many times Tess thought about it, and she was doing that far too much, it still didn't seem like a pass to her, but genuine attraction.
Not that that would lead to anything other than some sexy sack timeâif she were to allow thatâbefore this whole tabloid thing blew over and Josh went his way, while she went hers.
She suppressed a sigh. “No. And he won't. I've set up some very strict ground rules.”
“If he's such a gentleman why'd you have to do that?”
“I wanted to make it all legal.”
Freddy jabbed his finger into the contract. “So your ground rules are all in here, right?”
“My ground rules are what you and Mama taught me.”
His expression remained hard, but his gaze was beginning to soften, the same as his voice. “I let you become a cop. I let you become a bodyguard. And now you do this to me?”
“We can't all be dancers like Mama.”
“You could try.”
“I like what I do. I'm good at what I do. I got you that contract, didn't I?”
“That's money. You're my daughter. He's going to respect you, got it?”
“He's a good man, so he will.”
“Good men don't pose like he did for a tabloid.”
“He didn't pose, he was sucker punched, and you know it.”
“I know he's rich enough to buy trunks.”
And cover that beautiful body? Now that would be a crime. “I've told him he needs to be dressed from now on.”
“Tell him he better be fully clothed twenty-four seven while you're at his place or he'll hear from me.”
“He already knows that, Pop. Now really, I gotta go.” Tess kissed his cheek, again, murmured a farewell in Spanish as her mom always had, then moved quickly to the car.
She stopped at his tone, a plea rather than a command, and looked back at him. In that moment, a wave of sadness washed over Tess. He looked so alone, so forlorn when what she always recalled was the lightness in his step, his amazing strength. Despite his stocky appearance, he was getting old. He shouldn't be alone. He should have a woman to watch over him, just as she was going to be watching over Joshâat least for a little while. “Yeah, Pop?”
“You call me when you get there.”
“And when you go inside.”
She arched one brow.
“And when you go to bed.”
He screwed up his mouth. “You be good.”
Oh, she would, at least in her actions, but her thoughts?
They were going to be trouble what with Josh's scent, his voice, and laughter surrounding her, while memories of his kiss kept playing in her mind tempting her to do more.
Far, far more.
t five minutes to seven Tess turned into the private drive that led to Josh's gated estate, then slowed the Mercedes to a crawl.
She knew she shouldn't be dragging her feet, not at this late hour, but Tess honestly couldn't help herself. The Internet photos she had seen of this place had not done it justice.
Her gaze swept the lavish vegetation that both surrounded and dwarfed her. Live oaks mingled with moss-draped cypress to create a thick canopy of green, which was momentarily still, then fluttering as the ocean breeze whispered past. Towering banyan trees, with trunks as wide as her childhood home, captured the sun's lowering rays. The air was cooler here, clean, and sweetly scented by all that vegetation and the rich earth.
Wow. No wonder Josh liked to frolic in the nude here. To Tess's way of thinking, the Garden of Eden had nothing on this spot.
She looked to the left and to the right; she even turned as far as she could in her seat to see it all, then finally got a move on. Not that it mattered. The vegetation never seemed to end. After a few minutes, Tess wondered if she had taken the wrong turn and was in a state recreational area. She looked for signs, but instead spotted a red convertible parked to the side.
Again, she slowed the Mercedes to a crawl, then stopped it just behind the convertible.
It was a cute little thing with Florida tags. Tess noted the plate number and expiration, then looked up. Ahead, to the left, was an impressive wrought iron gate that was nicely weathered to a grayish-green, matching the primordial vegetation. Thick vines covered the estate's walls, while several baskets of brightly colored flowers had been left to block the drive.
Oh, she had the right place.
Those flowers were twins to what she had seen earlier at Josh's office. Only this time, the person delivering those goodies was still here. She was young, her hair was dyed a bright red, she was scantily dressed in pale yellow short-shorts and a halter, had a tattoo on her left ankle, and was completely unaware of being watched as she tried again and again to punch in the right access code to get into the estate.
With her gaze riveted to that tattoo, Tess pulled out her cell phone and dialed Natalie Cruz, her former partner on the force.
After two rings, Nat said, “Cruz.”
“Franklin,” Tess said, using that same don't-bother-me voice.
“Hey, Tessie,” Nat said, quickly warming up. “How you doing?”
“Ask me that tomorrow morning.”
The woman chuckled. “Hooking up with Mr. Maybe Could Be Right tonight, huh?”
Ask me that tomorrow morning.
“Not exactly. Do me a favor?”
“I won't tell your dad you're not a virgin, I swear.”
Tess's laughter was throaty.
Tess gave her the tag numbers from that baby convertible. As she waited for the computer to finish its search, Tess kept her gaze on that redhead's surgically-enhanced butt while commenting to Nat's gossip.
“Amazing,” Tess said, “Stein actually bought that pet grooming place?”
“Yup. He's turning in his badge for that. He told me he needs clients, so if you could help?”
“I'll let Tommy Minelli know. He could use his back shaved.”
“You got that right. I saw him just last week wrestling some goon wearing a Schwartzenegger mask. What a way to make a living.”
“Hey, I was thinking of telling my father I wanted to do that now.”
Nat laughed so hard she started to choke.
“Easy,” Tess said, her gaze lifting to that redhead's surgically-enhanced boobs.
“I'm fine,” Nat said, then cleared her throat once more. “Okay, here you go.”
Tess nodded as Nat gave her the results of that computer search. “Thanks. I owe ya.”
“Not a problem. But if my mother happens to ask if I'm still a virgin, you tell her that if she ever doubts my purity, she don't get to visit my kids no more. It's bye-bye, Grandma.”
Tess laughed, then said a quick good-bye.
Once she was out of the Mercedes, she slipped the cell into her back pocket and went up to the gate where the young redhead was still trying to crack that code.
“You look busy,” Tess said in her friendliest voice.
The girl didn't even bother to look up. “Get lost. I was here first.”
“Oh, yeah?” Tess asked, keeping her tone light. “You wouldn't be lying to me now, Libby, would you?”
The girl punched in two more numbers before she realized that Tess had just used her name. Glancing up, she met Tess's gaze, then looked right back down as if she were sizing up the competition.
Libby's quick frown said she didn't like what she saw. “Who are you?”
“I would be the girlfriend.”
That frown deepened. “Josh is dating you?”
Josh? My, aren't we familiar.
“No, Libby, I'm dating him. That makes it a whole lot worse for you.”
Libby backed away. “How'd you know my name?”
Tess followed. She smiled. “Easy. It's on the mail that's delivered to your place. You do still live at Fifty-five Conch Court inâ”
“Have you been following me?” She continued to back away, while Tess continued to follow. “How dare you follow me!”
“Well, you are trying to break our access code, aren'tâ”
“You leave me alone!”
“I haven't even started to bother you yet.”
“I'm warning you!”
Tess continued to smile. “Better chill, hon, otherwise you'll give yourself wrinkles. You are pushing thirty, you know. You were born in November, right? The third, I believe. And no way are you only one-hundred-and-twenty pounds. I'd say more like one-forty.”
Oddly enough, the weight thing did it. Turning quickly, Libby bolted for her car, fired it up, and zoomed away.
“That was easy,” Tess mumbled to herself. Maybe too easy. She hadn't even hesitated when claiming to be Josh's girlfriend. In fact, that was the easiest part of all.
Tess shook her head, simply amazed at how easily she was being sucked into this, then she called the security company that had its little signs posted all over this place. She told them to get one of their people out here to watch the estate's perimeter until Privacy Dynamics took over in the morning. With that finished, Tess decided to be professional and announce her arrival, rather than just showing up.
Trouble was, she got no response on the intercom.
She tried again and got zip.
Tess wondered if the intercom was broken or if Josh hadn't gotten back from work yet. After all, he was a busy man. A popular man.
Her gaze slid to those baskets of flowers hugging the gate. It was possible that even more of those gifts had arrived at his office and he was having trouble crawling through them to get back here.
Unless he was skinny-dipping in his pool, again.
Tess closed her eyes, thinking about the problems that would create, and not only for Josh. Already her heart was racing to the thought of seeing him fully clothed. If he were nude, God help her. Lifting her face to the sky, Tess said to no one in particular, “Ready or not, here I come.”
She tossed the baskets to the side, punched in the access code, and returned to the Mercedes as the gate swung open.
The drive to the house was shorter than the one to the gate, but no less spectacular.
Here, an attempt had been made to tame the lush vegetation, though it was hardly subdued. Ferns, squat palms, and tropical flowers nuzzled each other as they competed for space.
Tess again slowed the car to a crawl, turned off the air-conditioning and stereo, then lowered her window. Gone were the sounds of traffic and people. In its place was the ocean's faint rustle, the throaty cooing of birds, and a comforting peace.
She shook her head and spoke in a whisper, “Adam and Eve, eat your freaking hearts out.”
Never in her life had she seen such beauty. It was as if she had stepped back in time.
Ahead, weathered statues of angels or fairies held vases that overflowed with thick, green vines. As one tropical garden stopped, another started, until the vegetation finally paused, allowing space for the house that was just ahead.
This time, Tess stopped the car. She got out and stared.
The house had been painted a light peach that blushed coral beneath the lowering sun. It was two stories, of a Caribbean design with wide verandas and lots of gingerbread. That ornamentation seemed even whiter next to the scarlet bougainvillea that clung to each graceful column. The arched windows were tall; the shutters opened to allow in every bit of light.
Tess moved closer.
On the front porch a pair of white Adirondack chairs awaited guests, or the man and woman who had once claimed this place as their home.
Had those chairs been part of the original estate? Had they been used by the first man and woman who had come here?
What business had he been in? Was she a bride?
Tess imagined she was and could almost feel that woman's awe at these surroundings, her restlessness of what was to come as her carriage clattered to a stop in this exact place more than a century ago.
The horses would have whinnied then and kicked at the dirt path; the servant would have kept his gaze forward, not daring to look at his master.
Tess's gaze turned inward. Her mind pictured that young man with dark eyes, but surprisingly light hair worn stylishly long in the fashion of the day.
She imagined his new wife stealing a glance, only to see that his gaze was already on her.
Had her heartbeat quickened in that moment? Had her breath caught when he boldly placed his hand on her waist? Until that touch there had surely been no intimacy, not even so much as a caress or a kiss.
Tess thought about that, and what a wedding night meant to a young woman in the late eighteen-eighties as she was being carried by her husband to this front porch, the one Tess was standing on right now.
She looked down to the polished wood faintly creaking beneath her weight, and imagined that husband's weight making an even greater noise because he would have been taller than most, with a strong build. His gaze would have been no less potent, remaining on his wife as he opened the door, just as Tess was now doing, and brought her inside.
Again, Tess felt as if she were stepping back in time.
The front entrance was large and airy with high ceilings, Bahama fans, and shiny hardwood floors. To the right, Tess saw a parlor that was not yet fully renovated. Its walls were freshly papered, the floor had been restored, but the marble fireplace looked as if it had seen better days. To the left was another room that had no set purpose, though the windows wore delicate lace curtains and white wicker furniture had been stacked in the corner.
Ahead was a wide staircase leading to the second floor, the master bedroom.
Tess went to that first step. She looked up. The landing was washed in the day's waning light, the doors closed.
Even so, her mind saw a room dominated by a four-poster with lacy linens, mosquito netting, and a fireplace for cool nights.
Had that night, more than a century ago, been sultry and still as the master carried his new bride up these stairs to his room? Tess believed it was. She imagined that man lowering his wife to her feet, so that he might open the French doors leading to the veranda. Fragrant, moist air would have wafted inside. Faint voices of the workers would have been heard.
Not that it mattered. Those men would hardly have dared to come near this house while the master was enjoying his bride.
But she would have known those workers were outside, and that would have added another layer of tension to this night.
Tess imagined the questions running through that woman's mind. Would they hear her moans as her husband aroused her? Would they know she was naked, her flesh bared to a man who would use her as he willed?
Would they guess when his mouth suckled one of her nipples, while his long fingers stroked her hidden lips? Would they imagine her surprise as those fingers so aptly invaded her, driving deep to prepare her for more? That moment when she would no longer be a girl, but a woman. That moment when her husband finally mounted her.
Would she spread her legs widely then; would her gaze be on this man who was muscled and hard above her, while the featherbed was achingly soft below?
Did she gasp as he finally entered, breaking through any barrier that kept them separated, that stopped her from being his?
Did her body at last dance with her husband's as she wrapped her legs around his lean hips, and threw back her head, then opened her mouth as she cried out again and again andâ
Will you just stop?
Tess covered her eyes with her hand, breathed hard, and told herself that no eighteen-eighties bride had ever had a night like that. Hell, she had never had a night like that even years after losing her virginity, so what was she thinking?
In those days if a woman couldn't catch her breath, it wasn't due to passion, but because of the corset she was forced to wear and possibly a former bout with TB, while her husband was most likely very old, very demanding, and about as hot as one of her father's middle-aged friends.
In other words, he wouldn't have looked or acted or made love like Josh.
Where is he?
Tess dropped her hand and looked over her right shoulder, then her left as she recalled his words.
I'll be expecting you at seven. Sharp.
It was after seven now, so where was he?