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The Way You Love Me
By Francis Ray
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Francis Ray
All rights reserved.
Tired of chasing sleep and battling memories, Shane silently rose from his bed shortly after six the next morning and headed for the shower. It was a good thing he didn't need much sleep, he mused, as he stepped naked into the glass enclosure and turned the jets on full blast.
The pelting streams of water did little to take his mind from the reason for his inability to sleep. It was almost three months since he'd encountered Paige Albright, and his memory of her was as vivid as if it had happened last night.
Why her? Why was he unable to forget her?
Over the years he'd encountered many women, taken more than his fair share to bed. They'd enjoyed each other, but when he'd walked away he hadn't looked back. His body had only covered Paige, yet the imprint was more indelible than any other woman's.
His large hand paused in soaping his chest. He hadn't been intimate with her; perhaps that was the reason she haunted him. He was shaking his dark head before the thought completely formed. Women passed through his life in large numbers. He didn't fixate on them. Even when he'd discovered the woman he'd thought he loved, thought loved him until he caught her cheating, he'd walked out of her bedroom despite her frantic pleas for him to stay and erased her from his mind. No woman ever made him think twice about her.
Ducking his head under the spray, he rinsed off the suds. He'd figure it out. Nothing and no one ever got the best of him. Shutting off the water, he grabbed a towel and absently ran it over his body. It wasn't like him to live in the past. He did know the reason for that.
From his earliest childhood, when he'd learned that stealing and conning people wasn't the way he wanted to live, he had been in a constant battle to rise above the sordid, wasteful lives of his parents and older brother. The army had been his way out, his salvation.
Tossing the towel into the open hamper, he went to the dresser and pulled on a pair of silk briefs. The light blue shirt he slipped on next was also silk. The tailored slacks were made of the finest cotton.
He didn't care about clothes or shopping, but his job as head of security for Navarone Resorts and Spas, located around the world, meant that on occasion he mixed with some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the country. He had to dress the part.
Snorting, Shane put on his alligator belt and thought of Rio, a rule breaker if ever there was one, and Shane's second in command. Rio conformed, but only to a certain degree. As groomsmen less than a week ago on this very property, they had both worn tuxedos for Blade and Sierra's wedding on the beach at Blade's compound. Only his love and respect for Blade had gotten Rio into the tux. "The supreme sacrifice," he'd called it.
Finished dressing, Shane hooked on his cell phone and the radio that connected him to the various guards on duty at Blade's estate. All of them knew it was only a matter of time before a relative let it slip or an inquisitive reporter learned billionaire real estate mogul Blade Navarone had married Sierra Grayson, his exclusive broker for Navarone Place in Dallas. When the news leaked, things would get crazy, but until that time Blade and Sierra wanted their privacy, and that was where he and Rio came in.
In the front room of the guest cottage on Blade's estate, Shane glanced at the sofa. Rio's long, muscular body was stretched out with a sheet up to his flat stomach, his eyes closed, one hand over his wide chest, the other on the floor. Shane knew the pose was deceptive.
Rio's left hand was very likely near a concealed weapon under the sofa. He never let down his guard. Shane didn't have a doubt in the world that Rio had heard every restless move Shane had made during the night and early morning. Rio had the ears of a bat and the eyes of a cat. Combine this with the tracking skills of a bloodhound, and he was a force to be reckoned with.
"I'm going to the main office." Shane had moved the command center for the security of all the Navarone properties to Riviera Maya when he learned Blade and Sierra were getting married here. As long as he had a computer, he could connect with his security team wherever they were. As an Army Ranger he had learned to be flexible and mobile.
"Trouble sleeping." Rio said without opening his eyes. It was a statement, not a question.
Shane glanced out the door. "A bit. See you later."
Rio opened his eyes and uncoiled. His long bare feet hit the wooden floor. "For a time Blade was the same way, and we both know how that ended."
Marriage to Sierra. "He was conflicted about Sierra."
Rio kept his unreadable gaze on Shane. "That's my point."
Shane blew out a breath. They didn't lie to each other even when the truth was uncomfortable. Shane didn't question how Rio knew a woman was involved. Although he hadn't been in the field when Shane met Paige, he'd read the report, and with his uncanny perception Rio had come up with the reason for Shane's restlessness. "That's not about to happen to me."
Rio, his gaze intense, asked, "Is the impossibility the reason for the sleeplessness?" Shane stared. "You always see too much."
Rio came to his height of six-four, a scant quarter of an inch taller than Shane. The sheet fell heedless to the floor. "Keeps me from making the same mistakes as others."
This time Shane had no ready comeback. All three of them, Shane, Rio, and Blade, had various reasons for steering clear of serious relationships with women. Sierra had helped Blade overcome his fears. Shane had little hope for himself, and none for Rio. The man simply did not forget or forgive. "You know where to find me."
Not waiting for a response, Shane continued out the door and down the winding path that led to the front of the house. He paused by the driver's door of one of the two black jeeps parked in front. He studied the darkened house for a moment. Inside Blade and Sierra were in bed, sleeping or not. His mouth curved into a smile. After all, it was their honeymoon. It hadn't been easy for them, but here they were, and nothing this side of heaven could tear them apart.
For some, happy endings were possible. For others there wasn't a chance in hell. Getting into the jeep, Shane pulled off. For the first time he was seeing his lonely life ahead of him and not liking what he saw.
A little after ten that morning Shane was leaving checkpoint five, the outer perimeter of Blade's property on the beach, when his radio went off with two beeps. Yellow Alert. He'd been too restless to stay at the command center for more than an hour. He'd left and personally checked in with all of his men on patrol.
He snatched the radio from his belt. "Talk."
"Checkpoint one. Three visitors without clearance. Dominique and Trent Masters. Joann Albright. They say Mr. Navarone expects them. Over."
At the mention of Paige's mother's name, Shane's heart thumped. It annoyed the hell out of him. While he was assessing his reaction, his cell went off. One note. Blade. "Hold. Over," Shane said into the radio, then answered the phone. "Shane."
"Shane, three guests are due to arrive this morning. Dominique and her husband, Trent, and Joann Albright," Blade said.
"They're at checkpoint one, awaiting clearance."
"Sorry, I forgot to tell you last night."
"My fault," Sierra said, then giggled.
Blade's laughter joined hers. He'd been doing that a lot lately, Shane thought. It was about time. Sierra had healed the tortured places in Blade's soul. For that, she had Shane's undying gratitude and allegiance.
"Please let them through, then bring them to the house," Blade finally said.
"Done." Shane disconnected the cell and spoke into the radio. "Let them pass." As soon as the orders were given, Shane was moving. He had just enough time to meet them in front of the house. Blade had asked him to bring them, which meant he wanted Shane there as well.
Dominique and Trent had been at the wedding and so had Mrs. Albright, flying in on the private jet of Daniel Falcon. She'd been one of the first to leave after the ceremony. Now she was back. The reason must be a good one to interrupt Blade and Sierra's honeymoon, and why did Shane have the feeling that he wasn't going to like hearing it?
"I was told you could help me."
Shane prided himself on keeping his thoughts hidden; he did so now. He didn't look at his employee and friend, Blade, or Rio, or Trent Masters, the man lightly holding the hand of the woman who had just spoken, Joann Albright.
As soon as the introductions had been completed, Sierra and Dominique had left the room, but not before Sierra playfully told Shane she was armed. Then she winked and gave Blade a kiss. She'd done it more for Blade than Shane. Although getting better, Blade remained a bit skittish when she wasn't in his sight. After almost losing her to two kidnappers, he had good reason. Especially for a woman he loved more than his life.
Mrs. Albright took a seat beside Trent on the sofa in the great room, then fixed her gaze on Shane. "I was told you could help me," she repeated.
"In what way?" Shane asked. Through his work in army intelligence he'd learned never to volunteer information or make assumptions. Although Mrs. Albright might have seen him at Blade and Sierra's wedding, Shane had seen her on two other occasions. All three times she had been obviously happy. Now lines radiated from her pursed lips, across her forehead. Her troubled eyes were light brown, unlike the startling gray of her daughter's.
Mrs. Albright's hands clenched. Trent's long arm immediately curved around her shoulders. She sent him a smile filled with love and affection. Sitting next to the six-foot man, she looked small, delicate like her daughter. "Keep my daughter, Paige, from making a horrible mistake."
Shane couldn't prevent the barest flicker of his lashes, the clench in his gut. It wasn't any consolation that only Blade and Rio would have detected the slip, but they had been looking at Mrs. Albright. At least he knew Blade was. You never knew about Rio. "Please continue."
"She's seeing a man, Russell Crenshaw. They dated a couple of times when Paige was a freshman in college, then went their separate ways. However, he's been calling on her regularly since her father's death from a ... stroke five months ago," she said.
Shane wasn't surprised to hear the hesitation, see the loathing in Mrs. Albright's face. In his capacity to protect Blade and now Sierra, Shane made it his business to know about everyone they were in close contact with. He'd read the official police report of how her husband had died, not the story she'd circulated to keep their children from finding out what an adulterous and distasteful man their father was. "You don't approve?" Mrs. Albright's eyes chilled. "No. Russell is after her money."
Anger whipped through Shane, but his expression remained impassive. "Have you spoken to your daughter?"
Mrs. Albright visibly swallowed. "Since the death of her father we ... we aren't as close as we once were. His death devastated her. Russell's father and Paige's were business associates. Her father always wanted her and Russell to marry."
Shane could figure out the rest. "Seeing Russell is her way of honoring her father's memory."
"Yes," Mrs. Albright said, the one word full of disgust. "Russell was there initially to offer comfort, and now he's ingratiated himself with Paige."
"Perhaps he really cares for her," Shane said, wondering why the words left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Fury flashed in Mrs. Albright's eyes. For the briefest moment he recalled the fury in her daughter's eyes, the reason. Only years of training kept him from twisting uncomfortably in his seat. "What he cares about is the five-million-dollar trust that will be turned over to Paige when she's twenty-seven. That's less than four months away."
Rage, hot and lethal, shot through Shane at the thought of any man using Paige. But he'd learned long ago that the world wasn't always pretty or fair. Stuff happened. His job was to make sure it didn't happen to those in his charge.
"I can do a thorough background check on the man she's seeing," Shane suggested. Besides his silence, he owed Paige after his ill treatment of her. But he wasn't getting in the middle of this. Perhaps Mrs. Albright was wrong. Sometimes parents overreacted.
Mrs. Albright was shaking her head before he finished. "No, I want you to come to Atlanta. Russell is the epitome of an upstanding citizen on the outside. You might not find anything in your search." She sent Trent a pleading look, then gave her attention back to Shane. "I heard how you helped find information when Sierra was kidnapped. Ruth and Daniel said you and Rio made the difference. I want you. Blade agreed. Please."
She'd pulled out the big guns. She'd used her connection to Trent Masters and his to his brother-in-law, Daniel Falcon, and to Blade Navarone to find a man with the expertise to investigate a man she believed wanted to use her daughter. Blade would let Shane make his own decision, but Daniel had helped as well when Sierra, his cousin, and Blade's lover at the time, was kidnapped. There was nothing Daniel and Blade wouldn't do for each other.
"You can be my houseguest," she said, pushing her point.
She'd just derailed Shane's suggestion to send Rio. He was as intelligent as they came, had the dangerous, compelling looks that turned women's heads, but his eyes were colder than a blizzard.
"Sierra suggested I could introduce you as the protégé or son of one of my old college roommates," Mrs. Albright continued.
Shane wasn't surprised Sierra was in on this. She had a way of ferreting out information, then giving her opinion whether it was asked for or not. She'd made Blade whole again, and Shane would do almost anything for her.
But not this.
"We'd appreciate it and of course pay you whatever your fee is, but we know money is not the issue," Trent said. "Sierra's brother, Luke, could do some preliminary investigation from Santa Fe, but we know without asking that he won't take a job that will keep him away from his wife."
Trent was on target. All the Graysons were the same love-struck way, and so were their extended family members and in-laws. Shane had never seen couples so committed and in love.
The first time he'd seen the Graysons, the Falcons, the Taggarts, and the Masterses all together was when Sierra had been kidnapped. Shane had thought the crisis had brought them closer together. However, they'd been just as devoted at Blade and Sierra's wedding. Shane had subsequently learned that their love was the real deal. It wasn't for show. Where one went, the other wasn't far behind.
"The situation is delicate," Trent continued. "We need someone we can trust to investigate. That's why we didn't consider a private firm."
A dull flush stained Mrs. Albright's cheeks, but she kept her gaze level. Secrecy was needed more than they knew. Paige was on to her, but she hadn't connected the dots yet. When her daughter did, there would be hell to pay. Telling Mrs. Albright that her daughter was suspicious of her would solve nothing and only worry her more. She had suffered enough.
Staring across the room at the attractive but obviously worried woman in her early sixties who reminded him so much of the daughter she wanted to protect, Shane made the only decision he felt logical. "I'll find out all I can about Crenshaw, but I take my responsibilities here seriously. I'm sorry, but I can't leave at the moment."
"I admire your loyalty. Perhaps if you saw her picture." Opening the designer croc handbag on the seat beside her, Mrs. Albright stood.
Shane came to his feet, as did all the men in the room. "See. This was taken the day she interviewed and got her first job. She works with a nonprofit agency and has taken a special interest in foster children."
Shane briefly wondered if Mrs. Albright had influenced her daughter's decision. Trent had been raised in foster care.
Stopping in front of Shane, Mrs. Albright's delicate hands clenched for a second. Her voice firmed. "Paige gives so much. I won't let her be used."
Shane stared at the wallet-sized photograph of the beautiful, laughing woman with a heart-shaped face, her eyes bright with happiness and a hint of mischievousness. He was unable to keep the picture of herfrightened and trembling in his arms from overshadowing the image. Seeing her might put that memory to rest, but he wasn't sure how he'd handle seeing another man with his hands on her.
"If Shane won't help, we'll keep looking until we find someone who will." Trent's arm went around Mrs. Albright. "Don't worry, Mama."
And that was the secret that Shane knew instinctively would tear Paige's world apart. She'd snuck onto Trent's estate to find out the connection between Trent and her mother. Paige hadn't found what she sought, but that didn't mean she'd stop trying.
As far as he could determine, she thought she and her brother, Zachary, were their mother's only children. What would happen when she learned differently? She'd lost a father she loved and was worried about her mother. There was a distinct possibility that a man wanted her money more than he wanted her. If ever there was a person who didn't need any more problems heaped on her, it was Paige.
Excerpted from The Way You Love Me by Francis Ray. Copyright © 2008 Francis Ray. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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