After passing two rooms with twin beds, she opened one that held a neatly made double bed and a dresser at one end and a desk and small seating area at the other. Lowering her son to the mauve tweed sofa, she pulled a brightly knit afghan off its back and settled it over him. Her motions seemed almost unconscious as she pulled off his shoes, tucked the afghan over his feet when he stirred, then gently touched his head as if to reassure him before slipping back into the hall.
Considering how totally unmaternal Parker would have expected her to be, her easy affection for her son surprised him. Or maybe, he thought, it was protectiveness he sensed in her. Whatever it was, he found himself far more interested in why her smile seemed so uneasy when she moved past him and into the huge—and deserted—kitchen.
He was wondering where the devil everyone was when she flipped on the overhead lights and illuminated a room filled with what looked like miles of counters and glass-fronted white birch cabinetry. Stacks of dishes gleamed through the glass panes. Copper pots glinted from the rack high above a white-tiled center island the size of a boardroom conference table.
“You can stay in the room where I put Mikey. It belongs to the head housekeeper,” she said, her expression polite, her voice still low. “Rose is with my parents in the Hamptons for the summer. The rest of the staff is on vacation, too. Except for the stable master and his wife. They live above the stables. And the groundskeeper is in the cottage near the lake. Rose’s room has its own bath, and you’re welcome to use the pool and the exercise room downstairs if you’d like.”
Tess watched a frown pinch the dark slashes of Parker’s eyebrows as he glanced from her to the office alcove and the window above a table in the far corner where the staff took their meals. The man was difficult to read, a trait his profession seemed to demand, but he appeared far more interested in what surrounded him than in his personal accommodations.
In the space of seconds, it seemed to Tess that her paid protector had absorbed who was on the property, managed to take in the details of his immediate surroundings and just as thoroughly searched her. He’d no sooner noted the utility room leading to the back door than his scrutiny moved from the top of her head to the toes of her pumps. She could swear he’d missed nothing in between.
Had it not been for her brother’s recommendation, she would have felt far more uncomfortable than she already did at that unapologetic appraisal. Those arresting features gave away nothing of his impressions.
Feeling totally disadvantaged, nerves ruined the cultured poise she constantly strove to achieve. That poise seemed to come as naturally as breathing to her mom and her older sister, but neither of them had been cursed with the inner energy she constantly battled to tame. Even fighting fatigue from a week’s worth of sleepless nights stressing over her trip home, it was either pace or fidget. Since pacing seemed more dignified, she turned away to do just that. All that mute and massive muscle unnerved her, too.
“I assume you’ve done your homework,” she began, hating the position she was in, knowing no other way to address it. “So I imagine you’re aware of what was being said about me before I left.”
She turned back, met his too-blue eyes. He stood ramrod-straight in the arch of the hallway, one hand clasping the opposite wrist. “The majority of it,” he conceded.
Not caring to imagine what he thought of all that dirt, she tipped her chin, only to immediately check the motion. She couldn’t allow herself to get defensive with him. She needed him on her side. More important than that, she desperately needed an ally.
It seemed a true indication of how much she’d lost that she’d had to hire one.
At the dispiriting thought, she resumed her pacing. “You’ve worked for my brother,” she reminded him, arms crossed as she made her way up one side of the island, “so you know that people distort things to serve their own purpose. And you know that the press has a definite tendency to exaggerate.” Among other transgressions, real and imagined, her brother had been sued for support for a child that wasn’t his and blamed for a nightclub brawl that started after he’d left. If she remembered correctly, Parker had been with him that particular night. “I hope you’ve kept that in mind with anything you’ve heard or read about me.
“I also hope my brother is right about you,” she continued before he could ask why she hadn’t defended herself if what he’d heard wasn’t true. “Cord said I could trust you. I don’t know anyone outside my family that I can trust anymore,” she stressed softly, “so I had to rely on his judgment. That’s why I asked for you. That and a comment he made about you being up for just about anything.”
She turned again to face the man filling the space with his powerful presence, saw the faint lift of one dark eyebrow.
“I didn’t want to indicate my plans over the phone or the Internet, but aside from you being my driver and keeping me clear of paparazzi, there are some other things I need you to do for me. I hope you won’t mind.”
Parker had spent years learning to anticipate people and situations. Little caught him unprepared. Since he inevitably prepared for the worst, even less surprised him. He had not, however, expected the open candor of the woman giving him a cautious, almost hopeful smile or the isolation he sensed about her as she stood waiting for him to confirm or deny what her brother had claimed. He recognized that sense of separation, that sense of no longer being a part of the whole, only because in the past year he’d felt it so much himself.
Dismissing that unwanted thought, not appreciating the reminder, he studied her even more closely.
“You can believe your brother. You and your plans are secure with me.” He was nothing if not honorable. “But he may have misled you on just what I’d be willing to do.” He rarely objected to having a good time, situation permitting. He had the feeling Cord’s little sister wasn’t looking for a good poker game, though, or an escort to the local clubs. He hadn’t read a single report about her doing the party circuit or getting wild and crazy in some trendy hot spot. “I play by the book, Miss Kendrick. I might bend rules, but I won’t break the law.”
Her lovely eyes widened. “I’d never ask you to do that. What I want is perfectly legal.”
“Then what is it exactly that you want me to do?”
“Just set up some appointments.” She replied quickly, as if she wanted her request to sound as if it were nothing of any import at all. “And run errands. And maybe watch Mikey for me. But only for a few minutes at a time,” she hurried to explain, “and only if absolutely necessary.”
Parker stifled a mental groan. He was a bodyguard. Not a personal slave. He most definitely was not a babysitter.
“Due respect, Miss Kendrick, but my duties are laid out in your family’s contract with Bennington’s. I’ll provide surveillance, protection and evacuation if the latter is necessary. But if you need a personal assistant, you’ll have to hire one. Same goes for a nanny.”
His glance shot over the hair she’d smoothed back into place, over her perfectly made-up face, down the buttoned silk jacket that allowed that tantalizing glimpse of soft-looking skin between her breasts.
He would be willing to bet his tickets to the next New England Patriots game that Tess Kendrick was accustomed to getting everything she wanted. And to getting rid of whatever she did not, he reminded himself, thinking of how she’d shed a husband. If she was even half as spoiled as he’d read, he figured he was about to face major attitude.
Yet, rather than offense, all he saw enter her expression was something that looked almost like an apology.
“That’s my problem,” she murmured, pacing again. “Even if I knew who to hire…who I could trust,” she emphasized, “I don’t want more people around. The fewer people who know I’m here, the less the chance of the press finding out that I’m back. It’s taken forever for all talk and speculation to die down, and if they find out I’m here, it’ll just start up again.”
Something pleading crossed the delicate lines of her face. “All I’m asking is for help buying a house. I need you to make