Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
Annalise hooted with derision, but in her eyes Winnie saw the deep immutable knowledge that she was loved. Envy was not a pleasant emotion, but Winnie acknowledged it. Would she ever come close to having what Annalise possessed?
Quietly eating her meal, she wondered why Annalise and Sam were here at all, when their own house sat not far away on the mountaintop. Larkin had told her all about his cousins’ homes. Only Devlyn and Larkin did not have permanent abodes on the mountain.
Annalise patted her lips with a napkin and leaned her elbows on the table, chin in hand. “I’ve never known my brother to bring a woman along for a family weekend. What’s the deal?”
“Annalise…” The warning note in her husband’s voice didn’t faze her.
“Well, I want to know, damn it.”
Sam glared at her as he covered the baby’s ears.
Annalise grimaced, still looking at Winnie. “Sorry. I gave up cursing two years ago, but it hasn’t stuck.”
Winnie smiled, charmed by Larkin’s assertive sister. “Well, I—”
“You don’t have to answer that, Winnie.” Sam held up a hand, still giving his wife the evil eye.
“It’s okay. No big secret,” Winnie said. “As Larkin told you, I’ve been having a bit of trouble with the press. He thought it would be a good idea for me to hide out here until things die down.”
“It was that ‘richest women in America’ article, wasn’t it?” Annalise scowled.
Sam wiped drool from his son’s chin. “My wife is jealous she wasn’t included. When we got married, she put the bulk of her fortune in a trust for our children. Making her a kept woman. I like to keep her barefoot and pregnant.”
“You are such a pig.” Annalise, laughing, threw a strawberry at him. Then she turned back to Winnie. “But the more important question—is there anything going on between you and my brother?”
Winnie froze. Being a bad liar was a handicap. “Well, I…”
eave her alone, brat.” After walking for miles over and around Wolff Mountain with his brother and three cousins, Larkin had paused only long enough to strip out of his sweat-soaked clothes and take a shower, before going in search of Winnie. He wasn’t pleased to find her being interrogated by his sister.
Annalise had a knack for intimidation. Though in truth, Winnie didn’t seem upset or anxious. He had expected one of her shy smiles when he walked into the room. She did smile…but the expression in her eyes was guarded—certainly not the look of a woman who had spent the better part of the night wrapped in his arms.
Mindful that he and Winnie hadn’t discussed whether to keep their intimacy a secret, he settled for brushing her shoulder with his hand as he sat down beside her. “Morning, Winnie. Did you sleep well?”
She nodded, and for once, there was no pretty pink blush to reveal her state of mind. “Very well, thank you. I’ve been enjoying breakfast with these three lovely people.”
Sam snorted. “That’s the polite version. Annalise has been badgering her.”
“I most certainly have not.” His wife glared at him. “But at least now I know why they’re here.”
“You told them?” Larkin shot a sideways glance at Winnie, surprised, to say the least.
The slight shake of her head gave him a warning. “I explained that the article has been causing me some headaches and that you convinced me I should lay low here for a while.”
Ah. Not the whole story, but enough to appease his sister. As the maid entered the room, Larkin pointed at Sam’s plate. “I’ll have what he’s having, please. I’m starving.”
Winnie had finished her meal but was enjoying a coffee refill. “How far did you walk this morning?” Her tone indicated polite interest, nothing more.
His blood began to boil. It was one thing to hide the level of their relationship from his family, but another entirely to treat him like a virtual stranger. “I have no idea,” he said evenly, as the maid came back into the room and placed his breakfast in front of him before exiting. “We run part of the trails, do some rock climbing, tramp through the overgrown woods. It’s more of a ritual than a walk or a hike. Wolff Mountain has always been here for us. We like to remind ourselves of that whenever we come home.”
come home, you mean. The rest of us are here on a regular basis.”
His sister was baiting him, a game they often played, but one that was not appreciated this morning. He wanted to get Winnie alone and see what the heck was going on.
He paused, fork in midair, and frowned at Annalise. “Devlyn doesn’t.”
“But Devlyn runs the company from Atlanta. He has an excuse. You don’t.”
Surprisingly, Winnie spoke up in his defense. “Larkin’s firm is very well respected in Nashville. People I know speak highly of him. The business is not exactly something he can run from a distance.”
Larkin felt his neck get hot. His sister was looking at him with barely veiled incredulity. Not only had he brought a woman over the threshold of Wolff Mountain, it appeared he was allowing that woman to fight his battles for him.
He cleared his throat and set down his fork. “Annalise is merely trying to needle me. It’s what she does. The only reason
has a house here is because she married an architect, and he indulges her every whim. Most of the time they live outside of Charlottesville.”
Winnie grinned. “I was an only child, so this sibling-rivalry thing is new to me. Carry on.”
Sam stood with the baby. “I’m going to take this little bruiser back home and give him his bath. Stay and talk if you want to, honey.”
Annalise rose, as well. “I won’t stay where I’m not wanted.” Grinning, she walked around the table and stood behind her brother, leaning down to give him a big hug. “Whatever the reason, I’m glad you’re here, Larkin. I miss you. We all do.”
The trio departed, and suddenly, the room fell silent. Larkin took another bite of his breakfast. Winnie’s eyes were trained on her coffee cup. The two of them were surrounded by several doorways, any one of which might usher in the next intruder. It was not the place for a serious conversation.
Larkin shoved back from the table, leaning his chair on two legs. “How about I show you the house?” His plan was to get her alone and demand to know what the hell was going on.
She stood up. “Later perhaps. I need to call home and make sure everything is okay.”
“I can save you some time.” He reached in his pocket and handed her a slip of paper.
He lowered his voice. “It’s a live link to the site where my people post their reports four times a day. The female staff I’ve assigned to the safe house also include brief case updates on each of your women and children.” He paused. “The password is
When she looked blank, he chuckled. “That’s
“I thought you’d like to keep up with things, so you wouldn’t have to worry.”
standing, she looked down at him. “This is very thoughtful of you. I appreciate it.” Not one indication from her that they’d been naked together a few hours before.
“That’s what you’re paying me for.” He got to his feet, pissed and ready to pick a fight. But Winnie didn’t react to his sarcastic comment. What in the hell was going on inside that head of hers? Just when he thought he had her figured out, she disappeared into some place he couldn’t reach.
He wanted to kiss her. Badly. He was pretty sure that physical contact could break through this weird impasse. But not with the possibility of an audience.
“Come let me show you around.” He kept his tone coaxing, gentle.
She shook her head. “I’m really tired,” she said. “I’d like to go to my room for a while.”
“You just got up.” He was losing it, and he could feel his frustration in the corded muscles of his neck and the way his breakfast churned in his stomach.
Winnie grimaced. “Your family is charming, but rather overwhelming. I’ll be down for lunch, I promise.”
Leaving him to stand there with his mouth hanging open in shock, Winnie walked out of the room.
* * *
She made it to her suite before the tears started in earnest. Making sure the bedroom door was firmly locked, she flung herself across the bed, buried her face in a pillow and sobbed.
That’s what you’re paying me for.
How could she have forgotten, even for a minute? Larkin Wolff was in her employ. He took care of things, because that was his job. Sleeping with her probably fell under the heading of fringe benefits.
The stress of the past month caught up with her. At least that was what she wanted to blame for this hollow feeling in her chest. Not since her parents died had she felt such a sense of loss. Which made no sense, because Larkin was not hers to lose. He was honorable and kind and sexy as hell, but he was a free agent. He’d told her so. And she had believed him. But last night in bed her world had been turned upside down. So much passion and tenderness surely came from a place of affection at least.
No rationalization made the situation any more palatable. But she had never believed in feeling sorry for herself, so after fifteen minutes of crying that made her eyes swollen and her cheeks blotchy, she forced herself to get up, wash her face and make a plan of action.
On the worst days of her life, she had always survived by creating a list, checking something off and telling herself that tomorrow would be better. If that was what she had to do in order to remain sane during her exile on Wolff Mountain, she would do it.
Still feeling shaky and sad, she got out her computer and used the link Larkin had provided. Seeing in print how well things were going back home lightened her mood significantly. She cared deeply about each woman and child who came through her gates. Little Esteban had really carved out a place in Winnie’s heart, and it would be wrenching to see him go. But the whole purpose of what she did was to ensure that women could eventually make a new start in a home where they felt safe and happy.
The sound of a car engine outside her window enticed her to peer through the curtains and see what was going on. As she watched, Gareth and Larkin climbed into a Jeep and headed off down the drive. Conflicting emotions bounced around in her head. Relief that she didn’t have to face him for a little bit. And sorrow that he was gone.
She spent some time unpacking her suitcases, and then decided to explore the house on her own. It was a deliberate attempt to sidestep any notion Larkin had of coaxing her into fooling around in some out-of-the-way corner of his castle.
The house was huge, but laid out in such a manner that it made sense. Starting in the charming attic, she made her way from floor to floor, memorizing the location of various rooms such as the library and the solarium. Doors of unoccupied rooms stood open, each one pristine and ready for guests.
She found Annalise’s teenage bedroom still with posters of bands and fashion icons on the walls. None of the boys’ rooms had been preserved in that way as far as she could tell. The few doors that were closed didn’t tempt her in the least. She had no interest in snooping.
Once she made it back down to the ground floor she was ready to follow the smells of lunch being prepared, when suddenly, Vincent Wolff stepped out of what was unmistakably his office.
Once upon a time he must have been a handsome, impressive figure. Now he was stoop-shouldered, and his skin had a sallow tone that bespoke ill health. “Ms. Bellamy,” he said. “What a nice surprise. Do you have a moment to chat?”
His tone indicated he wasn’t really asking a question. Echoes of the dictatorial entrepreneur he had once been shone from fierce eyes.
Winnie grimaced inwardly. “Of course.”
He seated her and closed the door. “Would you care for a drink?”
She shook her head. “No, thank you.”
The old man poured himself a finger of whiskey and sat down in a leather chair opposite its twin, where Winnie perched. He knocked back the liquor, set the glass on a table at his elbow and studied her. “Larkin has never brought a woman here. You must be special.”
“We’re just friends.”
Vincent Wolff’s harrumph carried a world of disbelief. “When he was in his early twenties, I had to pay off at least three bimbos who were after his money. Sometimes young men think with their dicks.”
Winnie’s face flamed with embarrassment. She gripped her hands in her lap, speechless.
Vincent chuckled. “Good Lord. If my plain speaking makes you turn red as a tomato, I’ll have to watch my words. I apologize.”
“Thank you.” Was that the correct response? Winnie felt the walls closing in on her.
Vincent picked up an empty pipe and chewed on the stem. “I know you’ve got more money than you’ll ever need.”
She swallowed. “That’s true.”
“So maybe you’re actually in love with my boy.”
“Larkin and I only recently met.”
“Doesn’t matter. His mother and I first set eyes on each other at Christmas and were wed by Valentine’s.”
Winnie was beginning to wish she had taken the drink he’d offered. How was she supposed to escape this inquisition? “Nevertheless,” she said, her voice steady. “Larkin and I are not in a relationship.”
“Are you sleeping with him?”
“Excuse me, but you just stepped over the line.” Fury bubbled in her veins as she stood up and strode toward the door. He might be Larkin’s father, but she would not sit here and participate in such an inappropriate discussion.
Her hand was on the doorknob when Vincent stopped her cold. “Larkin is a complicated man. You seem like a nice girl. But you should know that.”
Winnie turned to face him, her face hot with a combination of temper and distress. “If Larkin wants me to know certain things, he’ll tell me.”
“Forewarned is forearmed.”
“I’m only here for a short visit. I know all I need to know about your son.”
“I doubt he’ll marry you.”
Ice formed in Winnie’s chest. Vincent wasn’t trying to cause trouble. He seemed genuinely concerned.
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t. And her feet were glued to the floor.
Vincent stared into the empty fireplace, his gnarled hands gripping the chair arms. “The others think just because they’re all happy as clams, that Larkin will follow suit. But they’re wrong. He’s got demons in him that keep him isolated from the pack. We rarely see him. So don’t let him break your heart, Ms. Bellamy.”
Winnie jerked open the door and ran. Lunch no longer had any appeal. She fled down the main hallway, and headed for the stairs that led up to her room. But before she made it to safety, Larkin came strolling around the corner.
He froze when they met, his eyes darting behind her, assessing, drawing conclusions. “Where have you been?” he asked, his voice harsh with suspicion.
She inhaled sharply, not accustomed to lying. “Your father asked me into his office so he could get to know me.”
“I doubt that. The old guy likes causing problems.”
“Well, he didn’t.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Nothing, Larkin. He was surprised you had brought me here, and I told him we were just friends.”
“You can say that with a straight face after last night?”
“Last night we were curious and we scratched an itch.” It was more for her—so much more. But that was irrelevant.
Larkin’s jaw tightened and his eyes flashed. “Come with me.”