Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
“Has anyone ever called you paranoid?”
She swallowed hard. “I don’t imagine a man like you understands what it means to be physically vulnerable. Women are stronger than men in many ways, but we will always face the threat of an attacker’s size and strength and come out on the short end.”
“Have you felt physically threatened since the article ran?”
“No. But there are other issues. As soon as you are sure the house and grounds are secure, I want you to take me somewhere safe for a couple of weeks, three at the most. We’ll leak the fact to the press that I’m running, but I’ll be trusting you to make sure my bolt-hole is secure.”
“I’ve got to tell you, Winnie. You’re confusing me. And I don’t like it.”
She chewed her bottom lip. Larkin Wolff was not a puppet to be manipulated by her will. He had brains and brawn and a surprisingly keen intuition that told him she was lying, at least by omission. She could see it on his face. “Before we go any further, do I have your solemn promise that my personal life and affairs are to be guarded as zealously as my physical well-being?”
He didn’t like being dragged by the tail in the dark. And he was pissed. A shiver worked its way down her spine. If he abandoned her, what would she do?
“Fine,” he said curtly. “Top secret. Need to know.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Surely you understand that my employees will have to be kept apprised of any potential threats.”
She didn’t like it, but he had a valid point. The more people involved, however, increased the opportunity for exposure. “I understand,” she muttered. “And I’m assuming you do thorough background checks.”
He snorted. “What do
The impasse was clear, at least in her own mind. She needed Larkin Wolff. And the only way he could help her was if she trusted him with her sworn secret.
Abruptly, she stood up, feeling her knees go weak and her palms sweat. If she made a mistake, the consequences could be disastrous. “Follow me, please.”
He rose, as well, his expression inscrutable. “Whatever you say.”
The check still lay on the table. Trying to buy his silence had been a mistake. Larkin Wolff had a personal code of ethics that she prayed to God was the real deal.
When they made their way through the house to the back and out onto a cool, screened-in veranda, Winnie stopped and waited until he stood beside her, shoulder to shoulder. The view was pastoral, a warm spring day basking in a benevolent sun.
“Over there,” she said, pointing until she realized her hand was shaking. She lowered it slowly. “That’s my primary concern.”
The building, a smaller version of the main house, sat the length of a football field away. Larkin studied it, his jaw rigid. “What’s so special about that spot?”
Tremors shook her, making her limbs weak as water. So many people counted on her. She cleared her throat, tears burning her eyes. “It’s a safe house for battered women and their children. Aside from a handful of trusted staff, myself and now you, only two other people know it even exists.”
Larkin struggled to reassess the mental picture he had painted of a slightly paranoid, vulnerable, eccentric rich woman. “You’re not worried about your own safety at all, are you?”
Winnie never took her eyes off the house in the distance. “No. I can take care of myself.” The stubborn tilt of her chin was an angle he recognized. Growing up, he’d seen it every day in one of his siblings or his cousins. An attitude that acknowledged life’s unfairness, but a determination to spit in the wind anyway. Winnie continued, “It’s my job to make sure those women and children stay out of harm’s way. That stupid article has threatened the security I promised them.”
“Why you? Aren’t there sanctuaries in the city for abuse victims?”
She shot him a sideways glance. “Government shortcomings aside, such situations demand physical distance. Once we bring our clients here, it’s much more difficult for angry husbands and boyfriends to track them down.”
“So you deliberately court danger on your very doorstep.”
She leaned back against a column, one bare foot tucked behind her as she balanced on the other. “You disapprove.”
He shrugged. “Clearly you don’t have the necessary precautions in place.”
He could almost see her hackles rise. “We’ve never had a hint of trouble. Still haven’t, for that matter…at least when it comes to my guests. But the article has opened a Pandora’s box. I need you to nail shut the lid.”
“I have to be honest with you, Winnie. You’re damned naive.”
Her eyes flashed and her hands fisted at her sides. “Maybe I wasn’t clear. I’m hiring you for security, not judgment.”
“Too bad,” he said, the dual syllables terse. “My protection comes with a whole complement of advice. It’s what I do.” He looked out across the neatly mowed lawn. “Take me down there.”
Winnie flinched. “Absolutely not. The women and children in the building are terrified of men…any men.”
“I won’t hurt them. Hell, I won’t even scare them.”
“You don’t know that. Everything about you screams macho alpha guy. You practically ooze testosterone.”
He grinned, the male in him reacting to her interest, even if it was reluctantly given. “Give me a little credit. I can do low-key. Part of my job is surveillance, remember?”
“I’ve never let anyone step over that doorstep except me and a handful of other professional women.”
“Doctors. Psychologists. A social worker.” Her unease was palpable.
“You trusted me enough to hire me. Now let me do my job.”
Their eyes locked, determination in his…enormous reluctance in hers. “Perhaps we could save that for tomorrow.”
Winnie. There’s no reason to wait.” He hadn’t yet had time to fully evaluate possible threats, but he needed to see the whole picture. Protecting the weak and helpless was a calling for him, perhaps not in his personal life, but definitely as a businessman. He would do everything in his power to make sure that Winnie and her charges were safe.
He kept his gaze steady, implacable. Sometimes people didn’t understand how precarious their safety really was. He had a hunch that Winnie was fairly self-aware, but the notion that evil could strike at any moment was a difficult concept for most normal people to accept.
Larkin had seen things that chilled his blood, some of them in his own backyard. He never allowed himself to be lulled into complacency. The world was full of monsters, even on a day that seemed as lovely and serene as a midsummer night’s eve.
At last, his dainty employer cracked. “Fine,” she said, her expression irritated but resigned. “Let me get my shoes.”
She was gone barely a minute. When she returned, something in his stomach tightened in appreciation. Her footwear was an odd cross between practical and quirky. Flat gold sandals made of an infinite number of narrow straps encased her feet and ran halfway up shapely, toned calves. The lick of arousal he experienced disconcerted him.
He swallowed, trying not to look down. “You ready?”
She lifted her chin, nose in the air. “Follow me.” By her voice and expression he saw that she was determined to be in charge. Her contrariness amused him. He’d let her take the lead, but when it came to the job, he’d do it his way, even if she balked. Winnie was paying him for his experience and expertise. Whether she liked it or not, he would take care of whatever or whoever was causing problems.
The stroll across the lawn was accomplished without words. Birds twittered, wind rustled in the trees and somewhere in the distance a lawn mower hummed. Winnie, however, maintained a stiff-lipped silence. Once, when she stumbled briefly, he touched her elbow automatically. She jerked away, no surprise, but not before the feel of her skin was burned into his fingertips. Soft, warm…delicate. Focusing his attention elsewhere was surprisingly difficult.
All the while they walked, he scanned the area, cataloging deficiencies in her security. Unless she had some kind of electrical perimeter, the low split-rail fencing in the distance was nothing more than decoration. With her hand on the front door handle of the neat brick structure, Winnie paused. He saw her throat move as she swallowed. “The children haven’t been able to play outside,” she said, “since the article ran. And I’m responsible.”
He saw pain in her eyes. Regret. Frustrated helplessness. All emotions he had known intimately as a child unable to protect his siblings. “You’re not responsible,” he said, touching her shoulder briefly in what he told himself was a gesture of comfort. “The situation is regrettable, but easily fixed.”
“What do you mean?” Hope and suspicion warred in her striking eyes.
“We’ll string up a camouflage tarp tomorrow…the kind of thing they use on army posts in the Middle East. From the air no one will be able to see the kids.”
“It’s that easy?”
“Let’s just say that’s the least of our problems.”
She worried her lower lip. “Promise you won’t talk to them.”
He mimed locking his mouth and tossing away the key. “Am I allowed to take notes?”
“Is it absolutely necessary? You strike me as the kind of man who keeps a lot of stuff in your head.”
He grinned. “Whatever the boss wants.”
Stepping through the doorway into a house full of women and children was not what he expected. Winnie had told him there were eight bedrooms and currently twenty-one clients. Instead of noise and confusion, an eerie silence reigned.
“Did they know we were coming?” he asked, sotto voce.
“They knew,” she whispered. “Someone is always looking out the window.”
Not a soul appeared to greet them.
Winnie took him room to room on the main floor. “We have an alarm that is set at nine each evening. It’s programmed to ring in the house…my bedroom actually.”
He frowned. “Not the police?”
“Things are pretty spread out around here, in case you haven’t noticed. I guess you could say I’m the first responder.”
“And what exactly do you think you could do?” he asked, not bothering to hide his incredulity.
Winnie stared at him with the haughtiness of a duchess. “I can shoot to maim or to kill, whatever the occasion demands. Don’t worry, Mr. Wolff. I protect what’s mine.”
He felt his anger rise and had to swallow it back. “You’ve hired
” he said mildly. “No need anymore for you to mete out vigilante justice.”
“You don’t believe me.” It was a statement, not a question.
He ran a hand across the back of his neck. “I’m not disputing your ability to handle a firearm. I’m merely suggesting you let me handle intruders from now on out.”
“And how will you do that from the comfort of your swanky downtown office?”
“You know nothing about my office.”
“Wrong,” she said, her expression triumphant. “A trusted friend of mine made a fake appointment two weeks ago, met you and scoped out your operation.”
“The hell you say…” His indignation mushroomed.
“It’s not unethical.”
“No, but it’s…” He trailed off, unable to articulate the exact mix of emotions he felt. Had a man done the same thing Winnie had done, Larkin would have applauded his thoroughness. Then why was he so taken aback? “Am I allowed to know what your spy uncovered?”
She chuckled, correctly reading his pique. “He told me you ran a tight ship and that your offices indicated a healthy bottom line. Satisfied?”
Larkin shrugged. “I expected nothing less. That’s all true.” He turned away, determined to regain control of the situation. “I’ll ramp up the security measures already in place, and I’ll install cameras. With your permission, we can set up a monitoring station somewhere in your house.”
“What happens when you spirit me away?”
“My best people will be on the job. I swear to you, Winnie, you’ll be in good hands.”
* * *
Winnie hoped she wasn’t blushing. Her fair skin was a curse. Being in such close contact with Larkin Wolff was making her act like a flustered sixteen-year-old girl.
She shoved her hands in her pockets to keep them out of mischief. Larkin’s broad shoulders and lean torso were made to cushion a woman’s weary head. Winnie liked the idea, but depending on a man was dicey. It was one thing to
a professional. That made sense in the most pragmatic way. But fantasizing about close contact on a daily basis shouldn’t—couldn’t—be allowed. Even if handsome blue eyes filled with keen intelligence were her own particular Achilles’ heel. She’d predicated her life on being a good girl…on not rocking the boat. It was disconcerting to realize that she was suddenly contemplating the tantalizing benefits of being
“I’d prefer that you not go upstairs,” she said abruptly, trying to corral her hormones. “I don’t want to upset my guests unnecessarily.”
“I suppose it can wait.” He appeared calm, but she picked up a vibe that said he was completely alert, ready to react in a split second to any sign of danger. A hundred and fifty years ago, he would have been the gunslinger seated in the corner of a saloon with his back to the wall.
All that intensity gave her the shivers. “What next?”
“I need to make a few phone calls, arrange for a security detail overnight while I’m getting other odds and ends set up. And if it’s not too much bother, I could use something to eat. I skipped breakfast.”
She raised an eyebrow, mocking him. “The most important meal of the day? Maybe I should reassess my view of your abilities.”
“Trust me, Winnie. I can run on coffee and sheer cussedness for days. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
He tossed those words out as if they were the easiest thing in the world to do. Little did he know that her ability to trust was as corroded as an old car battery.
“Are we through here? The women will be wanting to start lunch, but they won’t come down to cook while you’re on the premises.”
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s head back to your house and get this thing rolling.”
Why was it that everything Larkin said sounded like a risqué comment? Perhaps it was the fact that Winnie lived like a nun…Mother Superior shepherding her flock. An asexual being, with nothing to show for her youth but a barrage of bad memories.
Maybe it was sacrilegious, but some days she had a hard time believing in a God who allowed little children to run in fear of their own fathers. It was a question greater minds than hers had wrestled with for centuries. And one that wouldn’t be answered anytime soon.
Before she could lead the way back to the front of the house, a small head appeared around the edge of the doorway into the hall. “Hello, Miss Winnie. Who’s that guy?” The child’s stubby finger pointed accusingly.
” She crouched in front of him. “This is Señor Wolff. He’s working for me.”
Esteban’s dark-eyed gaze locked with Larkin’s. “He doesn’t
Larkin chuckled, mimicking her posture. He didn’t try to touch the boy or get near him. Which told Winnie that he knew how to act around someone who had suffered at the hands of a violent loved one. “Wolff is my last name, Esteban. I’m helping Miss Winnie make sure this house is very, very safe.”
“So my daddy can’t find us and hit me and Mama again?”
Simple. Direct. And so very heartbreaking.
Winnie saw a muscle flex in Larkin’s jaw. “That’s right. I have lots of people who work for me, and our job is to keep you from being scared.”
Esteban inched closer. “Do you have a gun?”
Larkin nodded. “Several. But I don’t use them unless I have to. Guns are dangerous. Promise me you won’t ever touch one until you grow up.”
The child eyed him with increasing curiosity. “Okay.” He looked at Winnie. “I wish we could play outside.”
She grinned. “Mr. Wolff is going to help us with that, too.”
Her assurance seemed to satisfy Esteban. She pulled him close for a quick hug. Many of the children didn’t like to be touched, but this little rascal craved attention. And she was prepared to shower him with as much TLC as he could handle. “Go tell the ladies that Mr. Wolff and I are leaving. They can come downstairs and prepare lunch.”
As she and Larkin walked back to the main house, he quizzed her. “So, the residents in your safe house basically take care of themselves?”
“Yes. I supply them with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. I have a standing order with the nearest grocery store for staples and the supplies for basic meals. It gives the women a sense of purpose and also the autonomy to feed their children as they see fit.”
“Why?” he asked. “Why do you do this?”
The blunt question caught her off guard. She wasn’t prepared to bare her soul to a man who was little more than a stranger. “It’s the right thing to do. I have the money. I can meet a need. Lots of wealthy people are involved in charity work.”
He opened the screen door to the veranda and held it for her as she stepped past him. “None I know go quite this far.”
As she paused on the top step, almost eye to eye with Larkin since he lingered behind her, a harsh, familiar noise filled the air. “Hurry,” she said, grabbing his arm and pulling him inside.