Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
As they ate, Winnie’s pointed questions reminded him that he was in residence as a professional.
She held up a chopstick, waving it in the air. “Let’s hear it. What am I getting for my money?”
He grinned at her, enjoying the way she sparred with him. “Well, first of all, my top cyber guy is going over all your computer stuff via remote access right now. He won’t tamper with any of your data, but he’ll seal leaks and shore up weaknesses in your points of entry.”
“I have no idea what that means in reality, but go ahead.”
“First thing in the morning, I’ll have a team here installing a sophisticated system around the perimeter of your property. It’s a combination of fencing and electric sensors. I don’t think you’ll find it unbearably intrusive, but with the cameras and the monitoring station here in the house, my team can assure you that no one will approach unannounced.”
When Winnie beamed at him, he felt the punch in his heart first and his gut second. Pleasing her could rapidly become an addiction.
“That’s fast work,” she drawled. “I’m impressed.”
“During the next two days, I’ll work with my team to make sure all the bugs in the system are ironed out. Then, with your permission, you and I will head out for Wolff Mountain first thing Thursday morning.”
Her smile dimmed. “Are you sure you don’t want to just stash me away with an assumed name in some anonymous city apartment?”
“Ideally, yes.” Winnie’s crestfallen expression pained him, but he plowed on. She might as well read his bottom line. “But I see no need to waste time, money and manpower when the solution is at hand without any need for preparation. As I said before, Wolff Mountain is a fortress. Because of that, I won’t feel obliged to stick around. I have no qualms about leaving you there. You don’t have to be scared of my family. They’re pretty nice people, all in all.”
“Yes. And you’re Winifred Bellamy. Perhaps they’ll be afraid of you.”
That made her laugh. “I’ve never scared anyone in my life. I’m harmless.”
“Says the woman who shoots to kill.”
“Do I get a choice?”
“Don’t make me mad, and you won’t have to worry about it.”
They were flirting. He knew it, and he was pretty sure she knew it. The awareness in her eyes matched the ache in his groin. Such an unexpected turn of events could make his life both very complicated and extremely frustrating.
When he found himself watching her soft, pink lips form words while at the same noticing the gentle rise and fall of her breasts as she talked, he decided it was time to retreat until he could decide what to do about the situation. “I’m pretty beat,” he said, with an exaggerated yawn. “If you don’t mind showing me my room, I think I’ll turn in and do some reading.”
Her look of incredulity as she glanced at the clock made him squirm. Seven-thirty? She’d think he was some kind of geriatric. He backtracked quickly. “Of course, if you have any other suggestions…”
The room fell silent. His unwittingly suggestive add-on sounded far naughtier than he had intended.
Winnie eyed him curiously. “Like what?”
He swallowed. “Oh, I don’t know. A walk. Netflix. Reality TV.”
The heavy silence lengthened. Finally she responded. “An early night suits me, too,” she said, her expression impossible to read. “I keep case studies on all my moms and kids, not as a licensed professional, but more of an anecdotal record while they’re in my care. I’m behind on several of those, so I should catch up. Especially if I’m going to be gone for a few weeks.”
Something struck him. “Does the state reimburse you for the expenses you incur?”
“Of course not. I
to do this.”
“Foster parents get a stipend.”
“It’s not the same thing at all. You know I don’t need the money. I wouldn’t take it even if they offered.” She seemed offended that he would even suggest such a thing. Her motives for such dedication were unclear, but since she was only a client, he didn’t press for more. As she stood abruptly, he followed suit. “I’ll show you your room,” she said, the words clipped.
Larkin followed her back to the foyer and up the stairs, pausing only to grab his bag. The house was furnished with impeccable taste, luxury in every detail, but nothing at all ostentatious. He wondered if she had redone the place after her parents’ deaths, and he suspected she had. Somehow the decor reflected the personality of its owner.
When Winnie paused, Larkin followed suit, standing shoulder to shoulder with his hostess as he surveyed the room. He whistled. “Very nice.” This close, he inhaled the scent of honeysuckle again.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable. I appreciate your fitting me into your schedule. Let me know if you need anything at all.”
There it was again. That pesky, subtle
vibe that made his skin itchy and his sex twitchy. He edged past her, determined to remain in control. “I’m sure I’ll be fine. We’ll get started first thing in the morning.”
Winnie stood in the doorway, arms spread frame to frame, expression pensive. “I’d better close the drapes,” she said. “So the morning sun won’t wake you.” With rapid steps, she crossed the room. Now she stood dangerously near the bed. The enormous, hedonistic bed, covered in a brocade-and-satin comforter and sheets that were most likely soft as sin.
Larkin shoved his hands in his back pockets. “I’m always up early,” he said, his throat like sandpaper.
Winnie hovered, straightening a knickknack, smoothing a nonexistent wrinkle from the spread. “I’ll have someone bring you coffee first thing. You’re welcome to have breakfast here or in the dining room.”
The longer she lingered, the harder he got. Hopefully, she didn’t notice, because it wouldn’t do for her to get the wrong idea. He had never allowed his professional life and his personal life to intersect. Even though taking Winnie to Wolff Mountain made sense, and even though he would be the one taking her there because it was
he had never had a relationship with a client, and he wouldn’t start now. “I’ll be fine, Winnie. Good night.”
Her face fell as she registered his clear dismissal. “Okay, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.” It took everything he had to watch her leave the room and not stop her. When she was gone, he sank down on the bed, head in his hands. He’d never taken on a case he couldn’t handle. This couldn’t be the first. He wouldn’t let it.
innie was aroused. As ill-timed and unusual as the symptoms were, she recognized them. Her skin was damp, her thighs trembled and the butterflies pitching to and fro in her stomach weren’t from nerves. She
Larkin Wolff. This was a complication she had never anticipated when she set out to hire a security expert.
She’d been so upset in recent weeks about the stupid article that she hadn’t allowed herself to remember the past. Now that omission came back to haunt her. What did she know about men, after all? One nasty encounter just after her parents’ deaths had put her emotions into deep freeze. She didn’t
to feel like a sexual being. Acknowledging such vulnerability scared her to death.
Though Larkin was here to protect her, some deep survivalist instinct told her he was dangerous. And yet, paradoxically, that very danger called out to her. Suggesting that she might abandon her lifelong persona as a good girl and throw caution to the wind.
The evening passed with agonizing slowness. She was uncomfortably aware of Larkin’s presence mere steps down the hall. So accustomed was she to being alone in the house at night, she was distracted by the novel sense of companionship. After a couple of hours of legitimate work, as well as sixty minutes of guilty-pleasure TV, she took a shower and prepared for bed.
Though she had not heard a single sound from Larkin’s suite, his presence was loud. She imagined him walking around the room…or reading…perhaps stripping off his clothes and letting them lay where they fell as he strode into the bathroom and ran water in the Jacuzzi. Imagining a naked Larkin Wolff was not conducive to sleeping.
It was a cool night with no air-conditioning needed. But her skin was hot to the touch, and perspiration dampened her pillowcase. Grumbling at no one in particular, she climbed out of bed and flung open a window, leaning out to inhale the fresh, scented night air. At last, with the lacy sheers swaying in a light breeze, she returned to her bed and fell into a restless slumber.
* * *
Sometime around 2:00 a.m. the gentle beep of the alarm at her bedside went off. She jerked awake, fumbling to glance at the readout. Probably nothing more than a bird or squirrel on a windowsill. It had happened before. But she always checked. Always. Because she knew firsthand what it meant to be scared and helpless. She’d made it through her own dark days unscathed. Thank God. And that deliverance gave her a moral imperative to pay it forward.
After shoving her feet into flip-flops, she grabbed her gun from its hiding place, tucked a small flashlight into her pocket and tiptoed down the hall. Larkin’s quarters were silent. No hint of light beneath the door. He was probably sound asleep.
For one brief moment, she contemplated waking him. After all, she had hired Larkin to deal with intruders. But the alarms were extremely sensitive and often went off for no good reason. It would take her only minutes to dash down to the safe house, do a quick reconnoiter and come back to bed. Besides, the thought of waking Larkin made her shiver. Seeing him all sleep-rumpled and sexy might be a temptation she’d rather not face.
She wasn’t stupid, though. If anything at all looked dangerous or out of place, she’d back off immediately and get him to help her.
The grass was chilly and wet against her toes. She moved quickly but silently, sure of the familiar terrain. Overhead, the Milky Way arced its way across the sky, peopled with a billion stars. It was a night for lovers and romance. But as usual, she was alone.
When she reached her destination, she slowed, listening intently. Only if someone actually opened a window or door would the residents be awakened. Otherwise, Winnie dealt with the nuisance of the very sensitive alarms. Once, a groundhog had begun chewing through one of the wires, and all hell had broken loose. Even now, she remembered in vivid detail the looks of sleep-muddled terror on the faces of women and children in her care.
She moved covertly, fairly certain no danger lurked, but taking precautions, just in case. As she neared the back of the brick house, a shadow melted into the darkness. She froze. Was she seeing things, or had someone actually moved?
The mournful hoot of a nearby owl made the hair stand up on her arms. In the darkest hour of the night, it was easy to let an active imagination run wild. With her hand fixed on her gun, she inched her way forward. The safety was on. She wasn’t stupid. But she could get off a shot quickly if she needed to.
She took one more step. In an instant, hard masculine arms came around her from behind, her gun was wrestled from her grip and a big hand clamped down over her mouth. Her muffled scream was nothing more than a whisper in the night. She fought wildly, trying to free her arms.
What must have been only seconds played out in agonizing slow motion.
And then a very familiar voice rumbled at her ear. “Shut up, damn it. You’ll wake the whole house.”
Her body went limp in relief. Larkin dragged her like a rag doll to the garden shed at the rear of the building. Pulling her inside, he shut the door and yanked the chain to illuminate a single lightbulb, all the while cursing a blue streak as he checked the safety on her gun and laid it aside.
He glared at her. “What in the hell are you doing?” he demanded, veins standing out in his neck. “I could have killed you.”
Fury replaced the knowledge that she wasn’t in the hands of an ax murderer. “The alarm went off in the house. I told you I’m the one who checks on it.”
His eyebrows rose to his hairline. “You hired
Remember?” The thumb he jabbed toward his chest emphasized his anger.
Where did he get off chastising
“I didn’t know you were prowling around.”
“I told you I’d take care of things.”
“Tomorrow. You said tomorrow.” They were both yelling in hoarse, muted syllables that nevertheless escalated in volume.
He scraped his hands over his head. “My team is already here. We were running some preliminary drills to see how much we have to do to lock this place down.”
“You should have told me. You should have introduced them. These women and children are
responsibility. I won’t be kept in the dark.” She was so mad, she shoved him in the chest. It was like pushing against granite. Yanking her hands back, she wrapped her arms around her waist, trembling wildly.
Larkin stared straight at her, remorse in his gaze. “You’re right,” he said softly. “I should have. It won’t happen again. In my defense, none of my clients has ever been as invested in the process as you are. I’m sorry I didn’t keep you informed.”
His genuine contrition deflated her indignation. “Was it you who set off the alarm?”
He nodded. “Probably. To be honest, I assumed you had turned off the monitor in your bedroom now that I’m here. I was intent on bringing my people up to speed or I would have mentioned it.”
Adrenaline winnowed away, leaving her spent and shaky. “I thought you were going to sleep.”
“I said that to get away from you.”
A lump lodged in her throat. “Charming.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“What am I supposed to think?”
“Damn it, Winnie.” He stopped, ground his jaw and stared at the floor. Finally he spoke in a voice that sounded like rough steel. “I find you attractive. That complicates things.” His eyes were impossible to read in the harsh shadows.
Suddenly the oxygen in the shed evaporated. “Is that the truth?” Her heart pounded in her chest.
Danger. Danger. Danger.
“Why on earth would I lie?”
His shocking candor made her want to be brave. And that desire gave encouragement to the long-suppressed yearnings of Bad Winnie. Here was a man she wanted. And he wanted her. Reluctantly, but still… Her heart raced. “I find you attractive, too, Larkin,” she whispered. “Very. Attractive, I mean.” Daringly, she reached out and traced the curve of one of his sculpted biceps. His skin was warm to the touch. Though the night was cool, Larkin was wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt that stretched to accommodate his hard, taut body.
His stood rigid as she ran her fingers from his shoulder to his elbow. Arousal sang through her veins and urged her on. Her gaze settled on his lips. Being a good girl all the time was no fun at all. Desperately, she wanted to taste him. But at what cost?
Larkin shuddered when she used her thumb to trace the bend of his arm. “God help me,” he groaned. “This can’t happen.”
“What?” She couldn’t make sense of anything. Not now. Not in the middle of the night when the world seemed strange and conducive to madness.
He yanked her into his arms, his big body enfolding her smaller one like a warm blanket. She felt his taut rib cage, noted the ridge of his belt buckle digging into her skin, heard the shallow rasp of his breathing. His mouth took hers unapologetically. No buildup, no foreplay. Just a raw desperation that layered confusion upon desire and dragged a whimper from her starved lungs.
When she communicated her need to breathe, he moved his attention to her throat, her collarbone. Her sleepwear consisted of a silky camisole and thin knit boxer shorts. When one of his big thighs pressed between her legs, her knees wobbled. He held her with one hard arm across her back as he ravaged her fevered skin.
“I thought I was the only one.”
“God no.” His teeth grazed her nipple.
She jerked, struggling to get closer, or maybe to get away. Who knew? Her hands found their way to the back of his head. Playing with the short hair at his nape, she felt reality dissolve in sheer, animalistic hunger. “I don’t even know you.”
His laugh held little humor. “We’re getting closer by the second. Shut up and kiss me.”
Obeying seemed like the best course of action. One of his hands had found its way down inside the elastic waistband of her sleep shorts and caressed her bare bottom. “You’re so damned soft,” he groaned. He squeezed her ass cheek.
She felt his arousal, huge and hard at her belly. With a house full of delightful bedrooms at her disposal, she was chagrined to find herself searching wildly for a horizontal surface in the tiny enclosure filled with potting soil and manure.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” she groaned.
At that instant, a two-way radio in Larkin’s pocket generated static as a disembodied voice intruded. “Hey, boss. Where are you?”
Larkin froze. A heartfelt curse echoed her own sentiments. He released her so abruptly she stumbled. “I’m behind the house,” he said, the words terse. “Don’t move. I’ll come find you.”
The radio went silent. Winnie hated the harsh glare of the unadorned overhead lightbulb. She felt naked, exposed. Larkin looked nothing like a romantic hero. His tight expression fell halfway between sexually frustrated and pissed.
“Well, this is awkward,” she said, attempting humor to dislodge the giant boulder crushing her chest. “I’ll leave you to it.” Her eyes stung with tears she would never in a million years allow to fall. Larkin was a guy. He’d grabbed her half-clothed body, and the predictable had happened. End of story.
He didn’t have to know that such raw passion was foreign to her. That it had been years since she had felt more than a mild interest in the opposite sex. That he was the first man in a decade to coax her into bestowing her trust.
Grabbing the chain in a wild attempt to disguise her chaotic emotions, she plunged the shed into darkness and slipped out the door. Larkin was right on her heels, his breath hot on her neck. “Not so fast, Winnie. We have to talk.”
Her choked laugh held more than a hint of hysteria. “Isn’t that my line?”
He shook her gently. “I shouldn’t have kissed you.”
Wow. The pain that statement invoked was far out of proportion to the fact that she had met this man only a day ago. “Well, we’re even, then,” she said, her words deliberately flip. “I shouldn’t have kissed you either.” Unable to hold her tears at bay despite her best efforts, she fled.
* * *
Larkin let her go. He’d botched this job so badly he was amazed she hadn’t fired him on the spot. First he’d overlooked the glaringly obvious fact that his new boss expected to be consulted at every level. And then he’d compounded his gaffe by kissing her senseless. Good Lord…
Remembering the feel of her in his arms hardened his sex to the point of pain. Hunger raged in his veins even now. Had his employee not intruded, Larkin would have lifted Winnie into his arms and taken her standing up. The rush of crazed passion was something he hadn’t experienced since his hormonal college days.
But Winnie was no sorority girl looking to add notches to her bedpost. She was a fascinating, complicated woman. A female for whom he felt a visceral, inexplicable need. Such wild emotion was not to be trusted. He was being paid to keep her and her flock safe. In those brief moments when he’d kissed her and felt her small, perfect body meld to his, he’d had no thought at all for his job.
The realization stunned him. Was he kidding himself about his reasons for suggesting Wolff Mountain as a hidey-hole? He no longer allowed any woman to influence his decisions. At least not since his little sister married Sam. Larkin, for the first time in his life, felt free.
So why complicate his life?
Without warning, he stubbed his toe on an unseen rock in the grass. The dull pain shocked him back to reality. Screw self-examination. Taking Winnie to the mountain was expedient and well thought out. It had nothing to do with sex.
* * *
An hour later, with his crew safely on alert and all initial summations complete, Larkin strode back up the lawn toward Winnie’s house. He already knew which windows were hers, and they were dark. He let himself in, locked the doors and moved wearily up the stairs, his tread virtually silent. In the upstairs hallway, he paused, his hand on the doorknob to his room.
Why had she kissed him back? Had she merely been humoring him? Or was she starved for male companionship? She poured her heart and soul into her cause. Did that leave any time for relationships? Her fire and boldness in the shed had surprised him and made it much more difficult to stop thinking about her in inappropriate ways.