Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
He helped her carry the dishes to the kitchen. The lights in the house seemed harsh…unwelcome after the shadowed intimacy they had shared on the veranda. Winnie bent, efficiently loading the dishwasher. He knew Mrs. Cross wouldn’t blink an eye if they left the sink piled with dirty plates and glasses. But already, he also knew that Winnie possessed the kind of caring heart that would show consideration to anyone, regardless of social station or bank balance.
He leaned against the counter until she finished puttering. When she finally faced him, he held out a hand. “Care for a walk? That was a lot of calories.”
Seconds stretched into a minute or more. Winnie’s face was troubled. “I don’t know what happened last night,” she said slowly. “But I’m not in the habit of sleeping with men I just met. Even if the Wolff name does carry certain reassurances.”
“A walk, Winnie. That’s all.”
His promise coaxed a small smile. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”
“You want some shoes?”
She shook her head. “I love to feel the grass between my toes. I spent more money on the yard last year than I did on the house.”
“Then I’ll join you.” Her eyes widened as he kicked off his shoes and stripped off his socks. But she didn’t comment.
As they left the house via the main entrance, he deliberately steered her in the direction of the front gate. Most of his manpower was clustered around the two houses. So for some privacy, Larkin knew this was their best bet. They walked beside the stream, hearing little plops and splashes as frogs jumped into the water.
The grass was like velvet beneath their feet, cushy and smooth. Larkin synced his pace with hers comfortably. He was playing with fire. A smart man would say good-night as he had the night before. In his life, he walked alone. Without apology. He needed the personal space, the isolation. So there was no place for Winnie. But memories of an abandoned kiss taunted him, bringing his erection to life with an ache that made him want to pull her down into the soft grass and lift her skirt to her waist.
The image and the urge were so strong, he had to drag air into his lungs in a great gulp.
Winnie didn’t seem to notice his agitation. She hummed snatches of songs as they walked, her husky alto slightly off-key. It struck him with dark humor that their innocent stroll was as circumspect as if they were Elizabeth and her Mr. Darcy. Once, when Annalise was fourteen and desperately ill with the flu, she had made Larkin sit with her and watch that wretched movie twice through.
It was the only thing that distracted her from her misery, so Larkin had consented. Even Devlyn had lingered one afternoon to watch it with them. The two brothers had kept careful vigil as their beautiful sister grew to adulthood. Now she was married and had a baby of her own. The knowledge gave Larkin an ache in his chest.
Life never stayed the same. His family was moving on without him. But he didn’t want what they had. He didn’t want to ever face that pain again. The regret over failing a loved one. The Wolffs were mating for life…one by one. But not him. Never him.
s they neared the end of the quarter-mile driveway, Winnie stepped away from him. He felt the loss keenly. Something about her comforted the turmoil inside him. Calmed him. Gave him a sense of peace.
She linked her hands behind her back and looked up at the stars. “This is why I don’t live in the city,” she said. “I love the space, the sky, the solitude.”
“Do you like being alone?”
She whirled to face him, her face a pale oval. “What does that mean?”
“Maybe you use your dedication to your charges as a way to hide out from real life.”
Tension arced between them. His accusation was perhaps unpardonable, though he stood by it.
“You have no right,” she said, the words ragged, her hands fisted at her sides.
He grabbed her wrist, feeling the frantic race of her pulse. “Did I hit a nerve?”
“I won’t discuss this with you.” She yanked free of his hold.
His hunger and frustration rode him hard. To hell with what was smart. He had to know what she was thinking…what she was feeling. The uncertainty was eating at him, winnowing away the foundations of all his good intentions. “Did you kiss me because you’re so damned lonely, or was it something more?” He took her upper arms in his hands and shook her gently. “Tell me the truth.” Where was a moon when you needed one? He wanted to see her eyes.
Winnie stood motionless in his grasp, her rapid breathing the only evidence that she was upset. Gentling his hold, he ran his hands up and down her arms from shoulder to wrist and back. “Answer me, Winnie.”
She stepped backward a second time, deliberately out of reach. “I’m alone because I choose to be.” The words were barely audible. “I kissed you because you’re gorgeous and appealing. That’s all.”
“That’s enough.” The sizzle of exultation eradicated his pique. He told himself to stay silent, but the words tumbled out. “I could say the same thing about you, Winnie. You exude a radiant sexuality that I’m fairly certain you don’t even realize.”
She ignored his comment, but he heard her breath catch. “It would be foolish for us to start something,” she whispered. “Especially since we’ll soon be surrounded by your entire family.”
Her voice shook, sending a frisson of guilt along his nerve endings. He really was a selfish bastard. And his high-and-mighty personal code was no more than empty words. He was a man like any other man, driven by his need for a woman. Blind to reason, crazed by her delicate scent, he pushed for what he wanted, ignoring the yawning chasm at his feet that could lead to his doom. “Maybe we’re not
anything. Perhaps we’re two loners enjoying the moment.”
“And you don’t see anything wrong with that?” He heard more curiosity than anger in her voice.
“Not at all. I think you’re the most fascinating woman I’ve met in a long time. I want you badly, even though I know it’s a dangerous idea. I’m admitting my inconsistencies and trying to tell myself I can
take advantage of a serendipitous situation
as well as the next guy.” He closed the distance she had created in two quick steps. “But if you’re unsure, let’s experiment. Maybe last night was a fluke.”
She struggled briefly as he dragged her close, but moments later, she sighed deeply and leaned into him, raising her lips for his kiss. The quiet vulnerability of her pose gave him pause. Did he have the right to dally with Winnie knowing it wouldn’t last? He knew he was rationalizing…telling himself he wasn’t really straying from his personal code if this was nothing permanent. Even aroused to the point of pain, he saw the flaws in his reasoning.
But, hell…his brain was no longer in control….
He touched her lips with his…softly…reverently. The night sounds faded, leaving an expectant hush in their wake. Winnie’s moan lodged in his gut. It took everything he had to keep the kiss gentle. He felt anything but gentle, and the ferocity of his need startled him. Winnowing his fingers into her hair, he palmed the back of her head and drew her closer, his mouth taking hers forcefully.
Her tongue played with his as one of her hands roved over his back. When they broke for air, she put her hand on his cheek. “It wasn’t a fluke.”
Just as he brushed the hair from her face, a bright flash of light startled them. It took only a split second to realize what was happening. Larkin bounded over the gate in hot pursuit of the photographer who’d had the gall to record a very private moment.
But the man had a head start, and he had an accomplice just down the road. As Larkin pulled up short, he heard the roar of an engine and saw the speeding vehicle disappear into the night.
Winnie was waiting for him on the road when he walked back. “Did you get a license number?”
He shook his head. “Too dark. Damn, I’m sorry. He must have been careful not to touch the fence, or the alarms would have gone off. And standing where he was, he wasn’t breaking any laws.”
“Don’t feel bad. This has been going on for weeks. Now you know why I want to get away. It’s only a matter of time until someone figures out that I’m hiding two dozen refugees. I thought you had guards everywhere. Why didn’t your people come running when I opened the gate to follow you?”
“I have a remote in my pocket. I hit the
to protect your privacy. I didn’t think you would want anyone to know we were out here together.”
“Well, that ship has sailed, hasn’t it.” Resignation mixed with humor in her wry statement.
“Will this show up in the papers tomorrow?”
“Yes. And online. And anywhere else where that slimeball can garner a buck.”
“My back was toward him. I doubt I’ll be recognizable.”
“Doesn’t really matter. They’ll make up a story anyway.”
He gathered her into his arms and hugged her. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I fully understood the scrutiny you’ve been under. My family has been hounded by the press over the years. I do know what it feels like to be violated.”
She wriggled free, leaving him to wonder why. “It was bad when your mother and aunt died, wasn’t it? I read about it in an old article when I was trying to decide whether to hire you.”
“It was horrendous. I was young. I don’t remember all of it. My cousin Gareth was the only one old enough to read the press accounts. I think it messed him up for a long time. But then he found his wife, Gracie. She’s been able to bring back his ability to smile…to be happy.”
“You all are a close family…I can tell.”
“We’ve had to be. We weren’t allowed to go to school until college. So for all those years we had no one to play with, to study with, to squabble with but our siblings and cousins.”
“Does it bother you that they’ve brought outsiders into your inner circle—all these marriages, I mean?”
He thought about it for a long moment. He and Winnie were walking slowly, side by side, retracing their steps to the house.
he jealous? Did he feel a sense of betrayal? Perhaps he did. And it wasn’t a rational thing at all. Winnie had picked up on an emotion he hadn’t even admitted to himself. Was that why he clung so tightly to the notion that he didn’t want to be needed?
“I suppose I do feel
” he muttered. “But I’d like to think it’s nostalgia for the past when we were a band of six and not something as petty as jealousy. I’m happy for all of them. I really am. But this tidal wave of marital bliss has happened pretty quickly. Kind of makes my head spin.”
“It isn’t contagious. You don’t have to worry.”
There was no mistaking the miffed tone in her voice.
“I never said I was.”
She opened the front door and faced him in the foyer. “I don’t need you to save me from myself, Larkin Wolff. If we end up in bed together it will be for a moment’s pleasure. I like my freedom as much as you like yours.”
He took her chin in his hand, running his thumb over her bottom lip. It was pink and puffy from his earlier kiss. The ache in his chest almost overwhelmed his good sense. “I’m selfish and stubborn and inflexible. I’d be a bad bargain for anyone.”
Winnie stared at him, those amazing cat eyes unblinking. “Good thing I’m not in the market for a husband. Good night, Mr. Wolff.”
By the time she had reached the third stair, he knew he wanted to stop her. But his stubborn adherence to a life mantra held him back—that and a healthy sense of self-preservation. His attraction to Winnie threatened to rewrite his personal code of behavior. Since meeting her, he’d bent more rules than he ever had before. Business. Pleasure. Never the twain shall meet. He inhaled sharply, ignoring his inclination to throw caution to the wind. “You’ll need to pack tomorrow. And I’ll finalize every last bit of the security plan. We can go over it together in the afternoon, and if all is well, we’ll hit the road first thing Thursday morning.”
Winnie paused and looked over her shoulder. “You’re sure about this Wolff Mountain thing?”
She nodded once. “Good night, then.”
He watched her intently, seeing her slim legs and bare feet disappear from view. What would his relatives back home make of Winifred Bellamy? She was comfortable with money. So the Wolff riches would mean nothing to her. But she lived her life alone. And Larkin’s family members were a boisterous lot.
He checked in with the night crew and then took a shower. His erection bobbed thick and full, giving lie to any notion that he wanted to take things slow with Winnie. He wanted her in his bed. Now. Or in hers. Hell, the location didn’t matter. But he was going crazy wondering how long it would be before he could take her. And despite his mental gymnastics, it was definitely “when” and not “if.” A man could lie to himself for only so long. Not even Winnie could deny that the connection between them was real.
* * *
The next day, it rained. The sullen weather suited Winnie’s mood. She had made a mess of the covers last night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Part of her unease was apprehension about going to Wolff Mountain. But the encounter with the photographer had reminded her of all the reasons she needed to leave.
Midmorning, she worked in the dining room with her case files spread out and a half dozen lists in the making. She had hired a trusted friend to come and live in the house…to play Winnie’s role as mother hen while she was gone. Larkin’s team would keep intruders out, but there was much to be done with the day-to-day running of the estate.
When Larkin interrupted her just before eleven, she told herself she was irritated. But her pulse raced and her heart leaped in her chest. “Did you need something?” Her voice was deliberately cool.
He lounged in the doorway, so darned masculine and appealing he made a woman want to throw caution to the wind.
Larkin nodded. “I’d like to meet with the women as soon as possible. With you gone, I think it would be good for them to know how they’ll be protected. Exactly who’s on-site when, and how the security system works.”
He had a good point. “How about right after lunch. I’ll go down and explain why you’re going to talk to them. Then I can call you to come.”
“Works for me.” He motioned toward the tabletop covered in papers. “You’ve never really explained how all this works. Is there a set time a family can stay? How do they ‘graduate,’ so to speak?”
She tidied a pile of folders and wished she could pretend he was just a man. Larkin Wolff did something to her guts. Call it pheromones or a crush or whatever…but in his presence she was jumpy and not at all herself. “It’s different from case to case. When convictions are made and a husband or boyfriend is safely behind bars, the women can sometimes go home.”
“And if not?”
“We have many women who will never press charges. Their only hope is to disappear. We have contacts who can help handle that. But it means moving to a new city, using a new name. No friends, no family. It breaks my heart.” She heard the wobble in her own voice and took a deep breath. The only way she was able to help the women who came to her was to keep an emotional distance, though that was easier said than done. But like a doctor tending terminal patients, if she allowed herself to get too close, she would burn out rapidly.
Larkin stared at her in such a way that she felt exposed. She could almost see the wheels in his brain turning. “It must be very difficult to watch them leave,” he said quietly.
Her throat burned with unshed tears. “I’d keep them all forever if I could. But then I’d never be able to take anyone new.”
“And the problem never goes away.”
“No. It doesn’t.”
He was wearing a blue knit shirt that matched his eyes. Though he appeared relaxed, she always got the impression he was like a panther ready to pounce at any moment.
“Winnie?” He straightened and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“Someday…when you feel you can trust me…I’d like to know why these women mean so much to you.”
Reminders of the past always brought nausea. Humiliation. “Can’t I simply be doing my civic duty?”
“It’s personal. I see it in your eyes. I’d be honored if you would share that story with me. When you’re ready.”
The kindness and compassion in his steady gaze threatened to turn her into a blubbering mess. “I need to make a phone call,” she said, brushing past him abruptly before she succumbed to the tears his probing had caused. “I’ll be down for lunch at noon.”