Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
As they watched, a white-and-navy helicopter hovered overhead. They could clearly see the man who hung out one door, camera in hand. Despite the precariousness of his position, the daring photographer shot for several moments before saying something to the pilot. The vessel rose, made a wide circle and hovered again with similar results.
Winnie blinked back tears of helpless rage. “Can’t someone arrest them? Isn’t this illegal? Damn it, damn it, damn it. I hate this.”
arkin shared her disgust. He touched her arm briefly, hoping to convey his concern and empathy. “Unfortunately, they aren’t breaking any laws. But all he’s getting is shots of buildings. Someone can write a story about your house, but with no photos of
it won’t make much of a wave in the gossip rags.”
He felt Winnie’s distress in the fine tremor that quaked through her slight frame. “I keep thinking they’ll go away, but they don’t. That’s why I have to leave for a while.” Her voice rose at the end, telling him that the stress of the past few weeks was reaching a breaking point.
“Your leaving is easy,” he said, ushering her inside. With a sophisticated lens, someone could snap a decent picture even through the screen. But no need to court problems now. “You said you want me to take you away. I know a place so secure that no one will have a hope of getting near you.”
She banged a pot on the stove with enough force to let him know she was still fighting mad. The soup she poured from a glass container was homemade if he didn’t miss his guess. “Where?” She glanced at him, a frown marring her finely etched features.
The lid to the pot clattered onto the counter before she retrieved it and placed it with exaggerated care on the warming soup. “I’ve read about your family. They don’t like outsiders mucking around in their business.”
“It’s my home. I can invite whomever I want. And I happen to know that no place within five hundred miles is as secure. I’ll take you there, stay a couple of nights to get you settled and then you can consider the next few weeks a vacation in a mountain resort.”
She wiped her hands on a dish towel and leaned back against the cabinet, her smile wry. “That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”
“It makes perfect sense,” he insisted. “Far more sense than finding an out-of-the-way location and paying round-the-clock staff to guard you. My sister, Annalise, is having a birthday party for her husband on Saturday. So I was planning on going to Wolff Mountain anyway. We’ll circulate to the press a story that you’re vacationing in St. Barts. The paparazzi will head south, and your house will be free of harassment. The story is bound to blow over while you’re gone, and soon it will be safe for you to go back home, particularly with the added security my people will have installed.”
“You came up with that plan in the last hour?” She cocked her head, studying him as if she were trying to see inside his head.
“The best plans are simple.”
“It’s not simple at all. Tell me, Larkin. Am I the type of woman you usually take home for a visit?”
She had him there. His typical encounters consisted of mutually satisfying sex with older women who weren’t likely to want anything from him. Not married women. Never that. But women who were devoted to their careers and didn’t want to put a lot of time into a relationship. In other words, female versions of himself. He opened her refrigerator. “You got any beer?”
“Answer me,” she said.
He found an imported ale and popped the cap with the opener she handed him. “I think, with your permission, we’ll tell my family the truth. I’ve never taken a woman to Wolff Mountain, so I don’t want them getting any mistaken ideas. We have an abundance of newlyweds in my family. They are all nauseatingly happy. I’d prefer not to be the subject of speculation.”
“I’d think that seeing all of your family content and settled would encourage you to follow suit.”
“Not gonna happen.” He took a long slug of his drink and sighed with appreciation. Nothing like an ice-cold beer on a hot day. When Winnie continued to stare at him in silence, he pulled a chair from the kitchen table, turned it around and sat down, arms resting on the curved wooden back. “I don’t want to have to take care of anyone or anything but myself. Now that Annalise is Sam’s problem, I choose not to answer to any woman. I’m a selfish bastard, I guess. But I like being footloose and fancy-free. Nobody looking to me for support, emotional or otherwise.”
“And yet you spend your days taking care of people.”
“That’s different. That’s my job.”
Winnie didn’t seem convinced. But she’d get the picture soon enough. Larkin was a lone Wolff.
She frowned at him. “I have the money to pay for a safe house
for round-the-clock security. I see no need to inconvenience your family.”
“I don’t believe in wasting money. Besides, with you at Wolff Mountain, I’ll have no qualms about your safety. There’s plenty to do. You won’t be bored.”
“I’m seldom bored. But this arrangement seems awkwardly personal.”
“It’s not ideal. I don’t like blurring the lines between my job and my personal life. But in this instance the benefits outweigh the negatives. Setting up a safe house anywhere would take a significant amount of time—time you don’t have. To get you out of the situation immediately means going somewhere that’s already secure. Plus, my family’s home is close enough to yours that we could get you back quickly in case of emergencies.”
Even as he spoke, warning bells sounded in his head. It was disconcerting to realize how easily he dismissed them. Would he have made the same decision if his client was less appealing? The answer was one he didn’t want to face.
While she puttered around, putting soup in bowls, slicing bread and setting the table, he studied her. Though she was slight and graceful, she projected an air of capability that he had to admire. Lots of people wrote checks to save the world. Winnie walked the walk. He normally went for tall, leggy brunettes. Yet somehow, in one oddly unsettling morning, he had discovered that petite blondes with crazy hair and cat eyes had the ability to get under his skin.
He’d tried his best not to stare at her breasts, even if they did play an erotic game of peekaboo. It wouldn’t do for him to develop a “thing” for a client. When he took her to Wolff Mountain, the reason would be business. Her safety. Nothing more. He enjoyed her company, and the thought of spending time with her for a couple of days was not unappealing. But he wouldn’t let himself get involved beyond that.
Larkin had learned a painful lesson early in life. You could try to protect those you loved, but sometimes trying wasn’t enough. Too many failures in that arena had convinced him that he didn’t want a woman in his life on any kind of permanent basis. It was a smart decision, and one he stood by, even today. Winnie was entertaining and stimulating. She would make a suitable “plus one” for the party. Beyond that, they were nothing more than business associates making the best of a bad situation. Despite his undeniable attraction, he refused to have a temporary fling with a client.
* * *
Much like her looks, her cooking was unusual and satisfying. The shrimp gumbo she served him was unexpectedly hot as hell. As he choked and washed down his discomfort with a glass of water, she grinned. “Guess I should have warned you.”
“You did that on purpose.”
“You don’t like it?” The mischievous look was unrepentant.
“Of course I like it. But now I’m forewarned.”
“Never underestimate Winnie Bellamy.”
He could tell that his dry comment pleased her.
She glanced at her watch. “As fun as this is, I’ve got things to do.”
“Be serious. Tell me what I need to know.”
He stood and rolled his shoulders. “Give me an hour to make my phone calls and get one of my teams out here while I run back into the city and pack a bag.”
“Pack a bag?” Her befuddled look amused him.
“I’m staying here until we leave for Wolff Mountain. Three nights. Think you can handle that?”
Her cheeks turned pink. “I’m sure it’s not necessary for the head of Leland Security to stay on-site.”
“You’re paying me five hundred grand,” he said laconically. “That bumps you to the top of the list.”
“I’m sorry if I insulted you.”
The mix of moss-green and muted-gold in her eyes mesmerized him. Despite her homespun attire, Winnie was alluring, seductive…perhaps most of all because he was fairly certain she had no clue how her looks affected the opposite sex. He thought her sideways glance was penitent, but then again, it might have been unconsciously sexual in nature.
Once more, he was perturbed by the way his body tightened and his throat dried. He understood the mechanics of attraction. But it had never been an issue in a work setting. Which meant that he was treading unfamiliar ground. The uncertainty of his own responses put him on edge.
“We’re good,” he said gruffly. “I’ll sit on the porch while I’m using the phone. I don’t want to disturb you.”
Winnie’s gaze settled on his mouth, skipped down to his chest and dropped to the floor. “Make yourself at home,” she said, turning away to gather dishes and tidy up. “I won’t even know you’re here.”
* * *
Liar, liar, pants on fire.
The old childhood taunt rattled around in Winnie’s brain as she tried to tackle her usual afternoon chores. She had quite a few phone calls to make, as well. Not to mention preparing a room for her unexpected guest.
Her stomach fluttered with anticipation. She was used to living alone. Her staff came and went as needed. Mrs. Cross, her housekeeper and cook, normally worked nine-to-five, but she had the day off for a doctor’s appointment. In her absence, Winnie wandered the upstairs hall trying to select a room for Larkin.
It wasn’t an easy task. If she put him next door to her suite, he might get the wrong idea. But if she gave him quarters in the opposite wing, it could make her look like a prudish virgin, not to mention negating his ability to protect her.
In the end, she compromised—across the hall from her bedroom and two doors down. It was a masculine room done in shades of navy and umber. The king-size bed would accommodate his long frame, and the deep whirlpool tub in the luxurious bathroom was big enough for two people.
When her breath hitched in her throat, she knew she was in trouble. She would
develop a crush on Larkin Wolff. What a laughable idea. She was a lousy judge of men’s motives, and she would rather run naked through a hailstorm before ever hinting at an interest in him. Though at times today the air had seemed thick and heavy with awareness, it was surely all on her side. Larkin Wolff was a professional, a remarkably handsome man in his prime. He could have any woman he wanted.
Winnie had neither the arsenal of feminine wiles nor the sexual confidence to see if the odd, quivery sensations she had experienced in his presence were one-sided. She was buying Larkin’s expertise in security. Her life had been turned upside down by that stupid article, and she was determined to right it.
All I want from Larkin is protection.
She repeated it over and over in her head, making sure she understood the score.
But when the doorbell rang at six o’clock, her thighs quivered, her breathing grew choppy and reality smacked her in the face. She was lying, especially to herself. Larkin Wolff would protect her and her charges from outside danger. But the absolute worst threat had already breached her defenses.
She was in sexual quicksand and sinking fast. Pasting on a smile as fake as a three-dollar bill, she swung open the door. “Back so soon?”
* * *
Larkin was hot, hungry and irritated with himself. He’d spent the past several hours trying to concentrate on business while at the same time spinning fantasies that involved a naked Winnie Bellamy in his bed. It was ludicrous. He’d like to blame the aberration on the heat or the fact that he’d broken his cardinal rule about drinking on the job and had a beer at lunch. Unfortunately, the temperature was still comfortably in the low eighties, and the alcohol content of the ale was minuscule.
So where did that leave him? He’d worked hard to keep his business life impersonal and his private life completely separate from business. As a security professional, he prided himself on protecting the weak, the innocent and, sometimes, the naive. Occasionally, he protected the powerful, if the price was right. But never, ever did he allow a client to break through his emotional firewalls. He was a man who liked his own company, and he didn’t
anyone. More importantly, he didn’t want
to need him…at least anyone who wasn’t paying for his services.
Winnie, he could already tell, was going to pose a problem. He found himself making exceptions to hard-and-fast rules—going over and above what she had hired him to do—and he wasn’t sure he could stop himself. Installing her in the bosom of his family made sense on paper. But the reality was far murkier. Would he have done this for anyone else?
When she opened the door, it was all he could do not to stare. She had showered recently. Her damp hair, twisted in a knot on top of her head, smelled of honeysuckle. He sucked in a sharp breath.
The overalls were gone, but now she wore soft, faded jeans that hugged her trim legs, along with a white T-shirt that read Take a Book to Bed.
The image of his new employer tucked beneath the covers wearing who knows what sent his libido tumbling into an entirely inappropriate free fall. He cleared his throat, feeling heat creep up his neck. “I’m back.”
She surveyed the small duffel bag at his feet. “So you are. Come in.”
As he stepped into the cool foyer, he handed her a sack filled with paper cartons. “Chinese takeout. I hope that’s okay. You said your housekeeper had the day off.”
She grabbed the offering and inhaled. “Are you kidding? Ambrosia of the gods. I love living in the country, but the lack of fast food is a definite drawback at times. Come on into the kitchen. And by the way, you get points for paying attention. Most men I know would have missed that entirely.”
“It’s my job to notice details.” Like the way her lacy bra barely concealed pert nipples pressing against thin fabric.
He dropped his bag at the foot of the stairs and followed her into the kitchen like a puppy dog sniffing for a treat. Her feet were bare. Though he had appreciated the sexy gold sandals, her naked toes with raspberry polish were equally alluring.