Authors: Jennifer Blake
“Lord, hon, you look like you've going to your execution instead of out to Dog Trot.”
Tory forced a smile for Johnnie. At the same time, she recalled that the nurse was Roan's cousin, so not a good person to confide in about him. She said, “Cal told you, I suppose.”
“Roan, rather, on his way to the business office to settle your account. What Cal said was that he hopes Roan knows what he's doing. What he meant, though, was that he hopes it all blows up in his face.” Johnnie gave a cheerful laugh. “That boy's a sad caseâhigh ambitions in a job where there's no ladder to climb.”
“Except the one with Roan's badge at the top?” It had
become natural to refer to the sheriff by his given name when speaking to Johnnie.
Johnnie shot her a droll look as she picked up the blood pressure cuff that hung on its electronic monitor. “Cal's not likely to take over Roan's job.”
“Because Roan is so entrenched?”
“Because he's too good at it.” Johnnie wrapped the cuff around Tory's arm and inflated it. “Can't blame Cal, though. Being sheriff pays pretty well, and there's not much else for him to do around here.”
“Most of the young folks go off to college, then find work in bigger places. Men used to make a living in wood hauling or offshore oil drillingâmy husband was a driller before his job went the way of so many back during the oil crisis. He's an air-conditioning repairman now. Folks have to stay cool, no matter what else happens.”
“According to Cal, a lot of Benedicts are still around town,” Tory said.
“Including me, huh?” The nurse gave a rich chuckle. “Yeah, well, they were some of the first settlers around here back before the Civil War, and managed to hold on to their land. They've got deep roots, not to mention timber and mineral rights to tide them over the hard times.”
Land, tradition, her mother had been big on those things, as had her Italian grandparents. Tory said in dry appreciation, “Roan comes from old Southern stock then?”
“You could say so, though he'd laugh himself silly if you suggested he was plantation gentry or anything like that.” Johnnie paused long enough to put a temperature probe in Tory's mouth. “There are actually four branches of Benedicts here, from the four brothers who left England in the late 1700s. Folks claim the guys had to leave, something to do with the death of their sister's snake-mean hus
band. I guess the Benedicts took care of their own even way back then.”
Tory raised a brow, since she couldn't speak. Any insight into the life of the man she'd be spending time with over the next few days could be valuable.
“The brothers were freebooters in the Caribbean for a while, but didn't take to the pirate trade. They landed in New Orleans and made their way up the Mississippi, settled around Horseshoe Lake. They each took a wife, though in their own sweet time. The oldest brother married a Scotswoman with red hair and a bad temper. My cousin, Kane, comes from that line. He's an attorney in town who just got married a year ago to a woman with red hair, though she's sweet as sugar cane, just like him.”
The temperature probe beeped and was removed. Tory asked, “And the others?”
“One married the Indian woman who had guided them to the lake. That would be Cousin Luke's side of the family.” Johnnie rolled her eyes. “Now if there was one of my cousins that I wished I wasn't related to, it's Luke. Talk about tall, dark and dreamy. We used to call him
âLuke of the Nightâthough I guess that's over now that he's married to April. That's April Halstead, you know. She writes romance novels. Ever read any of them?”
The name was familiar; Tory thought she might have picked up one of her books at an airport newsstand. She nodded as she asked, “She lives here?”
“She likes the peace and quiet. Some folks do.”
“What about you?” Tory asked. “How are you related to Roan?”
“I was a Benedict before I married. Roan and I are actually from the same line. Our great-great-however-many-grandfather still had a little pirate left in his blood, I guess, because he kidnapped a Spanish woman from over toward
the Texas border, one he fell in love with at first sight. Story goes in the family that she was about to be married off to a man twice her age, so being kidnapped was a mighty convenient way of avoiding a family wrangle.” A conscious look appeared on her round face. “Not that I mean to imply anything about what happened to you.”
“No, of course not.” Tory gave her a wan smile.
“Still, here you are, heading home with Roan on account of a kidnapping. Now wouldn't it be something ifâ¦”
“Please!” The nurse was obviously a raving romantic.
Johnnie sighed. “Sorry. I guess stuff like that only happens in April's books.”
It seemed best to get away from that subject as quickly as possible. “You haven't mentioned the fourth brother?”
“A rogue of the first water, that one. He found a Frenchwoman wandering in the woods. He never knew how she got there or where she came from and didn't care. He took her home with him and kept her there for over fifty years. Cousin Clay's from that line. He and Roan are good buddies.”
“Fascinating,” Tory commented, since it seemed something was expected.
“We were all quite a gang in our younger days, Kane, Luke, Roan, even Clay and his brothers from time to time. We were a little wild but we stuck together. We watched each other's backs, kept each other from breaking our necks with dumb pranks. They were good times.”
“But none of you are all that closely related, right?”
“Fifth or sixth cousins, something like that, though some are related by way of other family lines. I mean, Turn-Coupe was isolated for a lot of long years. Intermarriage was common because there wasn't much choice otherwise.” She moved to the end of the bed and scribbled on the chart hanging there. “Doesn't happen much any more.
I remember I started going around with Todd Carlson in middle school. My grandmother freaked, since Todd was my third or fourth cousin or something. She made such a fuss that it scared me off of dating for a while.”
Tory tipped her head. “So is lack of choice the reason Roan hasn't married again?”
Johnnie grinned. “Not so you'd notice. I think he's just so busy, not to mention so modest, that he doesn't notice the women chasing after him. He's a hunk, though, isn't he? Not bulked-up-macho like a body builder, but quite a package. And such a cute butt!”
The pinching motions the plump, motherly woman made with her fingers to go with that last comment were so unexpected that Tory gave a spurt of laughter. Immediately, she caught her breath and clapped a hand to her shoulder. “Don't do that, it hurts,” she pleaded with a heartfelt groan.
“Sorry. Anyway, that's the saga of the Benedicts. The brothers homesteaded good-size tracts of land, hunted and fished and trapped around the lake, raised cows and cotton and lots of kids the way most people did in those days.” She opened her arms in a wide gesture. “And that's how we all came to be here.”
Tory couldn't help smiling at the pride and affection in Johnnie's voice. “It must be nice to have such a big family.”
Johnnie's expression turned droll. “Sometimes I wish I were an only child of an only child and lived in a city where I didn't know a soul. You can't run to the food mart for a gallon of milk around here without seeing a dozen people you know. If you go in your work clothes or without makeup, they say, âWhat's the matter with Johnnie? She looks so bad. Think she's having family troubles?' I mean, honestly!”
“At least it shows they care,” Tory said quietly. She actually
the only child of an only child. None of her mother's many flings at matrimony, after the gala first wedding to her Italian prince, Tory's father, had produced children. It was just as well, perhaps, since her mother had never been the maternal sort in any case. Only with her grandparents, in the little town tucked into the hills of Tuscany where the Princes Trentalara had lived for a thousand years, had Tory felt part of a family. Life there had been much like Turn-Coupe sounded, with such intense interest in everyone's well-being and close relationships that it was like living in the middle of a soap opera.
In some ways, then, her grandparents had provided the greatest security she'd known as a child. For a few precious summers from age six to fourteen, she had been sent to Mama Sophia's at the Trentalara estate. There, along with two older female cousins from Rome, she had been coached in manners and deportment so she was capable of meeting anyone of any station. The three girls had roamed Italy with Mama Sophia and Papa 'Vanni, learning about art and life and how to speak extremely idiomatic French and Italian. And they had escaped to romp with the gardener's children and range the hills with the village boys and girls. Those had been the best days, before Papa 'Vanni had a stroke and Mama Sophia fell and broke her hip and died of pneumonia, and it all came to an end. Afterward, it was a succession of nannies, butlers, boarding school counselors, and college deans who had shaped her life.
Tory, lost in thought, looked away toward the sunlit window as she began in soft tones, “I rememberâ¦”
Johnnie's head came up and her friendliness was replaced by sharp professionalism. “Yes?”
Tory stopped abruptly. She could feel the color draining from her face as she realized the mistake she'd almost
made. She'd slipped earlier, too, when she'd suggested by inference that she had no near relatives. Had Johnnie noticed? Would she report it to Roan? Dear God, she was going to have to be more careful.
She tried for a confused look, followed by a sigh. “Oh, I almost thoughtâbut no, it's gone.”
“Too bad. Maybe next time.” Johnnie moved to the bedside table and began to gather the toiletries there. “Right now, we'd better get you ready to go, since Roan will be back any minute. He's a lot of things, but patient is not one of them.”
Tory didn't doubt that at all. And she wondered just how far he could be pushed before his control snapped.
is Dog Trot?”
Tory could hear the hollow disbelief in her own question as she sat staring at Roan's home from the front seat of the police unit. The house was an antebellum mansion with thick, bell-bottomed columns lining the broad front and wrought-iron railings in lacelike patterns stretched between the tall supports on the upper porch level. Wide front steps protected by more iron railings mounted to solid entrance doors on the second floor, giving the ground floor the appearance of a raised basement. These lower brick walls were nearly eighteen inches thick, and faded to a mellow rose-red under their tracery of vines. The most outstanding feature, however, was the tunnel-like porte cochere that cut through the center of this ground floor. Sunlight and shadow made interesting triangular patterns on its interior walls, while the flowering plants of a private rear garden could be seen through the wide opening. The whole place was well maintained, with an indefinable aura of quiet grace and solid comfort.
“It's home,” Roan said.
“But it's huge!”
“Not really,” he answered as he got out of the car, then
moved around to open her door. “That is, not until it's time to paint. Then I swear it becomes a monster.”
Tory had seen larger places: the Vandergraff winter home on Sanibel Island, though thoroughly modern and without noticeable character, was spread over more acreage. Her father's family home in Italy had been bigger as well, a beautiful old villa of golden stone with a brass lion's head on the ancient, hand-carved front door. Still, there was something about the house in front of her. Dog Trot's sturdy walls and thick doors promised peace and safety. It had the look of a sanctuary.
She eased from her seat and stood. Roan put his hand under her elbow in a quick gesture of support. It was then that a great mud-red dog came trotting out of the shadows of the center carriageway. He paused and stretched his back haunches as he reached the sunlight. Then he tilted his head back and gave a deep bark that had the sound of rolling thunder.
“Good lord,” she said under her breath. “What is that?”
A corner of Roan's mouth lifted in a smile. “Don't panic, it's just old BeauregardâBeau to his friendsâdoing his duty as guard dog.”
“He's not aâ¦bloodhound?” It was all she could do to keep from shuddering, the direct result of too many movies featuring such canines.
“Purebred and pedigreed, though he's too lazy to trail much more than a rabbit.”
The sheriff's voice carried a strong hint of affectionate insult that suggested the opposite was true. No doubt the animal was a trained man-hunter. He didn't seem vicious, however, as he trotted up to have his head rubbed, then leaned against Roan's pant leg in beatific enjoyment. Watching Roan's hands smoothing over the dog's sleek pelt
and floppy ears in rough tenderness caused an odd, heated sensation in the lower part of her body.
“Does he bite?” she asked, her voice sharper than she'd intended.
Roan barely glanced at her. “Only when I say so.”
“What a comfort.”
“You don't like dogs?” Roan asked as he straightened.
“Little ones are fine.” She'd had a poodle as a child that she'd adored, but Pierre had vanished from his carrier during a flight between New York and Fort Myers. She'd never wanted to invest that much caring in a pet again.
“But not big ones? Then you could be in trouble.” He nodded in the direction of a barn that lay behind the house.
He was right. A pack of dogs loped from that direction. Black and tan in color, they had the raw-boned yet racy look of the hunting hounds in old English prints.
“Let me guess,” she drawled. “You're a hunter.”
“I suppose you don't like that, either.”
She lifted her good shoulder in a careless shrug as she kept a nervous eye on the hounds that swarmed around them, sniffing her ankles as if in search of lunch. “It's nothing to me if you enjoy killing defenseless animals.”
“What I actually enjoy is breeding and training dogs like my dad, my granddad, and great-granddad before me. Dog Trot hounds have been blue ribbon winners for generations. They're the best in the country.”
“Therefore the name of your house,” she said in her best bored, finishing school accents. “Charming.”
He laughed, and rubbed Beauregard's big head as the bloodhound shouldered aside the other dogs and leaped up to plant saucer-size paws on his chest. “Hear that, boy? We don't impress her. We won't tell her the passage under the house is known as a dog trot.”
Tory, plastered against the passenger door, saw nothing
comical in the situation whatever. Its only good point as far as she could see was that Zits despised dogs.
Roan ordered the dog pack out of the way, then started to close the car door. Tory stepped to one side. A sharp piece of the gravel that covered the driveway pressed into her foot, and she stumbled.
“Steady.” Roan shot out a strong arm to circle her waist. The close physical contact was so unexpected that she swayed, losing her balance. He shifted his feet and caught her closer against him.
She was pressed to his lean length from breast to knees, and enveloped in the scent of starched uniform, mint-fresh aftershave and heated male skin. His hold was rock steady, the muscles under her fingers firm and unyielding. The sense of power that he carried with him seemed to surround her, enclose her. She could feel the quick rise and fall of his chest, sense the thudding of his heart. His eyes behind the shields of his thick lashes shimmered with gray appraisal, and something more.
“Sorry,” he said in clipped tones. “I should have realized that you might be shaky.”
“I'm fine,” she answered, her voice as cool and distant as she could make it as she exerted pressure with her hands to break his hold. “If you don't mind?”
His lips tightened and he stepped back at once. He didn't touch her again as she made her way slowly toward the flight of wide steps that led up to the double front doors on the main level. He stayed at her side, however, moving with her in unnerving watchfulness that made her wish he'd thought to provide her with more to wear than a lightweight bathrobe.
Tory clenched her teeth and held firmly to the iron stair railing as she climbed. She was determined that she wouldn't stagger, wouldn't so much as hesitate. She might
have to accept Roan Benedict's dubious hospitality, but she didn't have to take anything else. She was concentrating so hard on reaching the top of the steps that she flinched when he spoke.
“Actually, you might want to be careful around Beau.”
“No joke.” The words were more than a little breathless. She was weaker than she'd realized, or else the steps were higher than they looked from ground level.
“He takes his guard duty seriously. If he feels you're headed where you shouldn't be, he might try to stop you.”
“By taking off a leg, I suppose?”
“He wouldn't hurt you, necessarily, but he could make it hard to get around him.”
“How convenient to have him around. One less deputy you need to pull from regular duty.”
“Don't worry, Cal and Allen will still be at your beck and call during the day.”
So he knew his men had made themselves useful. It almost sounded as if the sheriff disapproved though she couldn't think why. “Good,” she replied shortly. “I was wondering what would happen when the kidnappers find out I've been transferred here.”
His laugh had a dry sound. “You think I should have kept it secret?”
“Seems reasonable to me.”
“Not much point. Everybody in Turn-Coupe will know by dark.”
It was entirely possible that he was right. She'd noticed the level of gossip among the hospital staff. It had reminded her of her grandparents' village where no one could sneeze before breakfast without the rest of the town asking after their health by noon.
She was so hot. So was the railing. It was also slick; her fingers slipped on the smooth metal that had been polished
by countless hands over endless years. She could feel perspiration beading on her forehead and gathering between her breasts, in spite of the dense shade from the great oaks that flanked the house on either side. Her wound itched under its bandaging, while its center ached as though a white-hot poker was stabbing into her.
“Are you all right?” Roan asked. “Do you need to rest a second?”
His voice seemed to come from some distance away. She refused to look at him or the hand he held out to her. Through dry lips, she answered, “No, thank you.”
“Especially from me, you mean?”
“Whatever you say.”
“I say you'll be lucky if you don't take a header down these steps.”
She glanced back at the dog called Beau who followed at their heels. “Keep that animal awayâ¦and I'll be fine.”
“You don't look it.”
She tilted her chin. “So kind of you to mention it.”
“Nice,” he commented with a trace of exasperation in his voice. “So who are you now, an aristocrat on the way to the guillotine? Or maybe a princess with a heavy date with the headsman?”
He was so close to the mark that she swung her head to stare at him. The quick movement was a mistake. Her grip on the railing slipped. She gave a soft cry as she realized there was no way she could keep from falling.
She never struck the steps. Roan swooped, and a moment later she was swung high, then carried quickly up the last few treads and into the house.
Air-conditioned coolness, blessed and reviving, enveloped her along with the faint intimation of lemon oil polish on old wood and an elusive hint of spice as if from some forgotten bowl of potpourri. The smell was so like the scent
that hung in her grandmother's villa that she felt an odd shift of dÃ©jÃ vu, as if she might have been in the house before.
She caught a brief glimpse of a long and rather austere hallway furnished with antiques before Roan mounted the stairs that rose on one wall. The journey upward seemed endless. Then he pushed into a bedroom and crossed to a high tester bed piled with pillows. It felt soft and incredibly inviting under her, but the movement as he pulled away his arms jarred her shoulder. She drew in her breath with a quiet hiss.
“Sorry,” he said, then reached to catch the lower edges of her robe that had fallen open, closing them over her exposed legs. He straightened and stood staring down at her with a frown of consideration between his brows.
She looked away from his steady regard, letting her glance slide around the room. The walls were painted a yellow so pale that it must have been white until age and the smoke of countless fires under the marble mantel had given it its present patina. Beneath the wide chair rail with its egg-and-dart pattern was a striped paper in white, yellow and gold that seemed to echo the sunlight glowing behind the lace curtains. The bed she was lying on was of rosewood with a massive tester supported by fluted columns. The gold silk of its inset overhead was pulled taut from the sides in sunburst fashion and pinned in the center by an intricately carved cupid. The sweet, glazed face of that doll-like figure was crackled with age and painted in colors that had faded to appealing pastels.
Without meeting Roan's steady regard, she said, “I should thank you for catching me just now.”
The words had a hard, tired sound. Tory felt the rise of heat to her face, partly from the knowledge that she'd been
less than gracious, but also from his close scrutiny. He was entirely too intelligent, she thought, too knowledgeable about people. He saw too much, penetrated the disguises she hid behind far too easily. She closed her eyes as she lifted a hand to her shoulder, pressing her palm against the bandage. “I mean it, really. I don't think I could have stood it if I'd fallen.”
“Hurting again?” he asked, his voice altering. “Doc Watkins gave me enough painkillers to last until I can fill the prescriptions he wrote for you.” He fished a small bottle from his pants pocket. “Hold on. I'll get a glass of water.”
His instant response to her need made her feel even less gracious and more guilty than before. She opened her eyes again in time to stare after him as he disappeared into what seemed to be a connecting bathroom. He really was a disconcerting man.
A buzzing sound came from inside that bathroom, one she recognized as the discreet signal of his pager. No doubt it signaled some rural emergency: a cow escaped from its pasture, a drifter trying to stiff the local cafÃ© for his meal, or maybe a little old lady racing through town at thirty-five miles per hour in a twenty-five miles per hour zone. Whatever it was, Roan would no doubt respond.
She'd discovered in talking to Johnnie and Cal that the sheriff took a personal interest in the welfare of Turn-Coupe's citizens, that he cared about them and their problems. In turn, every person in town seemed to need his help and advice on a daily basis. Roan never seemed to mind the calls on his time, even on his days off, they all said. It wasn't just that it was his job; he seemed to get real satisfaction from helping people.
She'd heard about men with that knight-errant streak. She also knew that the basic need to be needed was a part
of the mental baggage carried around by a lot of males. Maybe if she played the dependent invalid to the hilt, then Sheriff Roan Benedict might be more inclined to be her protector rather than her jailer.
In some distant corner of her mind, she knew that her attitude was self-serving and more than a little condescending, but she couldn't help it. If Roan wouldn't accept the truth, then she had to try another tactic.
She could hear water running in the bathroom. A moment later, the sheriff stepped back into the room. The crystal glass he carried looked fragile in his large brown hand. He should have appeared ridiculous, perhaps, but instead seemed amazingly competent and at ease. She wondered, briefly, just how much experience he'd had in tending females in bedrooms. Then she pushed the thought away as being as irrelevant as it was distracting.