Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
“So you all came to the mountain.”
“Well, not at first. It took nine months to build Wolff Castle. We were shuffled back and forth with private security guards. Victor and Vincent wanted us to get used to the idea of our new home. Which was a good thing, because when we got here we were prisoners, essentially.”
“Because they were afraid the same thing would happen to you.”
“Yes.” He glanced at her, his eyes bleak. “The level of collective grief was monumental. It’s amazing we all survived and grew up to be functional adults. My dad and my uncle were in a daze for a couple of years. We had nannies and tutors who kept things going on a daily basis.”
“So you resented your father for not being there for you?”
His smile held little humor. “Don’t try to psychoanalyze this, Winnie. The truth is much darker. Devlyn and Annalise and I were thrilled to be here on the mountain. And guilty as hell because we felt reborn. Our mother was an abusive alcoholic who liked slapping and hitting and…” His throat worked, and he turned away for a moment, ostensibly to brush away a cricket that had landed on his arm.
When he looked at her again, Winnie saw a lifetime of grief that was so deep and dark it made her want to weep. “You don’t have to tell me this,” she whispered.
He shrugged. “It was a long time ago. Our aunt Laura was a saint to us. When my mom was drinking we would run next door and she would try to keep us occupied. And you have to remember, Annalise was a toddler, and I was not in kindergarten yet. It was Devlyn who bore the brunt of it.”
“But why?” she cried softly, her chest hurting. “Could your aunt not intervene?”
“She was young. Probably in awe of her much older husband. And maybe back then, people were more likely to turn a blind eye. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I failed my brother and my sister, and that tore me up, even as a kid. I slipped into Devlyn’s bedroom one night after our mother had been on a rampage. He was huddled under his blankets, crying, trying to put medicine and Band-Aids on the places where she had burned him with a cigarette.”
“Oh, my God.” Winnie’s stomach pitched in horror.
“When I tried to talk to him, he just waved me away. We never spoke of it. My job was to keep Annalise out of sight. And for some reason, that worked.”
“Then how did you fail her?”
“A little girl needs her mother. I tried to find times when my mother wasn’t drinking. I’d brush Annalise’s hair and help her put on a pretty dress. I thought if our mom was sober she’d want to play with her little daughter. But she was too self-absorbed to notice. So Annalise felt that rejection. She says she doesn’t remember much about those early years, but I know it marked her. It took her a long, long time to trust anyone enough to get married.”
Winnie swallowed, too invested in the story to quit now. “And your father did nothing?”
“Well, that’s the thing…he told Devlyn a while back that he never knew. That he was working long hours to make a living, and was seldom at home when we were awake. He apologized to Devlyn. And we’ve forgiven him, I suppose. But the emotional damage that was done to all three of us can’t just be wiped away. Our dad is our dad. But there aren’t any warm, fuzzy feelings between us.”
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t know what else to say. She wanted to cry for the little boy. But not in front of the man he had become.
arkin studied Winnie’s face. The rustling leaves dappled her cheeks with shards of sunlight. She had curled her legs into a pretzel position, and the familiar posture caused a memory of the night before to flash in front of his eyes. Though Winnie was wearing more clothes at the moment, she was no less alluring.
Her pale skin reminded him of an Irish beauty. Slim legs and arms had developed a pink flush, either from the sun or from the heat of the day. The tank top she wore outlined her lush curves, and her shorts were long enough to be modest, but short enough to make him crazy. Her wonderful, riotous, pale gold hair was caught up in a ponytail on the back of her head. Renegade wisps curled around her face.
What he felt for her was more than simple lust. But he couldn’t articulate the difference. Never one to voluntarily spill his guts, he had now run out of things to say.
When the silence deepened, Winnie cocked her head. “Why did you feel the need to tell me this? I didn’t expect you to be so open with someone you’ve known for such a brief time.”
He shrugged. “I want you to know why this whole responsibility thing is an issue with me. It’s only been in the last couple of years—now that I see Devlyn and Annalise finally happy, really happy—that I’ve felt a load lifted. And I like that feeling. Watching people I love suffer was excruciating. Trying to help and being virtually useless. I can’t go through that again. And long-term relationships carry that risk.”
“You don’t owe me any explanations.”
“Maybe not. But I want to have honesty between us.”
She looked down at her lap, moving her hands restlessly, rubbing her knees, swatting a fly… “I appreciate that.”
He sat down beside her. “It’s too pretty a day to waste being sad. I hope I haven’t ruined it for you.”
She grimaced. “It’s not ruined. But I can’t help grieving for all of you.”
“You dealt with a pretty terrible loss yourself. And you made it through.”
She was more subdued than usual. He wondered if she was judging him for his failings or searching for any signs that he had his mother’s tendencies. He put a hand under her chin. “Look at me, Winnie.”
They were so close he could have counted the smattering of freckles on her cheeks if he’d been so inclined. But what he really wanted was a kiss. When Winnie kissed him, he felt invincible, as though he had won a rare prize.
She curled an arm around his neck. “Are we playing Tarzan and Jane?”
“I do like the thought of you in a leopard skin.”
“Men. You’re so easy.”
“You don’t find Tarzan sexy?”
“He was a hunter-gatherer. Women like being cared for.”
“His rock-hard abs had nothing to do with it?”
“Mmm. I plead the fifth.” She nuzzled his nose. “I like this tree house. Maybe I won’t go back to Nashville. Maybe I’ll stay right here where no one can find me.”
“You wouldn’t be able to forget about your flock. Admit it.”
“True. But don’t make it out to be some noble endeavor. I like being needed. So in a very real way, what I do is selfish.”
He chuckled. “You’ll never sell that one, Winnie. But nice try. And getting back to Tarzan…”
“Yes?” She uncurled her legs and leaned against him, her back to his chest.
His cheek came down to hers. “You said that women like being cared for. But it seems to me that you’re the one who does all the caring. Who takes care of you?”
“My parents left me well cared for.”
“I’m not talking about money, and you know it. What about relatives?”
“I told you that my parents were much older when they had me. So by the time I was in grade school, I had lost all four of my grandparents.”
“My mom and dad were only children. I’ve always suspected that was what brought them together. Even when I was an older teenager, before they were killed, I didn’t have the impression that their relationship was particularly passionate. They were more like friends who had never had siblings, so they found something valuable in their working collaboration.”
“And your friends?”
“You tell me. Aren’t your siblings and cousins your best friends?”
He frowned. “Yes. So what?”
“I wasn’t lucky enough to have such a
band of brothers.
And I was much like you in that I had tutors at home. College was not a great experience, because I was too gawky and shy to be comfortable with the students who came from backgrounds like mine and too wealthy to fit in with kids who were living on ramen noodles. I’ve always kept to myself. I do have women who mean something to me and whom I trust, but our connection is more about the work we do than anything personal. But it’s okay. I don’t mind taking care of myself. That was a lesson I learned early.”
Something moved inside him, an inescapable emotion that tightened his throat and made him want to give her everything she had missed. Even strong people needed a human connection to sustain them. Winnie cared for so many, but it wasn’t the type of equal relationship that offered something to her, as well.
He shifted her and twined his hand in her ponytail, pulling back her head for a long, lazy kiss. Gradually he was learning what she liked, what made her sigh, what made her melt. “Trust me now, Winnie.” Without waiting for permission, he unfastened her bra and stripped it and her top over her head.
“Larkin,” she objected. “What are you doing?”
“Relax,” he said, palming her breasts and bouncing them lightly. “No one can see us.” It was true. The spring foliage was already dense, so no one could spot them from the ground. And if anyone started up the lowest ladder, the noise would give Larkin and Winnie plenty of time to compose themselves.
Winnie closed her eyes, her breath coming in jerky pants. Her breasts were beautiful, full and ripe and delicious. He bent his head to kiss one raspberry nipple. Last night he’d barely caught a glimpse of her. This afternoon, in the unforgiving light of day, she was impossibly alluring. His hands shook and his mouth dried.
“Stand up, honey.”
With Winnie looking at him, big-eyed, he removed her socks and shoes and then gently stripped her shorts and underwear down slim, firm legs. Leaving her to her own devices a moment, he pulled his shirt over his head, unzipped his jeans and pushed his pants and boxers to his knees. His erection sprang forth, hungry and tall.
Winnie’s mesmerized stare did wonders for his ego. He grabbed a condom from his pocket and rolled it on. “Come here, Jane,” he said with a grin. That was something new. Humor and lust all in one moment. Winnie made him smile, even when he was so damned aroused, he ached from head to toe.
She raised an eyebrow. “There’s no room to lie down.”
“We’re not going to lie down.” Her look of dawning surprise swamped him with tenderness. He took her wrist and pulled her forward to straddle his hips. The sun-warmed cushion at his back felt welcoming. But when Winnie lowered herself onto him, hands braced on his shoulders, he felt at home. As though every dark shadow that had ever cloaked Wolff Mountain suddenly floated away on the breeze.
Her tight passage gripped him, causing sweat to break out on his forehead. The snug fit was incredible, making his head swim. He gripped her ass, trying not to lose control. “God, Winnie. I can’t get enough of you.” Slowly, he began to move. She caught his rhythm immediately, lifting and lowering in a lazy dance.
She inhaled sharply when he changed angles.
“You like that?”
She nodded, mute.
He buried his face between her breasts and inhaled the warm scent of her skin. No woman had ever made him feel like this, young and carefree, as though all of his past had been erased and life consisted of only this one perfect moment.
Sliding his hands up to her waist, he rocked her, feeling the way her thighs pressed against his, hearing the way her breathing labored as he drove her higher.
“Say something,” he muttered. His bed partners were usually more vocal. Winnie’s silence piqued him, made him wonder what she was thinking.
She bounced experimentally, and he cursed as the added stimulation sent him careening toward the end. “Winnie…”
“Can’t speak…finish it…” She leaned to one side, took his earlobe in her teeth and nipped it hard enough to make him shiver as the combination of pain and pleasure shot through his veins like a drug.
His arms locked around her waist, his hips thrust upward and he gave a muffled shout as his climax grabbed him without warning and tumbled him in a never-ending wave. Winnie came, too. He heard and felt her release. But after that, all he could do was slump into the sofa and try to remember how to breathe.
* * *
Winnie’s bottom was cold. And the muscles in her legs trembled. She lay sprawled on top of Larkin in a position that could only be described as immodest. But she couldn’t find the strength to care. Larkin’s heart thudded beneath her cheek, the beat steady, strong.
The euphoria of physical release faded as she acknowledged the painful truth. She had fallen in love with a lone Wolff. Holding him now, with no one to see, no one to care, was the most exquisite pleasure she’d ever experienced. Everything about him was admirable. In the faces of his family she saw love and respect for him. Even back in Nashville she had noted the caliber of his employees and the deference with which they spoke to him.
How would she ever be able to walk away? But she had no choice. It wasn’t as if she could stay and fight. He had told her from the beginning that he liked his life as it was. And if she truly cared for him, she would do the right thing and leave. No regrets. Surely a man who had suffered as much as Larkin had growing up deserved a time of peace.
His hand toyed with her hair, curling it around his fingers. When his fingers brushed her neck, she shivered. “Shouldn’t we get dressed before someone discovers us?” she said.
He tickled her lower back. “I don’t think I can move.” The deep, drugged satisfaction in the words told her that he had felt the same incredible connection that still bound them both physically and otherwise.
Clumsily, she levered herself up and off him. With his tousled hair, his bare chest and his…um…manly parts on display, he looked like what he was, a charming, sinfully attractive multimillionaire. It was odd, though, that she seldom thought of Larkin as being wealthy. His down-to-earth approach to life matched hers. And she liked that about him.
Though she tried to dress quickly, Larkin’s appreciative scrutiny made her hands fumble. Her underwear ended up inside out, but she left it that way, anxious to be fully clothed. At last, he stood up, dealt with the condom and readjusted his boxers and pants. He yawned and stretched. His chest was beautiful…smooth and tanned and rippled with sleek muscles. A thin line of hair bisected his chest and ran down to his belt buckle. She knew how silky that hair was, and where it led.
Sitting on the settee to put on her shoes, she looked up at him. “We promised we’d help decorate. I don’t want your sister sending out a search party.”
“You’re right.” He shrugged into his shirt and ran his hands through his short hair. “We might as well get it over with.” He reached for her one more time and kissed her forehead. “But tonight you’re mine—right?”
Winnie laughed ruefully. “After what happened just now, do you really think I’ll say no to you later?”
Larkin’s grin was wicked. He squeezed her butt. “Who knows? Women are capricious creatures.”
Winnie wasn’t about to get into a battle she was destined to lose. Already today she had let him talk her into sex when she’d been convinced it was a bad idea. She really didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Larkin insisted on descending the ladder first. Which meant his big arms surrounded her as she backed down. Thus giving him a far-too-close vantage point of her legs and other parts. When she stood on the landing, his eyes were hot. “What if I can’t wait until tonight?” He backed her into the ladder, his hips anchoring hers. “It won’t take long.”
She realized he was serious. And his need and hunger did something to her insides. A combination of smug happiness and desperate yearning filled her like a helium balloon. For a man like Larkin Wolff to want her so badly healed a few of the rough edges of her youthful pain.
Before she could answer one way or the other, a man’s voice sounded from below. “I know you’re up there. Come on, you two. Annalise is breathing fire because we’re all late.”
Winnie looked down, way down, at the top of Kieran’s head. “We’re coming,” she called, tugging at Larkin’s hand and heading for the next ladder.
have been coming,” he groused, his voice pitched low enough so only she could hear. “If he hadn’t interrupted.”
“Behave,” Winnie whispered. “This will be fun.”
Decorating the outdoor tent for Sam’s birthday was definitely a family affair. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and the forecast for Saturday was identical. This was a milestone birthday for Sam, so Annalise had bought every inch of black crepe paper in Virginia, or so it seemed. There were balloons to blow up, satin ribbon swags to design and hang, and all around the room, black-and-white photos of Sam. Sam as a kid with his dad at Wolff Mountain, Sam on his college graduation day and one poignant picture of Sam standing with the Wolff boys in front of the castle. Annalise appeared just in the edge of the picture, her gaze trained on the man she would one day marry.
Even though Annalise could have been only sixteen or seventeen when the photo was shot, the heart-wrenching look on her face was entirely adult. The naked emotion in her eyes was one Winnie understood all too well. In fact, the picture made her so uncomfortable she turned her back on it and walked away to another part of the tent.
Devlyn Wolff joined her as she assembled small posies of white roses and tucked them into ebony lacquer vases that would serve as table centerpieces. To her surprise, he pretended to help her, though his big hands mutilated the flowers. “I think you’d better let me do this,” she said, waving him off.
He perched on top of the table where she was working, his feet propped on a chair. A big, handsome man, he exuded charm and sex appeal, though Winnie was immune. As the head of Wolff Enterprises, his responsibilities were legion, yet here he was in the midst of a family gathering, seemingly content to be frittering away a Friday afternoon.