Authors: Janice Maynard
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Contemporary Romance
innie never came down to eat. According to Mrs. Cross, Winnie was tied up on a conference call and having lunch at her desk. Larkin accepted the excuse at face value and took his Reuben sandwich out to the porch to eat. He loved Winnie’s house. And he could only imagine how the peace and tranquillity helped heal the broken women who’d been given a raw deal.
As he stared across the lawn to the brick house in the distance, he tried to solve the puzzle of Winnie’s past. She had declared her parents to be lovely people, even though they had no clue about raising a child. And he also knew Winnie had never been married. His background check had confirmed that. He hadn’t told Winnie he had dug into her past. But it was part of the job. Trying to determine if an old disgruntled boyfriend might have read the article and seen a chance to grab the golden ring. But Winnie’s past was an open book. At least as far as he had been able to discern.
She found him at one o’clock on the dot. Not giving him time to respond, she opened the screen door and headed out. “I’m going now to tell them you’re coming. And I’ll explain why I feel it necessary to leave for a few weeks. I’ll call you in about fifteen minutes.”
Whatever Winnie had said about him must have quieted any fears over having a man in the house. By the time he arrived, the residents had gathered in the family room. Though the ragtag mix of women and children was unusually solemn and guarded in posture, their eyes were wary, not scared.
He introduced himself briefly, and then in layman’s terms explained the various security measures he had installed. “You have nothing at all to worry about. I hire the best employees in the nation. They are discreet and committed to the job. But if you ever feel threatened in any way, this alarm by the front door will summon someone in under a minute.”
There were only two questions. After that the women melted away, wraithlike in their ability to blend into the woodwork.
Esteban lingered, one chubby thumb stuck in his mouth. He removed it slowly. “We played outside today.
said it’s because you put up that tent thing.”
Larkin grinned. “It’s called a tarp. And I’m glad you like it. How old are you?”
“Six and a half.”
Larkin was shocked. The boy was small for his age, perhaps because of poor nutrition. “Do you like to read?”
Esteban shrugged in an oddly adult manner. “Don’t know how.”
Winnie whispered in his ear. “When they move around so much, it’s difficult to get continuity in schooling.”
Larkin felt a kinship with the boy despite the enormous disparity in their social situations. But one thing was different. Esteban had a mom and no dad. Larkin was just the opposite. He grinned at the boy. “I’ve got some baseball equipment in my truck. You want to see if your mom will let you hit a few in the yard?”
The kid’s entire face lit up with excitement. “
I will go ask her.”
He bounded out of the room, and Larkin glanced at Winnie. “Sorry. Guess I should have asked you first.”
“No harm done. It will be entirely up to his mom. As you can imagine, the mothers tend to be very protective.”
Esteban must have worded his request exactly right, because he was back in no time. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing Larkin’s arm. “I can hit a home run for you—
Larkin retrieved his gear and took note of the fact that Winnie sat down on a park bench beneath a weeping willow to watch them. Esteban was a natural athlete. With a little coaching about batting and catching, he was soon snagging shallow fly balls and whacking soft line drives toward their audience of one.
There were undoubtedly people in the house watching, as well, but they kept themselves hidden. After an hour, Larkin called a halt. “I’ve got work to do, son. And you’ve done enough for one day. Don’t want you to be too sore tomorrow.”
Esteban beamed. “I’m gonna play for
Yankees one day. Will you come watch me, Miss Winnie?”
“Of course I will.”
Larkin loaded the bats, gloves and balls he kept in the trunk for weekend games with some of the guys in his neighborhood back in his truck. Moments later when he turned back toward the bench, Winnie had disappeared. She was avoiding him. Perhaps for many reasons. He understood her reticence…but he didn’t like it.
He strolled to the back of the property for one last powwow with his team. Every piece of equipment was working as it should. Winnie’s beautiful estate had been encased in a bubble of security so tight, the First Family could come to visit without incident.
By the time Larkin hit the shower in his room to clean up for dinner, he was itchy and restless to see Winnie again. Even now he wondered if she would torpedo his plan at the last minute. His fears multiplied when he saw the note on the dresser.
I have several phone calls to make tonight, so I’m having dinner in my room. And I’ll probably go to bed early. I’m sorry I won’t be available for you to show me all the bells and whistles you’ve installed, but I trust that you’ve seen to every last detail.
I’ll see you in the morning.
No reference at all to their imminent departure. He felt his temper rise. Winnie knew she had to leave the premises. And if she thought he’d let her go to some anonymous apartment in a far-off city, she was deluding herself. Surely she wasn’t going to refuse to go to Wolff Mountain. But she hadn’t mentioned it either way.
He’d come up with a plan, and she had agreed to it. Nothing and no one would dissuade him from taking Winifred Bellamy to Wolff Mountain for her own good. Even if such an action was counter to his usual M.O. Now that the trip was hours away, his personal discomfort grew. The course he had set out was laden with pitfalls, no question. But it was too late. He’d have to live with the consequences.
He wanted Winnie. Only time would tell if he could resist temptation.
* * *
Winnie was awake at six, despite the fact that she had barely slept. She had half expected Larkin to pound on her door last night, demanding she come downstairs. It wasn’t clear to her confused hormones if she was relieved or disappointed that she’d neither seen nor heard from him.
This morning, the dawning of the new day infused her with a restless sense of anticipation. She was deeply grateful to Larkin for everything he had done to make her property safe. Today, she would be able to leave without worry. They still hadn’t settled the matter of payment. The blank check was safely locked away in a drawer. Larkin refused to take it, and Winnie didn’t know how much the job actually cost. That was a bridge they would cross later.
For now, all she had to do was determine how much and what to pack for an extended visit to Wolff Mountain. With all her new purchases—including some naughty lingerie that said louder than words what she was thinking—surely she had covered every eventuality. But she ransacked her closet just in case. In the end, she managed to get it all into two large suitcases, one garment bag and a smaller toiletry case.
Because she had avoided Larkin for the last half of the day before, she had no idea what time he planned to leave. Which meant that she had to face him sooner or later. She had dreamed about him last night. Hot, erotic dreams that were totally unlike her.
Larkin drew out a side of her she had thought long buried. It was disconcerting. And either thrilling or terrifying, she wasn’t sure which. When she was dressed, she tiptoed downstairs for coffee. It was still only seven and Mrs. Cross wouldn’t arrive for another hour and a half.
But when she opened the kitchen door, the smell of java wafted to her nose. She looked at Larkin, leaning against the counter, drink in hand. “I owe you one,” she said lightly. She poured herself a cup and lifted it to her lips, inhaling the aroma with an inward sigh.
Larkin was heavy-eyed and unshaven, as though he had tumbled out of bed and headed straight downstairs. “Can you be ready to leave in an hour?”
The question was terse and perhaps a tad cranky.
“Yes.” She took a long swallow, set down the cup and counted to ten. When that didn’t work, she snapped at him. “What’s your problem?”
He dropped his thick earthenware mug into the sink with a clatter and turned to face her, arms folded across his chest. The short sleeves of the Leland Security polo shirt he wore fit nicely over muscular biceps. It was hard for her to remember that Larkin was as financially comfortable as she was, maybe more so. Nothing about him indicated that he had grown up as the offspring of an extremely wealthy father. Or that his family’s interests spanned much of the globe.
Larkin gave the impression of being a self-made man, an entrepreneur who worked hard for a living. In a way, all those things were true. But add in the millions he stood to inherit and what was probably a very healthy stock portfolio thanks to Wolff Enterprises and Leland Security, and the picture shifted.
Larkin Wolff was a very rich man.
Which meant that if he was kissing her, it wasn’t for her money.
His scowl and the dark stubble on his chin made him look dangerous. A man not to cross. He glared at her. “How long do you think you can avoid me? Or pretend that I haven’t kissed you. Twice.”
She lifted her chin. “I haven’t been avoiding you,” she lied. “There’s a lot of preparation involved in my being gone for several weeks. I’m sorry if you feel I haven’t been a suitable hostess.”
Blue lightning flashed from his eyes. “You can take your damned etiquette and shove it. You
what I’m talking about.”
“Wow. Someone woke up in a bad mood.”
“God help me, Winnie. You’d better back off. I’ve had three hours of sleep and you’re treading on thin ice.”
“Back off or what?”
She took a step in his direction. Was she actually
to make him lose his temper? She knew what anger could do to a man. It turned normally rational human beings into animals. Could Larkin be like all the rest? Would he explode?
His entire body seemed to tremble with fury. Unfolding his arms, he closed the gap, thrusting his face close to hers. “You don’t want to mess with me this morning. I’m warning you.” His coffee-scented breath was warm on her face.
Fear mixed with an insatiable need to know. “Do your worst, big guy. I’m not afraid of you. Are you going to hit me?”
In an instant, his entire demeanor changed. His expression went blank, he backed off physically and a look of revulsion crossed his face. “Why in the hell would you ask me that?”
Now she felt ridiculous. And ashamed. As if she had hurt him somehow. “It’s a fair question. You were furious.” She didn’t know what he was now. The entire mood of the room had changed.
Larkin scrubbed his hands over his face and leaned backward to bang his head softly against the upper cabinets. “I may be certifiably insane by the time you leave Wolff Mountain.”
“What does that mean?” She was a calm, even-keeled kind of woman. No one had ever accused her of being temperamental. “If you weren’t going to hit me, then what
going to happen? I saw your face. You were at the end of your rope. Aggravation times a thousand.”
The flicker of a smile curved his lips. “Are you really that clueless about men? I’ve had a hard-on for the better part of twenty-four hours. You’ve been deliberately avoiding me as if I’ve somehow sullied your pristine reputation. It’s called sexual frustration, Winnie. And
is what I was going to do.”
He took her wrist and reeled her in, steadying her in the V of his legs while he took his time with her mouth. His agitation had apparently melted away, replaced instead with sheer male determination. Though he was gentle as falling snow, he overwhelmed her, surrounded her, mastered her. His coaxing kiss took the starch out of her knees and made her stomach quiver with helpless desire.
Standing became difficult, but Larkin held her shoulders in big hands, literally supporting her while he took what he wanted.
Suddenly, he pulled back, searching her face. “Put your arms around my neck, Winnie.”
The gruff command was one she was happy to answer. She nestled closer to his broad, hard chest, and when their hips pressed together, she felt the strength and size of his arousal. Her compliance tore something in his control. Now his kiss was ravenous, stealing her breath, nipping her soft lips, tongue thrusting and mating with hers.
She shivered, lost to reason, ready to open herself to whatever he wanted. Because at this precise moment in time, she knew that she and Larkin were of one accord. Though she loved playing with the soft hair on the back of his head, she wanted more. Putting the tiniest amount of distance between them, she slid her hands under his T-shirt. His skin was hot, so hot. When her fingernail raked his flat nipple, he groaned.
The rush of power she felt at seeing him so vulnerable dwindled away to nothing when Larkin’s hands shimmied up her thighs, lifting her champagne silk skirt. Breath caught in her throat. She should stop him. Any minute now. But not when he was making her feel so good she wanted to sob with the exquisite pleasure of it. He toyed with the elastic waistband of her underwear.
It was all she could do not to beg him to hurry. Long fingers delved beneath lace. Then he was touching her…intimately. At the spot where her body was soft and wet and aching for him. He probed gently, making her gasp and bury her face in his collarbone.
She heard his soft chuckle, but she knew, even then, that he was laughing not at her, but at both of them. At this incredible madness that had bloomed from nowhere. He stroked her rhythmically, building the intensity of her need. She wanted to tell him to stop, but she couldn’t. Bliss lingered just offstage, a fiery release that frightened her.
Larkin kissed her ear, traced the curve of it with his tongue while he kept up his determined torture. Suddenly, he pressed two fingers into her aching emptiness. She cried out and sank her teeth into his shoulder as her body arched into his hand and she climaxed hard.