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"They say he killed his wife." The old man's grizzled eyebrows drew together in a frown. "Killed her then tried to feed her to the gators."
Amanda Rockport stared at him, unsure if he was pulling her leg. "Then why isn't he in jail?" she asked.
"Circumstantial evidence, but not enough proof to put the man behind bars. Besides, he's rich. Money talks and the guilty walks. You best go back to where you came from and leave Sawyer Bennett to the devil where he belongs."
Amanda fought the impulse to reach up and rub the center of her forehead where a tension headache had lived for the past month.
"I've never been one to put much stock in idle gossip," she replied. She wished she hadn't stopped in the small café before reaching her final destination—Sawyer Bennett's home.
She cupped her hands around the hot cup of coffee and considered doing exactly what the old man had suggested, going back to where she'd come from.
Unfortunately that really wasn't an option. She'd used the last of her money to travel from Kansas City to Conja Creek, Louisiana. Besides, there was nothing left for her in Kansas City.
She finished her coffee and stood. "I appreciate the advice," she said to the old man who had sat on the stool next to her at the café counter.
His blue eyes gazed at her sharply. "You're making a mistake."
"I guess it's my mistake to make." She threw a couple of dollars on the counter to pay for the coffee. As she stepped out of the café, the hot, humid air hit her like a slap in the face and half stole her breath.
She moved quickly to her car, where she started the engine and waited for cool air to blow from the vents. "They say hekilled his wife." The old man's words echoed in her head.
Surely Johnny wouldn't have arranged this job for her if he'd thought Sawyer Bennett was a danger. Granted her brother didn't always exhibit the best judgment, but there was no way he'd send her to work for a murderer.
All Johnny had told her when he'd approached her about the job was that Sawyer Bennett had been a college roommate and the two men had stayed in touch over the years and that Sawyer had lost his wife recently and needed a nanny.
Think of the child, she told herself. Think of Melanie. She opened the file folder on the seat next to her and withdrew the photo of the little girl. She looked small for her age, and her eyes radiated a sadness too profound for an eight-year-old.
She knew from her brief correspondence with Sawyer Bennett that two months ago Melanie Bennett had gone mute.
With Amanda's psychology degree and teaching background, she'd felt confident that she'd be able to help Melanie. And any job that got her away from the mess of her life in Kansas City had been appealing. Until she'd stopped for coffee and made the mistake of passing time with an old-timer seated next to her.
Now a rumble of apprehension thundered through her head, intensifying her headache. At the moment she really had no choice. She couldn't go back. She could only go forward and hope that she wasn't making a monumental mistake.
With a deep breath, she backed out of the parking space. Sawyer's directions had indicated that she'd pass through the town of Conja Creek. She should have passed through. She should have never stopped for that coffee.
She left the town behind and turned down a narrow road flanked by trees dripping moss. The sunlight seemed to disappear as if unable to penetrate the depths of the surrounding forest.
Clutching the steering wheel more tightly, she found the alien landscape both forbidding and fascinating. A twist here, a turn there and she came to a clearing. The large plantation-style house filled the space, flanked by tall trees and backed by the swamp.
It was an impressive structure, with thick white columns and a sweeping veranda that seemed to go on forever. It didn't whisper of old money, it screamed it.
She parked next to a black pickup and cut the engine, but was reluctant to leave the familiar confines of her car. They say he killed his wife and fed her to the gators. Nothing but rumor, she told herself. And she knew all about rumors and innuendoes.
She knew all about circumstantial evidence and that sometimes it had nothing to do with truth. It had been circumstantial evidence and rumors that had destroyed her life.
It didn't take long for the car to get too hot, so she grabbed her purse and the file folder and got out. The air hung heavy, the humidity nearly visible as she headed toward the stairs that led to the porch. The silence was as oppressive as the air.
Please don't let this be a mistake, she mentally begged. She needed this job. She needed this child in order for her to redeem herself. Drawing on the inner strength that had left her for the past couple of months, she knocked on the door.
The door creaked open, andAmanda found herself face-to-face with Melanie. The little girl's brown eyes widened. She turned on her heels and raced away. "Wait! Melanie," Amanda said, taking a step into the entry, but the child raced around a corner and disappeared.
"You must forgive my daughter. She was expecting somebody else and doesn't do well with strangers." The deep voice came from the doorway opposite the direction in which Melanie had run.
Amanda recognized the voice from the single phone conversation she'd had with him. She turned to face Sawyer Bennett.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but he wasn't it. She hadn't anticipated the broad shoulders that stretched the black T-shirt he wore. She hadn't expected him to be so tall. But more than anything she hadn't anticipated the handsome, haunted features; the black hair or the dark green eyes that reminded her of a mysterious forest.
"I wasn't sure you'd come and so I didn't prepare Melanie for your arrival," he said. "I'm Sawyer Bennett." He stepped closer to her and held out a hand. "And I assume you're Amanda."
She nodded, shook his hand and tried not to notice the scent that drifted off him, the scent of something wild and slightly intoxicating. "It's nice to meet you," she said as he dropped her hand and stepped back.
"I trust you had no problems finding the place?" She thought about telling him she'd stopped into the café in Conja Creek but then changed her mind.
"Your directions were excellent," she replied. "I had no trouble." "Good. Then we'll just get you settled in. If you'll follow me I'll show you to the room where you'll be staying."
Amanda had always considered herself pretty good at reading people, but she found it impossible to read her new employer. She followed him up the stairs, trying to absorb the first impressions that filled her head.
The house was silent except for their footsteps whispering against the plush beige carpeting, but there was a simmering energy that pulsed in the air, and she wasn't sure if it radiated from the house itself or the man in front of her.
Please don't let this be a mistake. The mantra repeated itself in her head as she stared at his stiff, unyielding back. They reached the top of the stairs and passed a closed door. He stepped into the next room and gestured her inside.
It was a pleasant bedroom decorated in various shades of yellow. "You can stay in here or you're welcome to one of the other guest bedrooms. Melanie's room is right next door to this one and the only drawback is that you'll share a bathroom with her."
As Amanda looked through the bathroom she saw Melanie peeking around the corner. Her little gamin face was there only a moment, then gone. "I certainly don't mind if Melanie doesn't. This will be just fine."
He nodded. "I assume you have suitcases in your car? If you'll give me the key I'll see that they're brought up to you."
"I'd like to go over the particulars," she began as she handed him her keys, but he held up a hand to stop her.
"We'll talk later. I know you've had a long trip. Dinner is at six. We'll talk after that." He didn't wait for her response, but instead turned on his heels and left her alone in the room.
She heard the murmur of his deep voice and when she looked into the hallway she saw Sawyer and his daughter, her little hand in his, going back down the stairs. She watched until they disappeared from sight, then she walked to the mirror above the dresser to see if the apprehension that fluttered in her chest showed on her face.
Her blue eyes reflected none of the turmoil, and her dark brown hair remained pulled back away from her features in a low ponytail that went to the middle of her shoulders. She'd worn no makeup, hoping that without it she would look older than her twenty-seven years.
She knew that Sawyer was thirty-three, the same age as her brother, and she hadn't wanted him to think of her as Johnny's baby sister.
She turned away from the mirror with a small sigh and instead walked over to the bedroom window and peered outside.
From this vantage point she saw the backyard. There was an area of lush lawn, then the faint dark sparkle of swamp water surrounded by tangled vegetation and gnarled, twisted cypress trees.
A narrow wooden dock with side rails extended out over the water, appearing to her as an invitation to an inhospitable wildness.
This was not a place of warmth and safety, but rather one of uncertainty with the potential for imminent danger. With an eight-year-old living here, there should be laughter and chatter. The house should teem with noise, but instead the utter silence pressed in around her. And if she listened to idle gossip it was possible that the man was as dangerous as the place.
She couldn't think that way. She refused to let the words of a stranger in a café override her brother's characterization of Sawyer Bennett. Still, she wished she'd done a little research before jumping at the job opportunity.
She knew Sawyer Bennett was an architect, but surely he had people who worked for him here in the house. A cook, a housekeeper, some people to work the grounds. She couldn't imagine living in a place this size without having a staff of some sort. So, where was everyone?
She didn't know how long she'd been standing at the window, staring out and wondering what she'd gotten herself into, when a loud thump resounded from behind her.
She whirled around to see a burly blond man just inside her room. He'd dropped her large suitcase on the floor and still held her smaller overnight bag. "Name is George. I work for Mr. Bennett." He placed the overnight bag on the floor and when he straightened, his gaze swept her from head to toe. "Be nice to have something pretty to look at again."
Something about his gaze made her feel like she needed a shower, but before she could say anything he turned and left. She rubbed the center of her forehead where the tension headache had renewed its acquaintance with her.
What in the heck had she gotten herself into?