She’d lost everything, actually, except for some personal items, her clothes and Mikey’s things, most of which were stored in her parents’ attic. She didn’t mention that, though. Partly because she desperately wanted to forget the past few years. Mostly because the big man silently considering her wouldn’t be interested in her need to rebuild a life for herself and her son. Or in how ill-equipped she felt to be doing it on her own.
“What about your brothers?”
“Gabe doesn’t have any spare time. Buying a car is the kind of thing he’d staff out anyway.”
Her oldest brother was governor of the state. Yet, more than the demands of the job on his time kept her from seeking his help. He and his press people hadn’t been too happy with her for what the publicity surrounding her divorce had done to his family-values platform. Under the circumstances, asking a favor of him would take more nerve than she wanted to spare right now.
She could only conquer one mountain of ashes at a time.
“Cord knows real estate. And he’s into cars. What about him?”
“He and his wife are in the Florida Keys. Sailing,” she added, to prove just how inaccessible he was for the tasks. “I’d ask Ashley to help me look for a house, but she lives an hour away and is really busy with her kids. The two of us together would attract too much attention anyway.”
Two Kendrick sisters together truly would be like waving a red flag at the press. Even if that hadn’t been the case, Tess wanted to avoid Ashley right now. Long before her ex-husband had started pointing out how miserably Tess had failed to live up to her older sister’s accomplishments, Tess had been aware of how Ashley had always done everything so well, so flawlessly. At least it had seemed so to the little sister who’d followed in her footsteps.
Because of Tess’s place in the hierarchy as the baby of the family, she’d had none of the first-son or-daughter pressure to perform thrust upon her. For as far back as she could remember, everyone had insisted on watching out for her, doing for her, and nothing had been expected of her other than to maintain the integrity of the family name.
Image and integrity were paramount to their parents. The actions of one Kendrick inevitably affected them all. Having a brother who’d possessed an unfortunate tendency to draw embarrassing headlines had proved that often enough.
She hated that the one big choice she’d made on her own had turned out to be an error in judgment that had not only screwed up her own life but done an even more spectacular job than her once-prodigal brother of tainting the family’s good name.
“What I want won’t take long,” she promised, trying desperately to push past feelings of failure and helplessness. “I need to be in my new home before my parents return.” They would arrive right after Labor Day. That gave her roughly six weeks.
Skepticism slashed his broad brow.
“Do you know how long it can take to buy and move into a house?”
“Actually, no,” she admitted. She hadn’t a clue. She’d never had to deal with that particular detail before. “But I can’t let it take long. It will be too uncomfortable living here with Mom and Dad.” Her voice dropped. “Especially with my father. If I have to, I’ll rent or lease something until I find what I want. I’d rather not move Mikey around that much, but I’ll do it if I have to.”
Thoughts of her father put a new face on her pacing. She wasn’t ready to be around William Kendrick yet. She hadn’t dealt well at all with the pictures Brad had shown her.
She didn’t know which had the firmer hold—the disappointment she felt in her dad or her anger over his betrayal of her mom. Both were there, demanding to be dealt with. She just didn’t know how. With no one to confide in, all she could do was jam down the emotions the same way she had the anxiety of everything else she’d had to cope with and force that energy into moving past her…past.
Parker remained discouragingly silent.
“I’ll pay you whatever you ask.”
It wasn’t what she’d requested of him that kept Parker quiet. It was the tension in her body as she spoke and the faint anxiety running just beneath the surface of her practiced composure. Knowing how upset the senior Kendrick had been over Cord’s indiscretions on occasion, he didn’t doubt for a moment that the famously powerful head of the Kendricks’ massive corporate and philanthropic holdings had been less than pleased with the unflattering publicity his daughter had brought. Yet, when she’d mentioned her father, he’d seen more than the embarrassment or discomfort he would have expected. He’d seen hurt.
He didn’t want the bit of empathy that hit him just then. It was simply there as he pushed his hands into the pockets of his slacks, buying himself time as he considered what she wanted. He knew what it was to have lost the approval of a parent. Since he’d left the Marines five years ago, his own father had barely spoken to him. But then, his father was a three-star general and the military was, always had been and always would be his life. The only time the man had ever had time for him was when Parker had been in the military himself.
Frowning at the thought, he dismissed the old resentment that came with the memory as irrelevant. He didn’t appreciate her reminding him of it. He didn’t appreciate the way she’d distracted him either. It wasn’t like him to get sidetracked. Yet, in less than a minute, the woman who’d gone still waiting for him to respond had reminded him of the isolation he’d felt since he’d lost his sister and the father neither one of them had ever really had.
He’d just reminded himself that neither had a thing to do with the requests she’d just made when the pounding of footsteps on the veranda outside had him jerking toward the back door an instant before it flew open.
The rattle of a key in the lock preceded the thud of the utility room door hitting the wall and the sharp bang of the screen door behind it.
Before Tess could begin to imagine who would be in such a hurry to get in, she found her view of the doorway entirely blocked by her bodyguard. It barely occurred to her that the man’s silence and speed were more unnerving than the commotion when a startled feminine yelp joined the thump of something hitting the floor.
With his broad back to her, Parker signaled for her to stay put. Ignoring him, Tess glanced around his side to see an apple roll through the doorway.
Ina Yeager, her mom’s dark-haired, late-thirty-something maid, had gone as still as Lot’s wife. Her right hand lay splayed over her chest. In her left arm she clutched the bag of groceries she hadn’t dropped as if it might somehow shield her lean frame from the unexpected presence that had nearly stopped her heart.
Tess quickly stepped around the small mountain in navy worsted. “It’s all right. Both of you. Ina, this is Mr. Parker. He’s my driver and bodyguard,” she explained, terribly conscious of him herself. “He’ll be staying for a couple of weeks.
“Parker,” she continued, expecting him to stand down now that he knew he didn’t have to whisk her to safety. The man was only doing what he’d been trained to do, but at some point she obviously needed to explain to him that she was as safe here as she was anywhere. It was beyond the estate she was concerned about. “Ina is one of mom’s housekeeping staff.” With a smile for the woman with the deep dimples and long French braid, she snatched the still-rolling apple off the floor. “Her husband is the stable master.”
Seeing Tess reach for a head of lettuce and a red onion that had also rolled from the dropped sack, the clearly rattled maid bent to pick up the vegetables herself.
“I’m so sorry, Tess,” she began, adding the onion to her bag. “I didn’t think you’d be here. In the kitchen,