Ignoring the tightening sensation low in his groin, he jerked his glance back to the road. He would admit that she was incredibly easy on the eyes, and the heat he’d felt at the contact of her impossibly soft skin when he’d found her hand beneath his had definitely caught him off guard, but he dismissed his body’s primitive response as nothing more than a normal red-blooded male’s reaction to a beautiful woman. A spoiled, childish woman ten years younger than his own hardened thirty-six years, he reminded himself.
Other than for her physical appeal, he wasn’t impressed with his new client at all.
From what he’d heard, her bewildered husband had been as shocked as the rest of the world when she’d suddenly asked him for a divorce, taken his son and left the country. Bradley-Something-Ashworth-the-Whatever apparently hadn’t had a clue there’d been any sort of problem. Even her friends—women she’d known since before college—had indicated nothing more substantive than that she hadn’t seemed as happy as she once had. For her part, Tess had publicly refused to say why she’d wanted out. The press had found no clues in the couples’ no-fault divorce petition, either. She’d left all the explanations up to her ex.
In his review of old news videos a few days ago, Parker had watched her yacht-club-type husband reluctantly confess to a barrage of reporters outside a courthouse that she had finally told him marriage bored her and that she didn’t think she could ever be happy with just one man.
A guy had to feel for any man who’d married a woman like that.
Parker had a healthy respect for the state of matrimony—for everyone but himself. He was wedded to his work, and what he did for a living wasn’t a job for a married man. Especially a married man with kids. It was his unfaltering belief that kids deserved to have their dad around, and he never knew where he’d find himself next. But the woman now resting her hand on her son’s knee while she gazed out the tinted window beside her had made a promise when she’d married. A promise she’d broken because she’d been bored, he reminded himself with a mental shake of his head. Taking a guy’s son and leaving him to deal with the public humiliation of her decision on his own was pretty low in his book, too.
The GPS on the dashboard gave a low ding, pulling his attention to the navigation system directing him to a turn up ahead. It wasn’t his job to like her, he reminded himself. His job until the bodyguard she’d requested became available was to act as her driver and to protect her and her son from any of the public or paparazzi who might attempt to encroach upon her privacy. In his spare time, he would stay in touch by computer and cell phone with the tactical team he’d been promoted to oversee.
With everything else he had to do, he wouldn’t have taken this additional assignment at all had her brother, Cord, not had her ask for him. He liked Cord, though. The man was a good client. He’d been his bodyguard on a few decidedly wild gambling jaunts to Las Vegas and Monte Carlo and one memorable trip to Cannes. He’d gotten to know the internationally infamous playboy over hands of poker in various hotel suites when Cord hadn’t felt like hitting the clubs or playing high-stakes games with the other whales. He had even once provided protection for his ladylike sister, Ashley, and for Madison, the woman Cord had just married.
Having watched out for the other women in his client’s life and being nothing if not loyal to those loyal to him, he would have felt a certain obligation to protect the man’s kid sister even if his boss hadn’t pretty much insisted that he take the assignment. The Kendricks were some of the firm’s oldest and best customers. Since declining wouldn’t have been the politically correct thing to do, that left him to do his regular job and keep up with the logistics for security surrounding an upcoming judicial conference in his downtime.
The drive from the little airport took less than ten minutes. Miles of open fields planted with peanuts and corn led to land that had been left forested to seclude the mansions and more modest residences of the local gentry. Like many of those homes, the Kendrick estate wasn’t visible at all from the two-lane country road. A double iron gate suspended between stone pillars blocked the driveway itself.
Parker pulled to a stop beside the pillar concealing the entry keypad.
Tess leaned forward. “Twenty-four, sixteen, fifty-seven.”
Aware of her settling back to cross her long legs, he punched in the security code, waited for the gates to swing open and pulled onto the long drive. The late-afternoon sun slanted through the trees lining the way, their leaves joined at the tops like the arches of a cathedral. With his window still down, he felt the change in the air, the coolness of the shadows, heard the distant whinny of a horse. The manse itself, all three gabled and mullioned stories of it, came into view as the road curved to the left.
The trees opened to a sweep of manicured lawns, a bubbling fountain in front of a wide portico and a view of enough windows to keep a Manhattan window-washer busy for the rest of his life.
A man didn’t do what Parker did for a living without being exposed to a certain amount of extravagance. He’d protected clientele on yachts, in the world’s finest hotels, on estates that rambled on forever. What impressed him about them all was the amount of staff it took, invisible for the most part, to keep the places running.
He fully expected to see staff now as he pulled beneath the portico, climbed from the driver’s seat and opened the back door for his passengers.
The mansion’s massive double doors stayed closed as he leaned forward to take the now-sleeping child from the woman who’d already unfastened and lifted him from the child seat.
“I’ll carry him and his backpack,” she said, “if you’ll get the rest of the luggage. Here’s my key.” With the boy’s head resting on her shoulder, she dangled a small gem-encrusted key ring toward him. “It’s the silver one.”
Thinking it odd that she didn’t expect a butler or maid to unlock the door for her, he ignored her intention to slide out on her own and cupped her elbow as she rose. The slenderness of supple muscle beneath white silk barely registered before she thanked him, headed for the back of the vehicle and stood there waiting for him to lift the tailgate.
Her little boy hadn’t moved. The child lay limply against her, drooling on the shoulder of her jacket. Fine blond lashes formed crescents against his pink cheeks.
Struck by how oblivious she was to the drool and still expecting someone to show up and help, he handed her a bright blue Harry Potter backpack and started hauling out enough designer luggage to stock a small boutique. Not quite sure how to tell her that playing butler wasn’t part of the service, he grabbed four of the suitcases—one under each arm and one in each hand—and followed her up the rounded and sweeping stairs to the massive double doors.
Using the key she’d given him, he opened one door, picked up the luggage again and followed her inside.
“Just leave the bags here in the foyer,” she said, “and come with me, please.”
Her voice was hushed in deference to the sleeping child. She clearly didn’t want to disturb him. Or wait for Parker’s response. The tap of her heels echoed on white marble as she crossed the edge of the malachite-and-onyx sunburst tiled into the floor and passed the circular table in the middle of it holding an empty urn.
In the dim light, his glance left her back to skim the curved arms of double staircases, the crystal chandelier centered two stories above the table and the various and vast rooms visible through the open doorways.
Dustcovers concealed much of the furniture. Lamps were dark. The drapes were all closed. Yet what he noticed most was the heavy stillness that indicated an empty house.
With the sudden and unwelcome feeling that this particular assignment might not be as straightforward as he’d thought, he followed her toward a narrow butler’s door camouflaged by the paneling beneath one staircase and into a long equally dim hall.
They were clearly in the servants’ wing. The white hallway and the utilitarian rooms off it had an infinitely more practical feel to