Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
But suddenly, and in blinding clarity, she realized that by coming with Larkin to his home turf, she had placed herself in tremendous danger. No one in her entire life had ever loved her enough to put her first. Even Larkin had been quick to point out that he wasn’t interested in a conventional relationship that culminated in orange blossoms and wedding bells.
The truth seemed inescapable. She would go to his bed. How could she not? He was everything a woman could want in a man. Strong. Honorable. Virtually irresistible. He had revived in her a sexuality she’d thought long euthanized.
The resultant chaos in her soul was painful in the extreme, much like the awakening of a limb that had fallen asleep. She didn’t
to want Larkin Wolff. She didn’t want to
anything for him. But she feared the damage was already done. With Larkin, she responded as a woman…whether she liked it or not.
he dozed off without meaning to, and when she jerked awake and glanced at the clock in a panic, she had just twenty-five minutes to prepare. Her hair was a challenge on the best of days. And of all times, this evening she wanted to appear chic and poised. A tall order for someone with her lack of height and a headful of frizzy curls.
She brushed out as many of the kinks as she could manage and then used a flatiron to tame the rest. With more luck than dexterity, she captured the unruly mass at the back of her head and secured it in a simple French twist. The diamond teardrop earrings she slipped into her earlobes were small enough for a family evening at home…given that the family in question was the Wolffs.
Standing in a recently purchased demi bra and panties, she surveyed the dresses she had brought with her. First impressions were important. And there were several ways she could go. Self-important heiress. Quiet outsider. Neutral onlooker.
Unfortunately, fashion was not always so easily labeled, so in the end, she decided to go with
The dress she chose was red, but that was the only flashy thing about it. The fabric was a silk blend that felt sensuous against her skin. The sleeves ended just below the elbow. A narrow sash cinched her waist, and there was enough fullness in the skirt to swish nicely as she walked.
Although the back of the dress zipped to the top of her spine, the front dipped in what was for Winnie a daring V. She had always been embarrassed by her generous breasts. And it wasn’t that they were abnormally large, but the rest of her was so small, they stood out. Her habit was to downplay them as much as possible.
Even now, the cleavage revealed was practically chaste. But as Winnie gazed at herself in the mirror critically, she could almost feel the heat of Larkin’s gaze. The curves revealed by the dress would draw his eyes inevitably. Would he assume she had dressed to please him?
Tugging the bodice a bit higher, she sighed and went in search of shoes. Black patent-leather heels to be exact. She’d packed sling backs with pointed toes and stiletto heels. The shoes made a statement.
Her legs were as white as the rest of her, but she couldn’t abide panty hose. And she didn’t have the nerve to deck herself out in a garter belt and stockings. One hurdle at a time. Surely it was enough that she had bought new underwear. Which Larkin might or might not get to see.
With eight minutes left for makeup, she relaxed. Long ago she had given up trying to cover her freckles. Lip gloss and a dash of eye shadow were enough to transform her usual ultracasual self into a fashionable, though lightly gilded lily.
When the knock sounded at her door, she sucked in a breath. Showtime. She flattened her hand on her stomach, seeking in vain to calm the riotous butterflies. Taking her time, she crossed the room and threw wide the door. “I’m ready,” she said.
* * *
Larkin couldn’t have been more surprised if she had greeted him stark naked. He swallowed hard, caught unawares by the sheer sexuality she exuded. He tried not to stare at her breasts. Never would he be so rude or gauche with another woman of his acquaintance.
With his throat dry and his jaw tight, he focused on a spot somewhere over her shoulder. “You look very nice,” he said as he ushered her out into the hall and shut her door.
Winnie punched him lightly on the shoulder. “I believe that’s called
damning with faint praise.
I was hoping for better.”
He debated kissing her. Too damn risky. “Would you rather I told you you’re so hot in that dress I want to take you up against the wall with my hands under your skirt squeezing your ass?”
His voice came out gruff, scratchy and hungry.
“Behave yourself,” she muttered.
They walked side by side down the wide hallway, close, but not touching. His entire body was rigid. Though he loved his family dearly, he could consign them all to the devil at this exact moment. And if they saw the look on his face, they would be in no doubt about his plans for Winnie.
As they descended the stairs and headed toward the formal dining room, he concentrated on anything but the smell of Winnie’s innocent scent. He didn’t really care if his family speculated about the nature of his relationship to Winnie. But revealing his obsession was another matter entirely.
No one noticed them for several long seconds when they entered the room. Everyone was present and accounted for except the children. Larkin leaned his head toward Winnie. “The little ones are with a sitter tonight. Dad and Uncle Victor wanted a formal, grown-up dinner. It’s rare that we all make it here at one time.”
Suddenly, Larkin’s uncle spotted them. Raising his voice and tapping his wineglass with a spoon, the old man boomed out a greeting. “It’s about time you showed up. I’m starving.”
Laughter broke out, and in moments Larkin was enveloped in a wild rush of hugs and kisses. He looked over his shoulder in the midst of the mayhem to see that Winnie had stepped to one side, a contemplative smile curving her lips. Their eyes met. He jerked his head, indicating his wish for her to join him. But Winnie waited until everyone melted away to take his or her seat.
Larkin remained standing and pulled her to his side. “It’s good to be home,” he said simply. “This is my friend Winnie Bellamy. She’s been having some trouble with the press, so I’m stashing her here on the mountain for a couple of weeks until things blow over. I told her you all wouldn’t mind. Do me a favor and don’t overwhelm her. I’ll give her the playlist while we eat, but take pity on her and remind her of your names if she forgets.”
After a chorus of
Larkin held her chair, seated her and took his own place at the table. He realized almost immediately that all eyes were on him and his guest.
He sighed and muttered in a low voice. “I might as well introduce them all now. Or else we’ll never get to eat.”
Winnie nodded, looking a bit like the proverbial deer in the headlights, though he was pretty sure he was the only one who noticed. She had an innate sense of poise and composure that stood her well in the midst of this crazy group.
Before Larkin could begin, Victor Wolff stood and raised a glass. “I’d like to propose a toast.”
Everyone lifted a wine goblet, including Winnie. Larkin listened, half wincing, to see what his outspoken uncle would say.
Victor was still bluff and dictatorial, but his manner had softened over the years. He and Larkin’s father had been in their forties when they’d both married much younger wives. Now they were beginning to look like old men. “This family has seen its share of sorrow.” He paused, his throat working visibly. “I never imagined that when you were all grown you would have the sense to pick such fine partners. I think I should have more than two grandchildren by now—” he slanted a stern look at Jacob “—but I am so damned proud of each and every one of you. To the Wolffs.”
To the Wolffs.
The toast echoed around the table, and Larkin felt his own throat tighten with emotion. It had been a long, sometimes dreary road, but now he finally had the satisfaction of seeing his brother and sister happy—really happy.
Larkin started to say something to Winnie, but Victor wasn’t finished. “We’re delighted Larkin brought along a friend. As cohost tonight, Winnie, I hope you’ll allow me to present you to this somewhat motley crew.”
Winnie nodded and smiled shyly. “I’d appreciate that, sir.”
Victor put his hand on the shoulder of a large, fierce-looking man to his right. “This boy is my eldest, Gareth. Next to him his wife, Gracie, the only woman who has ever had the temerity to challenge our resident hermit.” A titter of laughter circled the table, but Victor continued. “They have a precious toddler you’ll meet tomorrow. Then we have my youngest son, Kieran, and his wife, Olivia. Kieran was our globe-trotter, but he’s finally decided he likes a more permanent life here on the mountain, thank God. Their daughter, Cammie, is in grade school. And last but not least on my branch of the family tree is my middle boy, Jacob. I don’t suppose you need an introduction to his spouse.”
If Winnie was overwhelmed, she didn’t show it. “Oh, no…not at all. Ms. Dane, I’m a huge fan.”
Larkin’s sister-in-law was an Academy Award–winning actress. But here at Wolff Mountain she was known simply as
Though she had been an official Wolff for some time now, she kept her stage name.
Larkin tensed momentarily, waiting for his father to stand. Vincent Wolff seemed far more frail than he had even a few months ago. But to Larkin’s surprise, Victor continued his emcee duties.
“With my brother’s permission I’ll finish out the roster. His eldest is Devlyn sitting to his left, along with Gillian, who has been a part of this family one way or another for a long, long time. Devlyn runs Wolff Enterprises out of our headquarters in Atlanta. Beside Gillian is Sam Ely, again a longtime family friend. Sam had the guts to court our beautiful Annalise. They produced the newest member of the Wolff family just a few months ago. And I think that’s it.”
Annalise looked at her brother with a gimlet stare and then focused her pointed gaze on Winnie. “Winnie Bellamy? As in Winifred Bellamy, the heiress?”
* * *
Winnie felt like an animal at the zoo. Although the attention of Larkin’s family was understandable, she felt exposed. Particularly when Annalise, whom Larkin loved dearly, asked what everyone else was thinking.
“That’s me,” Winnie said, wishing she had an ounce of Annalise’s boundless confidence.
“And how did you two meet?”
“Annalise.” The warning tone in Larkin’s voice didn’t deter his sister.
“Merely a commonplace question.”
“It’s okay,” Winnie said, straightening her spine and tightly clasping her hands in her lap. “Larkin was doing some security work for me. He was kind enough to offer me a place to hide out. That’s about it.”
Beneath the table, she felt Larkin’s big, warm left hand enclose her right one. He squeezed gently.
“Enough interrogation,” he said. “I promised Winnie that you all were civilized for the most part. Don’t prove me wrong.”
His sister leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Whatever you say, big brother. We’re all just thrilled you’re here for a visit again so soon. Unprecedented, isn’t it?”
Larkin’s lips twitched in a small smile. “I had some vacation time coming.”
“You can’t even
vacation,” Annalise muttered.
The sibling banter halted when Victor rang a small bell, and moments later half a dozen servers entered the room. Winnie was granted a reprieve as the table sagged with an assortment of food that rivaled any elegant restaurant. She ate quietly, content to study the interplay between the siblings and cousins and in-laws.
The six younger generation Wolffs teased each other unmercifully, with the spouses interjecting occasionally. The affection and respect between Victor and his sons was unmistakable. A family bond that appeared to be unbreakable.
Larkin’s father, however, was oddly withdrawn, and although he and his sons and daughter exchanged polite comments, to Winnie’s critical eyes, it seemed as if there was some sort of odd, disturbing distance between father and children. Devlyn and Annalise and Larkin were tight—that much was clear. But something was different on that side of the table. Something intangible, but very real.
The long, drawn-out meal was enjoyable, but not exactly relaxing. Winnie was very conscious that she was under observation. Curiosity seemed a more likely impetus than any criticism, but she was still relieved when at nine o’clock the family began to scatter. Those with kids went to rescue babysitters. Devlyn headed upstairs to the office to discuss business with the two elder Wolffs. Gillian mentioned a phone call to her mother, who lived nearby, and Ariel was still suffering jet lag after returning home from a movie shoot in Australia, so she and Jacob said their good-nights, as well.
When the room emptied, Winnie glanced sideways at Larkin. They had both stood during the exodus. Now she shifted from one leg to the other, feeling the pinch of new shoes on feet that weren’t accustomed to heels. In a matter of moments, given the size of the room, an unexpected sense of intimacy enclosed them.
Larkin’s eyes danced. “Well, did you survive?”
She grimaced. “Your clan is delightful, but overwhelming. As an only child, I found myself envying you all that familial closeness. I know about the tragedy you all dealt with, but in an odd way, I have a feeling that your isolation growing up gave you bonds you might not have had otherwise.”
“That’s certainly true.”
Something grim flickered in his eyes. Was it the memory of loss, or a more current pain? “Is your father okay?”
Had she not been watching so closely, she might have missed Larkin’s tiny grimace. It was gone in less than a second, and his expression was closed when he shrugged. “Getting older. But yes.”
“Do you get along? You and Devlyn and Annalise seem guarded when you talk to him.” Larkin’s features turned to stone and she knew she had overstepped her bounds. “I’m sorry. It’s none of my business,” she said hurriedly.
He stared at her for long seconds. “I’m not sure we’ve reached the point of exchanging confidences like that—have we?”
She knew immediately what he meant. Back in Tennessee when he’d pushed her to explain why she had opened her home to domestic refugees, she had balked. “Fair enough.”
He brushed a thumb across her cheekbone, his touch sending little prickles of sensation down her spine. “I’m perfectly willing to answer your questions.”
“But only if I reciprocate?”
He nodded. “You can trust me to keep your secrets, Winnie. We Wolffs are good at that…too good at times.”
“I hardly know you.”
“Doesn’t feel that way.” Larkin spoke the God’s honest truth. His hand actually trembled as he touched her hair. Nothing diminished the ache he felt when he was close to her. Not even the presence of his loud, boisterous family. Beneath the thin fabric of her crimson dress her nipples beaded unmistakably.