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Authors: Leanne Banks

Guardian Angel

BOOK: Guardian Angel
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Guardian Angel
Leanne Banks

 

All Talia McKenzie wants from Trace Barringer is his money—in the form of a donation to her charity. The last thing she needs is the too-arrogant, too-sexy businessman muscling his way on to the committee. He may have been the object of her girlhood fantasies, but she stopped believing in fairytales long ago. Falling for a Barringer, no matter how tempting he is, would mean betraying her own family…

Trace doesn't recognize Talia as the girl he once called his guardian angel. But he does know a challenge when he sees one—and the beautiful deli owner is a definite challenge. Trace is used to getting what he wants, and he wants Talia.

With the passion between them reaching a fever pitch, Talia can't deny her attraction to Trace for long. But how can they build a future when she can't forgive the past?

Previously published.

This book is dedicated to my sisters, Karen and Janie, for the fights, laughter, tears and hard-won friendship the years have given us.

And special thanks to Bonnie, Carolyn, Janet and Mary.

Prologue

He wasn't a drunk, he was just a little crazy.

At least that was the consensus among the small population of Barringer, Virginia. As twelve-year-old Talia McKenzie frantically pedaled her bike toward home, she saw men push and poke at crazy old Mr. Simmons. Slowing down, she wondered what in the world she should do.

She was an hour past her curfew. Swimming at the lake had been so much fun, though, and her friend, Gina, had brought sandwiches for lunch. Even after Gina had left, Talia had splashed and swum, pretending the August sun wouldn't set. She couldn't pretend away her goose bumps and pruned skin, however, when the water grew cool. And the sun faded in spite of her wishes.

Talia could have stayed at the lake for the rest of her life. An instant jab of guilt squelched that thought, and she sighed. Since her mother had gotten sick in March, it seemed Talia had no time for swimming and pajama parties. She'd spent the entire summer keeping her younger brother, Kevin, out of trouble and caring for her mother.

The only reason Talia had gotten away that day was because her mother's best friend, Opal Taylor, had promised to spend the afternoon with Mama and Kevin.

“Stop it,” Mr. Simmons cried in an angry, pitiful voice.

“We'll stop,” the taller youth said with an ugly laugh, “when you give us your money.”

Talia scowled. Mr. Simmons had very little money and no family. She knew for a fact that the minister let the old man sleep in the church.

Hiding on her bike behind some trees, she looked around in vain for help. Mr. Simmons started yelling louder, and she hoped someone would hear him soon. After all, they stood in a fairly public area, behind the town's movie house.

Not that that was good for Talia. If she didn't get grounded for coming home late, she'd probably get it for taking the shortcut through town. Her mother disapproved of her biking on busy streets, especially at night.

She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw another young man walk toward the trio. He was tall and slim and strode along with a confident gait. The light from a distant streetlamp reflected on his long blond hair and white shirt.

“Hey,” she heard him say, “what's the problem?”

The two thugs immediately turned their attention to him. Talia stared at him, too, thinking she couldn't wait to tell Gina about him. He was much more impressive than all those rock stars Gina was always mooning over.

He was a good guy, too, she thought, dividing them up just like in an old Western. All he needed was a white hat.

“Nothing we can't handle, rich boy,” the tall bully said. “Mind your own business.” He gave the new arrival a hard push.

A lump of fear formed in Talia's throat. What if they carried knives? Mr. Simmons seemed to sense they'd lost interest in him and was edging away. Talia gripped her handlebars tighter. What should she do? Caught up in her anxiety, she didn't hear the ensuing conversation. She did see one of the bad guys punch the rescuer in the stomach.

She winced at the sound of fist against flesh.

Both thugs went after the blond man full force. Still, he held his own with calculated kicks and blows. He didn't seem to give their pounding jabs more than a shrug.

Talia watched in awe. When one of the bullies fell to the ground, it looked as if the rescuer might take them both out.

But the bully staggered to his feet. A cold chill settled over her. She could barely make out the object in his hand, but it looked like a brick.

Something had to be done. Adrenaline rushed through her, and Talia acted on pure instinct. She pedaled furiously toward them. Engrossed with the fighting, the three men didn't see her until it was too late.

She closed her eyes, gritted her teeth, and rode straight into the man holding the brick.

He howled in pain.

Thrown clear from her bike, she began to scream at the top of her lungs. She raised such a furor that several other people rushed to the scene. The teen thugs tried to run away, but a couple of men stopped them.

She heard several appalled murmurs.

“Isn't that Harlan Barringer's son?”

“Trace Barringer?”

“These delinquents will be dead meat when Harlan hears about this.”

Another man chuckled. “Looks like Trace took care of them well enough on his own.”

Talia just wanted to get away without being recognized. She picked herself up and retrieved her bike. Her knees were skinned. They burned with pain, and she could feel blood running down one leg.

At this rate, she figured she'd be lucky to see the lake again before her thirteenth birthday.

Just as she climbed on her bike, the one they called Trace said, “Hey, wait a minute. You on the bike. I need to thank you.”

She gulped as he walked to her. Everyone was staring at her. Acutely aware of her dark, stringy hair and wet clothing, she bit her lip and wished she could make herself disappear.

He gave her a warm smile that made her stomach feel strange, then he offered his hand. Even with his cheek beginning to swell, he was the most attractive man she'd ever seen. She would have liked to see the color of his eyes, but it was too dark.

She rubbed her scraped palm against her shorts before taking his hand. “It was nothing,” she whispered, and quickly put her hand back on the handlebar.

“Nothing?” Her heart lifted absurdly at his incredulous tone. “You saved my rear. What are you, some kind of guardian angel?”

She recovered her wits enough to laugh. The last person who'd called her an angel had been her father, right before his death six years earlier. “No angel,” she said. “I just evened the odds a little bit.” She turned and rode away from the crowd.

Chapter One

One of these days, she'd give in to the urge to rip the tinted glasses off his face and see whether his eyes were green or gold.

But not today, Talia McKenzie told herself as she crossed her nylon-clad legs and leaned back in the brown leather chair. Today the only thing she wanted from Trace Barringer was money.

She watched the new ruler of Barringer Corporation as he prowled from one end of his cherry desk to the other, speaking into the phone. A long-fingered hand raked through his blond hair. Actually, it was brown with sparks of blond shot through it. Talia absently pushed a strand of her own dark hair behind her ear and searched Trace's face for signs of stinginess. She hoped he was a generous man.

His dark, baritone voice held just a hint of raspiness. It was the kind of voice that wouldn't need to be raised to command authority. The kind of voice that sensitized all the nerve endings in a woman.

Talia shifted in her chair, then let her gaze follow the line of his navy tailored suit along his well-toned physique. She wondered if the suit was Italian, and smiled. Perhaps it was. But the rest of Trace Barringer was one hundred percent all-American well-bred male.

He'd definitely aged well.

Though he fairly emanated impatience, she noticed he kept it from his tone. Unwillingly, she admired his control.

He concluded his phone conversation and punched another button. “Hold my calls, Dusty.” Replacing the receiver, he turned his attention to Talia. “Would you care for coffee or a soft drink?”

“Neither, thank you.” She had no desire to make this meeting last one minute longer than necessary.

“Fine.” He sat in his chair and studied her for a moment.

His scrutiny unsettled her, and the years fell away, making Talia feel twelve again with skinned knees, stringy hair and gangly legs. She restrained the urge to smooth her collar or make sure her bra strap wasn't showing. Instead, she twisted a tiny gold earring, thankful she'd chosen to wear two earrings that day instead of her usual six.

He opened a folder. “Ms. McKenzie, according to our records, Barringer Corporation has donated a generous sum of money to the Lung Foundation Drive for the past three years.”

“Yes, you have. And it's been greatly appreciated by the Foundation. In the past, I've always dealt with your father. I usually mailed him a letter, then he sent us a check.” She'd always wondered if the senior Barringer's donations had been motivated by guilt. “I hope there's no problem with your company giving a donation this year.”

Trace shook his head. “No. The company plans to make a donation. But we'd also like to be more involved in the planning of Lung Awareness Month. That's the reason I asked you here today. I'd like to see the drive expanded to the textile mill.” He paused and smiled, revealing a slash of strong white teeth.

A lethal weapon, that smile, Talia thought. She wondered how many women had fallen casualty to it.

“In other words,” he continued, “we want to be represented on the Planning Committee.”

Over my dead body.
It was one thing to spend fifteen minutes politely requesting a donation from a Barringer. But Talia's mind couldn't conceive of deliberately placing herself in the position of dealing with him or any other Barringer for the three months the fund drive required. “That's really not necessary, Mr. Barringer. At this point, our plans are well under way.”

“Please call me Trace. And you're…?”

Ms. McKenzie, she thought peevishly. “Talia,” she said with reluctance, and bit her lip. This meeting wasn't going as planned. She'd hoped to be out the door with a hefty check by this time.

His gaze settled on her mouth. “Talia.” He tried it out, as if he were tasting a new wine. She waited, shifting uncomfortably when his intent gaze trailed down to her crossed legs.

The intercom buzzed. He snatched up the phone. “Dusty, I told you—” He paused, and his entire demeanor changed. His eyebrows drew together while he muttered a curse. “I'll take it. Tell Madelyn to hold on for one minute.”

Punching the hold button, he turned back to Talia. “We won't be able to get anything settled here. Can I meet you for dinner tonight?”

Dinner! Shock ran through her until she found her voice. “Uh, no. I already have plans.”

He checked his calendar. “How about tomorrow night?”

“I don't think so.” How did one politely say “When hell freezes over?” she wondered.

“Next Monday?”

“No.”

He cocked his head and studied her for a moment. “How about if you tell me what evening you have available?”

She lifted her shoulders. “My mind draws a complete blank.” At least that was the truth. She hadn't been able to think straight since he'd suggested dinner. She shook her head and stood. “I'm sorry. I'll send you our tentative plans and budget. Then you can decide what kind of donation Barringer Corporation will be able to make.”

He opened his mouth to speak as she left, but the buzzer sounded again. She'd lay odds that he was rarely thwarted. When she saw the look of frustration on his face, she almost felt sorry for him.

Almost.

“Thank you, Mr. Barringer,” she murmured, and closed the door behind her.

A curious combination of relief and disappointment bubbled within her as she left the building. He hadn't recognized her.

Ten minutes later Talia swept into her deli, On A Roll. “Thanks for watching the store for me, Gina.” She strapped a red apron over her white blouse and navy linen skirt as her very pregnant friend waddled out from behind the counter.

“How'd it go?” Gina asked. “No, don't tell me. I want to hear everything from start to finish, and right now I've got to get home to meet Jason at the bus stop.”

Accustomed to the way Gina tended to carry on a conversation with herself, Talia just smiled and put some cookies in a bag. “Take these with you. And about Jason, can I borrow him one evening while you and Don go out to dinner?”

Gina narrowed her blue eyes at Talia. “I've got your number. You know I won't accept money for helping you, but I'd never turn down free babysitting.” She gave Talia's shoulder a squeeze before she opened the door. “I'll call you tonight. And I want every juicy detail about Trace Barringer. Don tells me all the women at the plant swoon when he comes around.”

Fortunately, the door swung shut before Talia could reply. She waved goodbye through the window, then reached for her tape of
Carmen.
Flipping it into her tape player, she sighed as the music washed over her. She saved
Carmen
for her most depressing or disturbing days. D-days, she called them.

And today had been most disturbing.

She didn't want to think about the source of her disturbing feelings. If she examined the source, then she'd remember the blond male lead in a thousand of her adolescent daydreams.

She'd always carried a crazy image of Trace Barringer as her knight in shining armor. The image had brought her comfort during the years of her mother's illness. Times when Talia had felt like weeping. Times when she could have used a strong shoulder to share the load.

Trace's appeal had only increased with age. He emanated the kind of confidence a man gained from repeatedly proving himself in challenging situations. Considering that she may have unwittingly presented him with a challenge, Talia felt a vague shiver of premonition and turned away from her unsettling thoughts.

Out of habit, she checked the small dining area of her shop. Everything was clean. She should have known Gina would keep the shop immaculate. Though most of her business was take-out, a few customers enjoyed eating at the wooden bar that served as a windowsill, or at one of the four round tables. Owning the solitary sub shop in small-town Barringer had its advantages. The absence of competitors allowed her to enjoy her brisk business without constantly looking over her shoulder.

On A Roll brought her a great deal of pride and pleasure. She'd worked hard for it. So had her brother, Kevin, in spite of his hurt and confusion over their mother's death. In spite of what the Barringers had done to him. Her blood seethed just thinking about it, and she wondered how Trace could ooze integrity when his family was a bunch of vipers.

 

“Another donation to my ex-wife's favorite charity—herself,” Trace muttered as he signed the check.

At least he knew it wouldn't be long before Madelyn's acting career took off. If ever a woman belonged on stage, it was she. Madelyn was the kind of woman who never got off the stage. She wasn't honest. She wasn't real.

An image of the intriguing lady who'd raced out of his office minutes before hovered in his mind. Talia McKenzie. Now
she
was real. She may have wanted to conceal her emotions, but her feelings showed in every move she made. A nervous self-conscious twisting of a tiny earring. A flash of fire in her dark eyes.

And she'd bit into her generous lower lip with small white teeth. Trace pulled off his glasses and wondered what had been going on in her mind.

She was a little hostile. A little challenging.

And a whole lot of temptation.

Leaning back in his leather chair, he tried to remember the last time a woman had really tempted him. He couldn't.

He'd spent too many years trying to fix a marriage that had started out broken. He'd spent too many months trying to gain custody of his young son without an ugly court battle. And the family company had demanded every spare minute since his father's heart attack the previous year.

He glanced at the signed check in front of him. It was only a matter of time before Madelyn gave him custody of Robby. She was weakening. She knew her life wasn't stable enough for an active four-year-old. It was only a matter of time.

Perhaps he'd put his personal life and needs on hold long enough. Trace felt a very masculine stirring when he recalled the challenging sparkle in Talia's eyes.

He savored it and grinned.

When he punched the button for his secretary, she picked up immediately. “Yes, Mr. Barringer?”

“Dusty, you should be receiving some correspondence concerning Lung Awareness Month from Talia McKenzie. Bring it to my attention when you get it.”

“You don't want Public Relations handling this?” She sounded surprised.

That would be the practical thing to do. Barringer Corporation had a PR department for this kind of thing. And he really didn't have time. Trace didn't hesitate. “No, I'll handle this myself.”

 

One week later Talia set the oven on preheat to bake the brownies she'd just mixed. The lights dimmed. “Oh, great,” she muttered, then watched with resigned futility as the lights went out in her small Cape Cod. Daylight Saving Time didn't kick in until next week, so the house was covered in a veil of darkness. Turning, she groped through the kitchen drawer that held extra fuses.

Was that a knock at the front door? “Give me just a minute,” she called. It was probably one of the members of the Planning Committee arriving for their scheduled meeting that night.

She felt an assortment of pens, rubber cement, paper clips and coupons, but no fuses. Muttering to herself, she headed for her bedroom. She kept a few in her nightstand for emergencies.

Someone pounded on her front door again. “Hold your horses,” she yelled. It was probably Lou Adkins, the printer. The guy couldn't stand waiting. Reaching into the bottom drawer of the nightstand, she stretched her fingers to the back and found a fuse. “Thank you, Lord.”

“Having problems?” a deep voice said behind her.

It wasn't Lou.

Talia whirled around and just barely swallowed back the scream in her throat. A squeak came out in its place. Her heart beat wildly; her knees all but knocked together.

She stepped backward. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

The man walked toward her and she gulped. Where was her flashlight? She could tell by his shadow that he was quite tall and broad-shouldered.

Strange how the brain functioned in moments of crisis. Her mind raced a million miles in a few seconds as she considered what man would enter her bedroom.

The only man who'd overtly attempted to woo her lately was Mick Ramsey from the auto parts store. The last time he'd come in for lunch, he had reeked of garlic. Upon his departure, he'd informed her, with nauseating suggestiveness, that the Chinese considered garlic an aphrodisiac. Talia figured he'd retrieved that scintillating bit of information purely by accident. Mick wasn't the type to stretch his reading past the sports page or the back of a cereal box.

She sniffed suspiciously, but the faint scent she caught was an intriguing blend of woodsy aftershave and man. “Mick?”

The intruder reached for something on her nightstand. “No. But if that's who you were expecting, I can pretend to change my name.” Amusement wove its way through his dark voice. “It's Trace. Trace Barringer.” He turned on her flashlight. “Is this what you were looking for?”

Blinking, Talia reached for the flashlight and tried not to dwell on how her pulse had picked up when she'd heard his name. “Yes. How did you get in?”

“Your door was unlocked. I saw the lights go out and thought you might need some help.”

“Oh,” she mumbled, resolving to lock her door in the future. “The wiring in this house is ancient,” she said nervously as she made her way into the hall to turn off the air conditioner. “If I use the air conditioner and the oven at the same time, it often blows the fuse for the ground level of the house.”

“So replace the wiring,” Trace suggested.

“There's this small matter of college tuition for my brother,” she answered before realizing that Trace Barringer wouldn't understand the concept of having to choose carefully how to spend one's money. She felt him prowling along behind her and tried to shove aside her discomfort at having him in her house. It would be easier to ignore a lion following her.

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