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About eight seconds too late, Willow Anastasia Nelson realized there was a massive flaw in her plan.
She'd driven over to Todd Aston the Third's embarrass-ingly huge estate to give the slimy, no-good weasel a piece of her mind. But she'd never actually met the man, so she didn't know what, exactly, he looked like.
She had an idea, of course, sort of. Tallish, hand-someish, rich. But wasn't his hair dark and weren't his eyes brown? Why hadn't she thought to look him up on the Internet? He was probably on the front page of "JerksMonthly.com."
And if Todd Aston defined the whole tall, dark and yucky scenario, then who was the blond hunk and a half standing in front of her?
"Oh, hi," she said, smiling at the man who'd opened the front door and hoping she didn't look as out of place as she felt. "I was hoping to have a word with Todd. This is his house, right? My sister mentioned he lived here and..."
Willow groaned. That hadn't come out right. She sounded like a groupie.
"My sister knows him," she added helpfully.
Blond guy didn't step aside to let her in, although he did fold his arms over his chest in a move that got her attention. The man was big--really muscled, but not in a too-buff, action hero kind of way. This guy looked powerful, like a jaguar. She would bet he could snap her forearm without breaking a sweat.
His eyes were green and kind of catlike, she thought absently, continuing the whole "powerful cat" analogy. He had a good face--handsome, but also trustworthy. Not that she knew anything about him. He could be... She shook her head. She had to focus on her mission.
"Look," she said as forcefully as shecould, determined to sound in charge and unintimidated by the burly guy's presence. "I need to talk to Todd. I'd like to do more, of course. He totally messed things up for my sister. Everything turned out in the end, but what if it hadn't? I get so mad when I think about it, I just want to pop his pointy little head. And that's the least of it."
The man in the doorway raised one eyebrow, then pushed aside the front of his suit jacket. Willow felt all the blood rush out of her head--no doubt fleeing to somewhere much safer than her body.
The man had a gun.
She could see it just inside his coat, tucked under his arm in some kind of holster. It was almost like in the movies, except for the cold knot of terror in her stomach.
"What is your business with Mr. Aston?" the man asked in a low voice that sent chills tripping down her spine.
So he wasn't Todd. She'd sort of guessed that, but now she knew for sure. "I, ah, he..."
The smartest move would be to leave. She wanted to yell at Todd, not get shot. But some stubborn streak made her plant her feet more firmly on the oversize and pillared porch.
"I think you're overreacting," she muttered, forcing herself to look away from the gun, back to the man threatening her with it. Well, not threatening, but intimidating. Something he was doing really, really well.
"I get paid to overreact."
"Has weasel-man already left for the office?" she asked sweetly. "I'll catch him there."
"You won't be catching him anywhere. Who are you and what do you want with Mr. Aston?" As he spoke, he reached out to grab her arm.
Willow had tried out every year of high school for the cheerleading squad. But in a world of amazons, she'd been too short. No matter how well she knew the routine, putting her in the lineup made them look off balance. Still, she'd been good at tumbling and turning and ducking.
The skills came back to her now as she faked a spin to the left, instead went to the right, then ducked under the big guy's arm. Suddenly she was inside the house.
Elation filled her. If Todd was here, she would find him. Then she would yell at him and her world would be set to rights.
She sprinted down the wide entryway, Mr. Big Gun and Cranky right behind her, then ran through huge rooms with soaring ceilings. This place was more like a museum than a house, she thought as she raced through what looked like a study and came out in a long hallway. She heard the man with the gun running behind her. She was fairly confident he wouldn't actually shoot her, but just in case, she wove back and forth and kept close to walls.
"Todd," she yelled as she ran. "Are you home? You need to get your lying, slimy butt down here. You don't have the right to mess with people's lives. It's wrong. You should know better."
Perhaps not words to put fear into his heart, but they would have to do.
She heard footsteps closing in and righteous anger gave her a burst of speed. Unfortunately that burst led her into a room with no other exits.
Panic energized her. She spun quickly, looking for a door, a big window, anything. Then she stared at the floor to ceiling drapes and headed in that direction.
Victory! A French door that led onto a patio as big as her elementary school had been. She burst outside and glanced around.
The grounds were stunning. The patio led to stairs that flowed into a terraced garden that reminded her of the grounds aroundVersailles. Beyond them was a forest of trees.
Didn't Todd know he was in the middle of Los Angeles? "Stop," Burly Guy demanded as he ran out of the house after her. "Stop, or I'll make you stop!"
Ha! He hadn't been able to stop her yet, had he? But had he already called the police? Willow didn't wait to ask. She bolted for the trees.
Unfortunately the open ground gave her pursuer the advantage, mostly because his legs were a lot longer than hers. That combined with her erratic commitment to physical fitness and any sort of regular exercise program meant he gained on her far too quickly.
She dug down for more righteous indignation to give her speed, or slow him down or something, but there wasn't anything left. Her breath came in pants, the sound of her rapid heartbeat filled her ears, and she felt the chilling fingers of defeat reaching for her.
"I will not be taken alive," she gasped as she surged forward, straining to reach the trees. Once there, she might have a chance. As for not being taken alive, okay, yeah, she had a slight dramatic streak.
She felt him reach for her and darted to the left, where a tree root jutted out of some grasses. She tripped over it, lost her balance and started to go down.
As she did, several things happened at once. There was an awful sensation of pain from her left ankle, she saw something gray and white and furry in a hollowed-out base of the tree, and what felt like a tank plowed into her from the rear.
She hit the ground, all the air rushed out of her lungs, and there were actual spinning lights where the rest of the world should have been.
She resurfaced to someone rolling her onto her back and telling her to take a breath.
Breath? She couldn't breathe. She really was not going to get out of here alive. Oh, God--she'd been kidding. She didn't want to die here. Now. Like this.
"Take a breath," the man repeated. "You're fine." How did he know that? How could he be sure? Willow opened her mouth and sucked in air. It filled her lungs. She did it again and again until the lights faded and she could focus on everything around her.
Gun Guy sat next to her. He'd removed his jacket. The good news was she could see he was all muscle and it was pretty impressive. The bad news was his gun was totally exposed and she couldn't pretend it wasn't there. "Who are you?" he asked. "Some crazy ex-girlfriend? I usually know them, but every now and then..."
Willow raised herself up on one elbow. "Ex-girlfriend? No way. I wouldn't date Todd if the continuation of the entire planet depended on it. Well, okay, if it would save some endangered species, maybe. We all have to do our part. It's important for us to realize that for the planet to continue to be a renewable resource, there are some basic rules we need to follow."
He held up his hands in the shape of a T. "Time-out. Who are you?" he asked again.
"Oh. Sorry. Willow. My sister is Julie Nelson. She's engaged to Ryan, Todd's cousin. But rat fink Todd did everything he could to keep them apart and I can't let that go. I know I should just accept it and move on, but it was wrong. He thinks because he's so rich, he's king of the world or something. Idiot. Who are you?"
"Kane Dennison. I'm in charge of security."
"Here at the house?"
His expression hardened, as if she'd just insulted him.
"For the entire company."
"Oh, sure. That explains the gun." She pushed herself into a sitting position and brushed at the grass stains on her sweater. "I wasn't going to hurt him, you know. I mean come on, look at me. Do I look dangerous? Seriously?"
He tilted his head as if considering the question. "You're short and scrawny, so I guess not."
The short she could handle--it was a reality she couldn't change. But scrawny?
"Excuse me? I'm petite."
"Is that what they call it?"
"I have curves," she said, really annoyed and just a little hurt. Maybe she didn't have big curves or a lot of them, but they were there. "It's the sweater. It's bulky, so you can't see what's underneath, but I'm very sexy."
She wasn't--not really. She tried, of course. But it was a losing cause. Still, to have this man just dismiss her like that was more than annoying.
"I'm sure you're stunning," Kane muttered, suddenly looking as if he wished he were anywhere but here. "I'm sorry you're mad at Todd, but you can't show up at the man's house and threaten him. It's wrong and it's illegal."
"Really?" She'd broken the law? "Are you going to have me arrested?"
"Not if you leave quietly and never come back."
"But I have to talk to him. It's just one of those things. He needs a good talking to."
One corner of Kane's mouth turned up. "You think you can scare him?"
"Maybe." Although in truth she'd kind of lost her passion for the job. "I could come back later."
"I'm sure Todd would be delighted to hear that. You have a car?"
"What?" she asked. "Of course I have a car."
"Then let's get you to it and we'll pretend this never happened."
A course of action that made sense. There were only a couple of problems standing in the way. Standing, or not standing being the main one.
"I can't," she said and rotated her foot. Instantly pain shot through her ankle and made her clench her teeth. "I think I broke my ankle when I fell."
Kane muttered something under his breath and shifted so that he was by her foot. He lifted it gently and held it in one hand while untying the laces with the other.
She wore size six shoes, which, considering she was only five foot three, wasn't all that dainty. Still, his large hand nearly dwarfed her foot. Wasn't there some old wives' tale about guys and big hands?
Willow didn't know whether to laugh or blush at the thought, so she let it go and watched him carefully remove her athletic shoe.
"Move your toes," he said.
She did. The pain made her wince.
He peeled off her sock and began to examine her foot. Willow winced again, but this time it had nothing to do with pain. Even with her total lack of medical training, she could see her ankle swelling.
"That can't be good," she murmured. "I'm going to walk with a limp for the rest of my life."
He looked at her. "You sprained your ankle. You'll need to rest it and ice it for a couple of days, then you'll be fine."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen enough sprains."
"There's a lot of that in the security business? You work with especially clumsy people?"
He drew in a long breath. "I just know, okay?"
"Hey, I'm the one with the potentially life-threatening injury here. If anyone gets an attitude, it's me."
He muttered something that sounded like "Why me?" then he moved next to her and before she realized what was happening, picked her up in his arms.
The last time Willow had been carried anywhere, she'd been seven and throwing up from too much junk at the county fair. She shrieked and wrapped her arms around Kane's neck.
"What are you doing?" she demanded. "Put me down."
"I'm taking you inside so we can ice your ankle. Then I'll wrap it and figure out a way to get you home."