Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
He showered rapidly, not wanting to think of who and what lay so close at hand. If he went to her room, would she welcome him?
Beneath the covers, he sprawled naked and still damp, waiting for the thundering of his heartbeat to calm so he could sleep. Suddenly, the idea of taking her to Wolff Mountain seemed fraught with pitfalls. He knew the correct angle to take with Winnie. Practical and businesslike. If he allowed himself to break his own personal rules, he would only end up hurting her.
Larkin had no plans for matrimony. Ever. He’d seen a dysfunctional marriage close at hand, and it had tormented him, even if the whole thing had been over before he started school. Remembering the panic, the fear, the driving urge to protect his siblings, sent nausea roiling in his belly.
He liked being on his own. And Winnie Bellamy was not the kind of woman to let herself be used and tossed aside. She was a class act and deserved a man who would cherish her.
Spilling the Wolff Mountain plan without thinking it through was unlike him. He was seldom impulsive, though his ability to make snap decisions might seem so. Taking her to Wolff Mountain was unconventional, but expeditious. No fuss, no time commitment. He’d drop her off, enjoy the party and be on his way. If he changed the plan now, he would undoubtedly hurt her feelings. She had a backbone of steel when it came to protecting what was hers, but in her beautiful eyes he saw a wariness that was surely born of pain.
He didn’t want to be the man who hurt her. If sexual insanity was all he had to offer, surely it was best to back off. She’d responded to him like a flame set to dry tinder. Not by word or expression had she indicated that his kiss was unwelcome. And he knew women’s bodies well enough to know when pleasure was given and received.
Simple sexual attraction could be ignored. But the danger he faced was that something about Winnie called to him. He saw her waifish vulnerability and wanted to protect her. To shelter her. That was why he had to stay away. Because he had failed too many people in his life already.
At long last, he felt drowsiness claim him. He didn’t need a woman in his life. He was happy with his freedom. Sexual satisfaction was available to a man like him in many ways. It was better for everyone if he kept his hands off Winnie.
lousy night’s sleep made for a rough start to Larkin’s day. And it went downhill when he found out that Winnie had made a run for it. The pleasant housekeeper shared the information that
had gone into town to run errands.
Larkin seethed as he went about his work. He was worried about his brand-new client with the crazy blond hair and the pointed chin. And what bothered him was that the worry felt personal. Intimate. Because of that, he reminded himself she was a grown woman. He did his best to put his worry aside and focus on securing her estate and the safe house. The Bellamy property was crawling with Leland Security employees. Pretty soon, not even a gnat could infiltrate the place without an alarm going off. Larkin also had plans to station female techs in the safe house on rotating shifts. He wanted someone inside 24/7 as a precaution. But that would have to be subject to Winnie’s approval. In the meantime, until she decided to come back, all his people had orders to stay away from the brick building that housed Winnie’s hidden population.
By five o’clock, Winnie still hadn’t returned. The housekeeper departed with instructions about dinner. All of Larkin’s day-shift people went off the clock except for the team guarding the perimeter. Larkin had worked his ass off for hours. He was hot, tired and disgruntled.
Though most people would say it was a tad too early in the year for swimming, he’d taken note of the small but beautiful pool in the backyard of the main house. When he drew back the solar cover, the water gleamed pure and welcoming. Someone had already cleaned and treated it for the upcoming season.
The temptation was too great. Larkin stripped out of his khakis and work shirt and dived in, wearing nothing but a pair of circumspect navy boxers. No one was around to see him, so what did it matter? He ran through a set of punishing laps, glad for the exercise, relishing the cold water and determined to clear his head.
When he finally climbed out, he realized that he hadn’t thought to bring a towel. The sun was still warm, so he dragged a lounge chair until it faced west, stretched out and closed his eyes. An alien feeling of contentment washed over him as the sun’s rays dried him.
Birds twittering in the trees lulled him into sleep.
* * *
Winnie was aggravated with herself. Not only had she wasted an entire afternoon roaming around Nashville wearing an uncomfortable wig and dark glasses, now she was afraid to go home. The morning’s agenda had included legitimate business. A meeting with her Social Services contact. A stop at a furniture store to see about more bunk beds for the little ones. A much-needed foray into the women’s-wear department at her favorite store.
Buying clothes for herself was not something she thought of very often. She didn’t go anywhere to need much more than jeans and tops. But at Wolff Mountain, she’d be expected to dress in a certain fashion. She didn’t want to embarrass either Larkin or herself.
Fortunately, she knew what she liked and what suited her. The saleslady recognized her, probably from her signature, and asked about the article. She was pleasant, though, and Winnie didn’t get the impression that she was going to run to the phone and summon the press. Maybe Larkin was right and this whole “richest women in America” thing would blow over soon. But in the meantime, Winnie still had her guests to think about. Their safety and well-being.
With a platinum credit card smoking, she loaded her car with boxes and bags. After lunch at a trendy tearoom, she should have headed home. But the thought of facing Larkin was so distressing, she literally couldn’t point the car where it needed to go.
As she drove at random, appreciating the display of azaleas, daffodils and lilacs in the suburbs, she pondered what to do. One option was to pretend nothing had ever happened. Let last night seem like a crazy dream. Surely Larkin would play along.
Avoidance was another tack. Today being a case in point. But she had things to do at her house, and even though the property was substantial, hiding out wasn’t an effective choice.
Then again, she could walk right up to Larkin, kiss him square on the mouth and invite him to her bedroom. That brash action might have more appeal if he was leaving anytime soon. Instead, the plan called for her to accompany him to Wolff Mountain. Which meant a certain amount of togetherness.
And if she propositioned him beforehand and was politely rejected, she didn’t think she’d have the composure to carry out an extended visit on his home turf. She glanced at her watch and groaned. Time to face the music.
When she parked the car in the garage and tiptoed stealthily into the house, she was greeted by nothing but silence. Fabulous smells wafted from the kitchen, indicating that Mrs. Cross had left dinner in the oven. No sign of Larkin and no evidence that he had already eaten.
She climbed the back stairs and made her way toward his bedroom. One quick peek showed a neatly made bed and no sign of human habitation. Where was he?
For one brief, stomach-curling moment she wondered if he had left. Quit the job. Moved on. But no. Whatever his personal inclinations, he would not have left her high and dry. Though it was possible he had passed off the responsibility to someone else after that kiss. The wave of disappointment brought on by that thought told her she was in big trouble.
When her stomach growled, she decided she might as well eat without him. It was a beautiful evening, so she carried a cotton place mat and some silverware out onto the veranda, intent on setting a small table before she served her plate.
Then she spotted him. Out by the pool, sprawled like a demigod on her rattan lounger, lay Larkin Wolff. He must not have heard her drive up, because his large body, sculpted with muscles, didn’t move.
What was he wearing? From this distance he might as well have been nude for all she could tell.
What was she going to do? Eat alone? Skulk up to her room and hide out until tomorrow?
Nibbling her lower lip, she came to a decision. She was a grown woman in charge of her life. A fairly lonely life, by some standards, but a life she had crafted to please herself. She was not afraid of Larkin Wolff. In fact, it was entirely possible that she might work up the courage to seduce him while she had the chance. Not too many men crossed her path these days, and certainly none who looked like Larkin.
Unfortunately, she’d misread a man’s motives once before and had lived to bitterly regret her actions. If she threw herself at Larkin, banking on a mutual attraction to ease the way, it was entirely possible that he would shoot her down. He had made it very clear that he didn’t mix business with pleasure. But he had kissed her. So what did that mean?
The reverse was also dangerous. What if he gave in? What if they indulged in wild recreational sex? What if she couldn’t protect herself and made the mistake of becoming emotionally involved? She had survived multiple tragedies in her life. Losing her head over the intense, charismatic Larkin Wolff could add to that list. Even if she told herself she could keep things fun and easy, the fact of the matter was…she was not a woman who took physical intimacy lightly. For a lot of reasons.
She wished she could seduce Larkin and not worry about the consequences. But she wasn’t made that way, despite the recent appearance of Bad Winnie. So her only option was to keep her emotional distance.
On shaky legs, she walked out to the pool. Most days lately the groundskeeper had taken off the cover to let the water begin to heat. But in truth, it took a string of near-ninety-degree afternoons to warm the water to Winnie’s comfort level. And they weren’t there yet. Larkin must be made of sterner stuff.
She paused a few yards away from her quarry. Now she saw the pile of discarded clothing. Her face heated to scalding as she realized he was wearing nothing but his underwear. Other than the fabric, it wasn’t all that different from a pair of swim trunks. But witnessing the unmistakable shape of Larkin’s resting sex made her stomach feel funny.
Drawn by curiosity, she inched closer. He had been up much of the night, so it stood to reason that he was exhausted. His broad chest rose and fell with deep, measured breaths. Dark lashes hid his beautiful blue eyes. Even his legs and feet were sexy.
Though her hand trembled with the temptation to wake him, she began to back away. Unclothed, he seemed far more intimidating and dangerous than he had before. She was out of her league. Way out.
As she moved away quietly, he sat up, rested his hands on his knees and rolled his neck. “Like what you see?”
His lips curled in a taunting smile that dared her to pretend she hadn’t been staring. Their gazes met, clashed. She was the first to look away. Taking a deep breath, she faced him with a determined smile. “Dinner’s ready. I thought you might be hungry.”
“Where have you been all day?”
“I thought you were worried about your tenants.”
She shrugged. “I knew you were standing guard.”
“And what about your own safety?”
“I used a disguise. Besides, I can go most places without being recognized. It’s only a problem here, because people now know where I live. The magazine spilled that information without my permission.”
He stood, picked up his pants and stepped into them, zipping and buckling as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “I think you were avoiding me.”
Her face flamed with color, either from his pointed reference to last night or because his bare chest made her woozy. “What a ridiculous idea.”
He didn’t bother putting on the shirt. Perhaps because he knew his half-dressed state gave him the upper hand. “Are you just going to ignore it?”
He snorted in disbelief at her deliberately obtuse answer. “Our kiss.”
“That’s my plan.” One she hadn’t firmed up until just that moment.
“I didn’t peg you for a coward.”
The accusation stung. But she wouldn’t allow him to goad her. Not when she felt so ill-prepared for the fight. With all the self-possession she could muster, she turned her back on him and walked toward the house. “You’re welcome to eat with me on the porch.” She tossed the words over her shoulder, not looking to see if he would follow. “But put on a shirt, because we dress for dinner.”
* * *
Larkin grinned in spite of himself. Winnie Bellamy was a pistol, as his uncle Victor used to say. Truth be told, Winnie would no doubt fit in well with the outspoken, arrogant Wolffs. She was soft in appearance and speech, but beneath her careful etiquette and creamy magnolia skin was a woman with a lot of passion. For her life’s mission, for her home and, judging by last night, for one lucky man who had the guts to take her on for the long haul. Too bad Larkin wasn’t that man.
He lingered a moment to put on his shoes and button his shirt. By the time he reached the porch, Winnie had brought out two plates of steaming lasagna along with a bowl of salad. Larkin’s stomach growled audibly as he ascended the steps. “Smells great,” he said, opening the screen door and surveying the cozy tête-à-tête she had arranged.
For the first time he realized she was dressed up. A taupe linen shift dress. A necklace of jet beads that nestled between her breasts. And matching stud earrings. Her strong-willed hair had been tamed into a chignon at the back of her neck. Today she looked every inch the heiress.
But her feet were bare. And that made him smile.
She sat down and waved a hand. “Don’t let it get cold.”
They ate in companionable silence as the shadows lengthened. Perhaps Winnie would have been content to let the meal remain so, but his curiosity got the best of him. He sat back, sipping the glass of Chianti she had offered him. “I’m still puzzling over this thing you do, Winnie. Did you have an unhappy childhood? Do you see yourself in those kids down there?”
She seemed shocked by his question. “Good Lord, no. My parents were lovely people. Even if I had drawn crayon murals on the walls and danced naked at one of their dinner parties, they would never have used corporal punishment. They doted on me in their own way. But they simply didn’t know what to do with a child. They could have offered me up for adoption, you know…or even terminated the pregnancy. I’ve always been grateful that they wanted me, even though I was a complete disruption to their ordered lives.”
Larkin heard the truth in her words. And he knew she had never been married. So what compelled her to reach out to battered women and frightened children? Normal people weren’t random in their actions. Everyone had an angle, something that drove them. Larkin was determined to find out Winnie’s motivations. Why it was so important to him, he couldn’t say.
When it grew too dark to see well, Winnie spoke quietly. “I need your help tomorrow,” she said. “I have to tell everyone in my care that I’ll be leaving Thursday. I want you to talk to them…explain that they’re safe. And that with me gone, the harassing helicopters and strange people trying to access the property will stop.”
“I thought I was
persona non grata
“I’ll go in first. Prepare the way. But they will be okay. There’s something about you that inspires trust. You may be physically strong and capable, but you would never hurt someone defenseless.”
“How can you be sure?” He was genuinely curious.
“I don’t know exactly. I suppose I could be wrong. But you seem like a protector to me.”
He thought of all the nights he had hidden little Annalise in his bed, her small body quaking as they both cowered from their mother’s angry shouts. Larkin had always been torn. His brother, Devlyn, was bigger, stronger. Larkin heard the blows and knew his sibling would never cry out. He wanted to run out into the hallway and hit his mother until she backed off. But someone had to protect Annalise.
So Devlyn faced the alcohol-fueled beast on his own. And Larkin bore the shame.
He shifted restlessly in his chair. Rarely did he allow the memories to intrude. But Winnie’s artless assessment of his character brought it all back. “It’s true that I would never harm anyone weaker than I am. But don’t paint me as a hero, Winnie. I can be as self-serving as the next guy.”