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Larkin Wolff stopped at the computerized video panel, pressed a button and showed his ID. After a brief pause, a light blinked green and the gate swung open. He passed through onto a long winding driveway constructed of almost pure-white crushed stone. Many of his clients surrounded themselves in acres of insulating property, but seldom had Larkin seen anything as peaceful and idyllic as the emerald fields, stately oaks and copses of weeping willows that lined the banks of a meandering creek.
Despite the sense that time stood still here, his skin tingled with a hint of warning. He'd built a career in high-tech surveillance, electronic security systems and even sophisticated cyber protection. Along the way, he'd developed what his siblings and cousins laughingly called a keen Spidey sense.
Larkin went along with the joke. Growing up on Wolff Mountain had made a man of him, and despite being a middle child with a troubled past, confidence was woven into his DNA. But something about today's meeting made him itchy. And he didn't know why.
At long last, he pulled up in front of the house. The surrounding real estate, sprawling outside of Nashville proper, was home to country music legends, recording industry moguls and anyone else to whom money was no object. The two-story Georgian redbrick lady in front of him sat gracefully on the land, her many windows glistening in the afternoon sun.
Larkin grabbed a notebook and his laptop and got out, inhaling the scent of roses and freshly turned dirt. He had grown up in what many would call a modern-day castle, but this serene facade impressed even him.
Much of his work took him to city high-rises and aesthetically bland corporate headquarters. Today's setting would be a pleasant change. The summons had been a bit odd and nonspecific. But perhaps he was imagining trouble where there was none. Families with lots of money often felt the need for protection. He should know.
Ringing the bell shaped in the head of a lion, he waited calmly. For a man in his occupation, patience was a prerequisite.
Suddenly, the large door swung inward and a woman stood before him. She was small, barely reaching his shoulder. Barefoot and wearing denim overalls cut off at the knee, the fabric neatly cuffed midthigh, she looked about eighteen. Her untamed hair was the color of corn silk, but it fuzzed out in a mass of unruly waves that almost overpowered her narrow face. Wary green-and-amber eyes surveyed him, even as her pointed chin lifted slightly. "Hello," she said, her voice low and melodic.
Larkin gave her a brief smile, trying not to notice that the thin white T-shirt beneath the overall bib seemed to indicate she was braless. The curves of her generous breasts peeked out the sides. "My name is Larkin Wolff," he said. "I'm here to see Ms. Winifred Bellamy. She's expecting me."
Winnie felt a sudden need for either smelling salts or a quick belt of whiskey. It had been a long, long time since a virile, handsome man had crossed this threshold. "I'm Winifred," she said, looking him up and down. "But please call me Winnie." She stepped back and waited for him to enter, leading him to the nearby salon.
It was one of her favorite rooms. She had furnished it simply but comfortably, and the small baby grand in the corner was one she played when there was no one around to hear. Audu-bon prints graced the walls, and a pale green silk Persian rug, enormous in length and width, cushioned her feet as she sank her toes into the pile. Its intricate pattern reminded her that someone, somewhere, had labored over its creation for days, months, years. Winnie admired such single-minded devotion.
She curled into an armchair and waved her guest to the sofa. "Thank you for coming so quickly, Mr. Wolff."
He shrugged. "Your note indicated some urgency."
"Yes." Fear and anxiety clenched her stomach, but she fought them back. She was not a victim. She was in charge. "I suppose you read the article I enclosed?"
He nodded with a grimace. "I did."
Winnie Bellamy hated being robbed. Money was one thing she had plenty of it. But when Arista Magazine listed her as one of the twenty wealthiest women in America, Winnie lost something she valued more than anything else her privacy and her anonymity.
She placed her hands on the arms of the chair, deliberately displaying an air of confidence. "Where do we start?"
Larkin Wolff was not sure what she wanted from him. So he decided to push a little. If part of his line of questioning had more to do with sheer curiosity than actual necessity, well, that was his business. He settled back and drummed his hands on his knees. "Tell me about you and your family . How did you end up on that wealthiest-women list?"
Ordinarily, he'd have opened his computer by now and would be making notes. But he didn't want to miss the nuances of expression that danced across Winnie's open-book face. Her posture and graceful movements projected dignity. She carried herself regally, as if she had spent her formative years at exclusive Swiss finishing schools. And perhaps she had.
She took a moment to almost visibly compose her thoughts before speaking. Her demeanor seemed pensive. "My parents had me when they were well into their mid-forties. The pregnancy was somewhat of an embarrassment to my mother. She and my father were academics, both with IQs off the charts. My 'accidental' conception made them look human, I think, and I'm sure they hated that."
"They are deceased?"
"Yes. Both had advanced degrees in anthropology and archaeology. Their careers and their marriage were spent crisscrossing the globe. They were much in demand as speakers at colleges, universities and basically anywhere that could rustle up the money to cover their exorbitant fees."
"And that's how they amassed a fortune?" He lifted a skeptical eyebrow.
"No, of course not. The money was always there. My mother's great-great-grandfather invented and patented some kind of engine during World War I, and my father's family owned a large publishing conglomerate in London."
"Where were you during all their travels?"
Trained to note small tells, he witnessed the brief moment her hands clenched on the chair arms before relaxing again deliberately. "I had governesses, tutors, semesters at boarding schools, an Ivy League education. Everything a child could possibly need."
"Except parents to tuck you in at night." The compassion sparked by her terse narrative was born of his own dark memories.
"No," she said quietly. "I didn't have that. But there are worse problems, I assure you."
"Indeed. But having grown up myself without a mother and with a father who was all about business, I sympathize, Ms. Bellamy."
"I'd appreciate it if you would call me Winnie. Ms. Bellamy is too formal and, quite honestly, I hate the name Winifred. It makes me sound like an old-maid librarian."
He grinned. "You're far from that."
"I had you investigated, Mr. Wolff." Her cheeks were pink, and he was pretty sure his implied compliment had flustered her.
"I've got no problem there. You need to be able to trust who's doing your security work."
"Why is your firm called Leland Security? I would think using the Wolff family name would draw in clients."
"I have all the work I can handle, and besides."
"Yes?" Her steady gaze dissected him.
"Well, in the beginning it was because I was a typical middle child. I didn't want to be overshadowed by my older brother or my cousins. Wanted to make my mark in the world. That kind of thing. Thankfully, I outgrew such posturing long ago, but I discovered in the meantime that if I was going to be handling discreet, sensitive matters, it made sense to fly under the radar. Leland is my middle name."
"Tell me, Mr. Wolff."
"Larkin," he insisted.
"Larkin, then. Are you available for a large job? Do you have the manpower? The openings in your schedule?"
"Before I answer that, I have one last question of you. How and when did your parents die? Are you fearful for your personal safety because of the article? Is that it?"
She pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The childlike pose did nothing to detract from her natural beauty. Without a speck of makeup on her lightly freckled, ivory-skinned face, she reminded him of a young Meryl Streep. "My parents have nothing to do with this," she said tightly. "They were killed in a tsunami. At that time they were living with native peoples on one of the more remote islands of Indonesia. They never stood a chance."
"Were their bodies recovered?"
"Eventually. But there wasn't much left to bury. I had them cremated and flown home. DNA testing confirmed their identities. Lawyers aren't willing to turn over a billion-dollar fortune without definitive proof."
The horror of her tale was in no way minimized by her flat, deliberately emotionless recounting. Larkin had his own demons to battle, but here was a woman who knew what it meant to suffer.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly, wishing there was something he could do to ease the tension from her slight frame.
"It's been almost a decade," she said. She stood up and wandered the room, pausing to run a hand over the top of the piano. It was a loving gesture sensual appreciative. Without warning, his body reacted. He'd never met a woman less inclined to accentuate her looks, and yet Winnie Bellamy fascinated him.
"Do you play?" he asked.
When she looked up, it almost seemed as if she had forgotten his presence, so lost in the past as she was with memories. "For myself on occasion."
"I'd like to hear you sometime," he said.
She pursed her lips. "Probably not."
She stared at him in silence, not deigning to answer his question. Perhaps she thought him impertinent. She turned and crossed the room to a small antique secretary. Pulling a silver skeleton key from her pocket, she unlocked the center drawer and extracted something he couldn't see.
When she returned to his side, she laid a piece of paper on the table at his elbow. His jaw dropped. Though his own personal financial portfolio was in the high seven-figure range (and that was not counting the portion of Wolff Enterprises that would be his in the future), it wasn't every day that someone tossed a check at him for half a million dollars. Though Winnie had signed the document, the pay to line was blank.
He picked it up gingerly. "What's this?"
She sat back down, this time crossing her legs and kicking one foot lazily. "That should cover everything I need from you. But I have to know that I am buying your utmost discretion. Nothing you learn about me or my estate can be shared."
There it was again, that tingling Spidey sense. He dropped the check. "I'm not a priest, a doctor, a shrink or, thank God, a lawyer," he said gruffly. "If you're involved in something illegal, I'll go straight to the police. You can buy my loyalty and discretion, but not a blind eye. Sorry."
She blinked, her pale lashes only a shade darker than her hair. "Wow. You shoot from the hip, don't you?"
"I won't take your money under false pretenses."
Winnie was not threatened by Larkin Wolff's displeasure. Instead, she was fascinated. When it was his turn to stand and prowl, she studied him. He was built like a baseball player, long and lean and athletic. Though his looks were pleasing, he wouldn't be called handsome. There was too much of a permanent frown line between his eyebrows and an unmistakable bump on the bridge of his nose that indicated a past break.
His eyes were a shade of steel-blue that could burn or chill given his mood. The man's body was a walking testament to working out, his biceps flexing beneath a thin dress T-shirt. He had removed a navy sport coat, and clad only in the oatmeal-colored knit, he looked powerful and intensely masculine. His short wiry hair was mostly black with a few strands of premature gray.
She knew from her files that he was barely thirty. But his visage and demeanor made him seem much older. "Sit down, Larkin. I can assure you that I am a law-abiding citizen." She was shocked to hear herself ordering him aroundshocked even more when he obeyed.
His gaze locked with hers in unspoken challenge.
She sighed. "Since that article came out, I have been inundated with phone calls, packages and more than a few unwanted visitors. At one point, we even had to call in the bomb squad. Fortunately, it was a false alarm, but I can't endanger my staff's safety and well-being. I've received no less than six proposals of marriage, one of those from a convicted sex offender serving prison time. My personal email account was hacked last week, and the perpetrator sent pornographic images to everyone in my contact list. This has to stop and soon."
Larkin leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "I can take care of all of that for a fraction of your big check. Why so urgent? What aren't you telling me? Stuff like this blows over in a matter of weeks. New gossip arrives, fresh meat scents the air. In a month or two, I'm pretty sure you'll have nothing to worry about."
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she clasped her hands in her lap to keep them from shaking. "Even if I am overreacting, I have the right to hire you and ask for certain things correct?"
There was that scowl again. "Of course you do. But part of my job is to advise you. And throwing away your money isn't necessary."
"I won't be throwing away a cent," she said, her throat raw with emotion. "For starters, I need you to do the obvious. Install whatever we need to guard our perimeter. And I want you to contract your people to be on duty 24/7 for an indefinite period of time."
"And deal with phone and internet issues."
She hesitated. Everything she had read about this man inspired confidence. But trust was not easily won for someone in her position. "I need you to fill out the check and accept it before we continue."
His eyes iced with suspicion. "I've told you. It's too much."
"Then I'll write two checks one to Leland Security and one to a charity of your choosing. I want half a million dollars' worth of protection. Can you or can you not provide that for me?"
"Has anyone ever called you paranoid?"
She swallowed hard. "I don't imagine a man like you understands what it means to be physically vulnerable. Women are stronger than men in many ways, but we will always face the threat of an attacker's size and strength and come out on the short end."
"Have you felt physically threatened since the article ran?"