Authors: M. Malone
But in that moment, as her eyes held him captive, she was more beautiful than he’d ever seen her. With her hair wild and a streak of dirt on her cheek, all he could think was…
RIDLEY HAD ALWAYS been the good twin. The one who followed the rules. Her sister was the one who seduced, cajoled and manipulated to get her way. She’d never understood why her sister did the things she did. Lying seemed like more work than just telling the truth.
So, when she realized the man in front of her thought she was Raina, she knew what she needed to do. Correct him. Tell him who she was.
Then she looked at him and forgot all of it.
Good lord he’s gorgeous.
He crouched down and met her gaze. “I’m sorry if we scared you. The kids saw you passed out in the grass. We’ve already called 911, so don’t worry.”
“No! You can’t call 911.” Ridley jumped up, then swayed when another wave of dizziness hit her.
He caught her and lowered her back to the grass. “Don’t try to stand yet. Just take it easy.”
In that one instant, she understood her sister’s dishonesties better than ever. Because she was willing to allow this man to think she was Raina if it meant she got more time with him treating her like this.
Like someone he cared about.
“I traveled overnight to get here and I must have been more tired than I thought. Please don’t call for an ambulance. I’m fine.”
Her voice failed and heat flooded to her face as she noticed all of the other people standing around watching. There was another man with a buzz cut on the ground near her. A blond man stood off to the side on a cell phone. The two boys she’d seen earlier were there, too. They were holding the hands of another man who looked a lot like the guy in front of her.
, he’d called himself.
Despite how bad she felt, all she could think was that she needed to stay under the radar. Her name in some sort of incident report was hardly incognito. If someone was looking for her, she wasn’t going to make it that easy for them to find her.
“I thought you were supposed to be out of town for two weeks?” Jackson asked. “Did something happen?”
Ridley sighed. That explained why no one had answered at her sister’s house. The last time they’d talked had been a month ago and it hadn’t ended well. Her sister had always been bossy but she’d been unreasonable lately. They’d both said things they shouldn’t have and hadn’t spoken since. She’d assumed that Raina was just ignoring her calls. But if she was out of the country, then she’d come all this way for nothing.
There was no one here to help her.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” The guy with the buzz cut looked at her arms. She pulled her sleeves down further to cover the bruises on her wrists.
“Yeah, I was in a car accident. But I’m fine. I actually should be going.” Something in the back of her mind warned her not to give out too much information. Being too trusting was how she’d gotten in her current situation in the first place.
“I’d really be more comfortable if we took you to the hospital.” Jackson gestured toward the one with the buzz cut. “Matt’s trained as a medic but he’s not a doctor.”
“It’s really not necessary. I’m slightly anemic and it’s worse when I haven’t been eating well. This isn’t the first time I’ve fainted after skipping meals. I’m more embarrassed than anything.”
He nodded once before turning and walking over to the man on the phone.
“Did I interrupt a party?” she asked.
Matt shrugged. “Not exactly. The actual party isn’t until Monday. We just like coming over early to help out. Or to give Jackson a hard time. Both are fun.”
Ridley smacked her forehead with her hand. “Oh, right. I forgot it was Memorial Day weekend. You’re lucky to have such a big group of friends. I’ve only got…” She glanced back at the house and sighed.
“So, you just got back from a modeling job?”
She heard the disbelief and wasn’t even offended by it. She’d never bothered with straightening her hair or wearing makeup anyway. Considering that she’d been traveling for the better part of the last two days and felt like hell, she was sure she looked nothing like a supermodel.
“Well, you’re welcome to hang out with us. It’s just us guys right now but my sister will probably come over later. Mainly because her new boyfriend is here, the blond guy over there, who happens to be one of my best friends.” His face twisted as he said it.
Ridley looked at him and couldn’t think of anything to say other than “Oh. Well…”
“Yeah. That pretty much sums it up,” Matt deadpanned.
She burst out laughing just as Jackson walked up. He looked between the two of them curiously, which just made them break out into another round of laughter.
“Well, I’ve canceled the ambulance but we should at least get you inside and cleaned up.” He held out a hand.
She hesitated a moment but then allowed him to pull her up. He was even better-looking up close, all golden-skinned and masculine. She was suddenly hyper-aware that she was wearing a ragged, old tee shirt and hadn’t showered in the past twenty-four hours. After a few gentle tugs he released her hand, which she immediately tucked in her pocket.
“I can’t. I’m locked out.”
Jackson took her arm gently. “Well, that settles it. You’ll come to my house until a locksmith can come out.”
Ridley looked between them awkwardly. “You’re going to let me stay at your house?”
“Well, yeah.” He looked at her strangely. “We’re neighbors. In New Haven that means we’re practically family. You can take one of the spare rooms upstairs and relax until a locksmith can come out here.”
Ridley watched, open-mouthed, as Matt jogged over to the deck and picked up her backpack. She looked back at Jackson who stood patiently waiting. He didn’t rush her or seem pissed that she was holding him up, either. He seemed to understand that she needed a moment.
What had seemed like a simple plan had turned into a tangled mess. Not that she’d thought her plan was perfect. Run and hide was about as far as she’d gotten. But now she was stranded, possibly being stalked and her sister was clearly angrier than she’d suspected if she’d changed the security code. Her plan had taken a huge nosedive, and Jackson had unwittingly just offered her the perfect solution.
There was no better way to hide than in plain sight.
If she went to Jackson’s house, she’d be completely off the grid. It was a much better plan than checking into a hotel, at least until she got in contact with Raina. She’d be on her way before long and no one had to be the wiser. She could travel and leave no trail.
Going off with a stranger probably wasn’t ideal but he seemed so sincere, and Raina wouldn’t be friends with this guy if he was an axe murderer, right? If she was lucky, Raina would call back tonight and then she’d be on her way. Raina was mad at her but she’d still help her until the police figured things out.
In the end she couldn’t see any reason not to trust him.
“Okay,” she said at last. “Lead the way.” She followed the guys to a section where the creek was narrower and they took turns hopping over it. Then they walked down a few houses to a sprawling, white brick colonial.
She didn’t have to worry about him having bad intentions toward her. Gorgeous men with this kind of money in the bank usually had more women than they could handle. Not that it mattered. This wasn’t a social call. She was staying just long enough to get some sleep, charge her phone and get in contact with her sister. Then she was gone.
We’re practically family.
She ignored the thrill those words made her feel. The only family she had was a father she’d never met, and a sister who was halfway around the world. These were hardly normal circumstances and, even if they were, the last thing she had time for was a handsome man.
Especially since the last one she’d liked had ended up dead.
AFTER SHOWING RAINA to a guest room, Jackson retrieved his cell phone from his office. He’d had his security company on speed dial ever since his youngest son had gotten tall enough to reach the door handle. He’d been locked out plenty of times.
Although he doubted anyone would be willing to come out on a holiday weekend without charging an outrageous amount, it was still worth calling. The Raina Winters he knew probably wouldn’t even blink at the price. She no doubt spent thousands a month just on the fancy clothes she usually wore.
You’re going to let me stay at your house?
Not that she wasn’t usually polite, but she’d seemed stunned and incredibly grateful at the offer. He softened, remembering the look on her face. Why was she having this effect on him now? They’d been neighbors for almost six months. His boys adored her and she was always very friendly, but he’d never felt anything more than passing interest. But she’d seemed different. Approachable even. Which was dangerous, in more ways than one.
He hit the last speed dial on his phone and waited as it rang. As expected, it went to voicemail.
“Hey Len, it’s Jackson Alexander. One of my neighbors is locked out. You’re probably out of town for the long weekend but if not, let me know. She’s staying with me in the meantime. Thanks.”
He called a few other companies for good measure, then tucked his phone in his pocket. All they could do now was wait. It was a long shot, hoping that anyone would be able to come out on a holiday, but the alternative was spending the long weekend with a supermodel. Raina Winters was the kind of woman he usually stayed far away from.
After the dark year following Crystal’s death, his friends had pushed him head first into the singles scene, determined to draw him out of his depressive state. He’d gone out with singers, actresses, athletes and socialites. Blondes, brunettes and every shade in between. Curvy and slender, feisty and giggly, he’d been on a mission to feast on all the female delights he’d missed out on by marrying young.
Somehow, he'd thought if he could bury himself in female attention, he could forget that the only woman he wanted was gone forever.
Then he’d met Alana. She’d seemed like everything he could want in a woman: sexy, talented and ambitious. A jazz singer, she’d been someone he could talk to about the business and bounce around his ideas about producing a new kind of album. She’d been excited about the project and even volunteered to sing. When she’d started pressuring him for more of his time and commitment, he’d actually felt guilty that he couldn’t give her what she needed.
Until the day he found her ass up over his assistant’s desk. In the end, Alana wasn’t special. She was just another singer looking for her big break and she’d been willing to do whatever or
it took to get there. They’d broken up but he’d learned a valuable lesson. He’d been in love with a fantastic woman once and the odds of it happening for him again were somewhere between “not gonna happen” and “a snowball’s chance in hell.”
Since then he’d only dated women who knew the score and had just as much to lose as he did. Starlets who needed someone on their arm for a film premiere, and models who needed an escort that wasn’t prettier than they were.
But in that moment, when he’d seen Raina on the ground with those big wounded eyes aimed at him, he’d experienced an almost startling sensation of
. In the past three years no other woman had tempted him to break his no-strings rule. And none had roused the instinct to comfort and protect. Until now. Until Raina.
Which meant she
had to go.
He walked down the hall to his sons’ room where Nicholas was helping Chris with one of his toy robots.
“Daddy, look at what Uncle Nick did. He fixed my robot. It lights up and everything!” Chris held up a robot toy that had been broken for weeks.
Jackson looked at his brother, shocked. “I’ve been trying to fix that one for ages. What did you do?”
Nicholas grinned. “I hit it. Hard.”
Chris picked up the toy and flew it around the room making beeping noises.
His phone chirped and he pulled it out to see there was a message. “Hopefully, this is the locksmith.”
He hit the button to play his messages.
Um, yes, hello this is Linda Taylor-Whiting. I’m scheduled to interview for the nanny position this afternoon.” She paused and cleared her throat a few times. “I was reading the agency’s notes on your children and it mentioned that one of your boys particularly likes insects. I’m not sure I would be the best candidate in this circumstance.”
Jackson shook his head as she stumbled through an apology before hanging up. He’d been blessed for years because Cynthia’s mother had been able to care for the boys during the day. But she’d recently gotten remarried and moved to Massachusetts.
The boys hadn’t made it easy to find a replacement for the grandma they’d adored. He was proud of his children but also completely aware that they weren't choirboys. Between Chris’s penchant for playing practical jokes and Jase’s current fascination with insects, they definitely didn’t make his task any easier. He hadn’t met a woman yet who could deal with them for more than a few hours at a time.