Awaken To Pleasure

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO MARRYING ME?The proposal was as unexpected as her feelings for the man whose dark good looks rivaled an even darker past. Painful experience screamed that Taylor Reid should run far and fast from Jackson Santorini. But keeping custody of her brother meant becoming her former boss's bride. And giving Jackson a baby. Despite his powerful size and presence, Jackson had been wounded…deeply…by a woman.Yet he'd protected her at a personal cost, if his restrained ardor in deference to her virginal apprehension was one indication. Suddenly, for Jackson's sake, Taylor wanted to replace pain with pleasure. Only, she'd never imagined what sensations–and secrets–she would awaken….
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Awaken To Pleasure


“I Don’t Mind When You Touch Me.”

   Her eyes widened, as if she were surprised by her own words.

   He was touched by the admission. “A woman should enjoy her man’s kiss, not merely allow it.” With her face bathed in the soft light of the moon streaking in through the window, she looked vulnerable.

   “I’m not sure I know how to enjoy.” Her words were brutally honest. “C-could you…”

   He leaned closer, enclosing her with his body. “What would you like, piccola?”

   “A kiss. Like it’s supposed to be,” she whispered.

   Her words betrayed that, for her, kissing had never been a pleasure. One day soon, he’d find out who had abused her, but for tonight, he would kiss her as an innocent was meant to be kissed—with tenderness and just a stroke of passion.

   Just enough to tantalize.

   Dear Reader,

   Welcome to another passion-filled month at Silhouette Desire. Summer may be waning to a close, but the heat between these pages is still guaranteed to singe your fingertips.

   Things get hot and sweaty with Sheri WhiteFeather’s Steamy Savannah Nights, the latest installment of our ever-popular continuity DYNASTIES: THE DANFORTHS. USA TODAY bestselling author Beverly Barton bursts back on the Silhouette Desire scene with Laying His Claim, another fabulous book in her series THE PROTECTORS. And Leanne Banks adds to the heat with Between Duty and Desire, the first book in MANTALK, an ongoing series with stories told exclusively from the hero’s point of view. (Talk about finally finding out what he’s really thinking!)

   Also keeping things red-hot is Kristi Gold, whose Persuading the Playboy King launches her brand-new miniseries, THE ROYAL WAGER. You’ll soon be melting when you read about Brenda Jackson’s latest Westmoreland hero in Stone Cold Surrender. (Trust me, there is nothing cold about this man!) And be sure to Awaken to Pleasure with Nalini Singh’s superspicy marriage-of-convenience story.

   Enjoy all the passion inside!


   Melissa Jeglinski

   Senior Editor

   Silhouette Desire

Awaken to Pleasure Nalini Singh


   

Books by Nalini Singh

   Silhouette Desire

   Desert Warrior #1529

   Awaken to Pleasure #1602

NALINI SINGH

   has always wanted to be a writer. Along the way to her dream, she obtained degrees in both the arts and law (because being a starving writer didn’t appeal). After a short stint as a lawyer, she sold her first book, and from that point, there was no going back. Now an escapee from the corporate world, she is looking forward to a lifetime of writing, interspersed with as much travel as possible. Currently residing in Japan, Nalini loves to hear from readers. You can contact her via the following e-mail address: nalini@nalinisingh.com; or by writing to her c/o Silhouette Books, 233 Broadway, Suite 1001, New York, NY 10279.

   To Diane Dietz, editor extraordinaire, and the team at Silhouette Desire—thanks for taking a chance on me.

Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Epilogue

One

   Rain slashed against the windscreen of Jackson’s car with fierce intensity. Aware of the dangers inherent in the dark winter’s night, he kept the speed of his powerful car well under control, watching out for reckless pedestrians.

   However, in sharp contrast to the usual Friday night crowds, there was an almost deserted air about the brightly lit centre of Auckland. He knew it was illusionary. The revelers were there but hidden in soundproofed, weatherproofed basements and upstairs rooms, full of pumping music that drowned out the driving rain. He’d passed one such room on his way out of his studio office. It had been the site of a wrap party for a murder drama.

   A reed-thin blonde had caught him leaving the building and invited him to join in. Her eyes had been frank with invitation for a much more private party. Unfortunately for her ambition, he didn’t play those kinds of games, and ever since Bonnie, blondes held about as much appeal as arsenic.

   After the day he’d had, all he wanted was some cognac and a hot bath. Taylor looked like she could do with both. The poor baby was standing outside in the icy rain, waiting for a bus, her face pinched with cold. She could probably do with a hot man in bed as well but…

   Taylor?

   Standing in the pouring rain under a barely glowing streetlight, shivering and blue?

   “Dio!” He screeched to a stop and then backed up, thanking God for the lack of traffic. As soon as he reached her, he leaned across and threw open the passenger door. “Get the hell in!” The weather obliged, but Taylor didn’t.

   The sodden woman outside made a face, as if debating whether to take his less than warm offer. Needle-sharp rain continued to pelt her, hard and certainly painful, even through the thick wool of her pantsuit. “The bus is supposed to come any m-m-m-minute.”

   Her chattering teeth enraged Jackson. For a second, he thought he saw fear in those big eyes of hers but it had to have been a trick of the light. He’d never met a woman less afraid of him than this bedraggled creature. “Get in here right now, Taylor.”

   She looked like she was going to be obstinate, but then the universe took pity on him. It started to hail. With a tiny shriek that was undeniably feminine, she scrambled into the car and pulled the door shut. Her trembling hands immediately went to the warm air circulating from the ventilation shafts.

   He turned up the heat before pulling away from the curb to make a right turn instead of going left. Taylor lived on the opposite side of the city from him. Outside, the night had become immeasurably darker, but the hailstorm petered away after a short but brutal reign.

   “I’m wet…your car…” Taylor began, through lips that were blue with cold.

   He was furious with her. “It’ll dry.” A plume of water from a passing motorist momentarily blanketed the windscreen in sleet. He slowed to a crawl until the vehicle had passed, taking the chance to send a glare Taylor’s way. “What the hell were you doing catching a bus at this time of night?” His voice was a lacerating whip. How dare she put herself in such a vulnerable position?

   “None of your b-b-business.” The sound of chattering teeth destroyed her attempt at a haughty dismissal.

   “Taylor,” he warned, in a tone that he only used when his temper was on the thinnest edge, as she very well knew.

   “You’re not my boss anymore, so don’t Taylor me.” His passenger’s unrepentant stubbornness was a living being in the air around them.

   Jackson was used to being obeyed, especially by pretty young women. Everyone loved the man who could get them onto the silver screen, though he remembered vividly that Taylor harbored no such ambition. He also recalled the steely spine beneath that beautiful exterior. Aware that the more he demanded, the more obstinate she’d become, he tried a calmer approach. “I’m being a Good Samaritan. Humor me.”

   She didn’t say anything for a while but he figured that was because she was thawing out. When she finally spoke, what she revealed made his blood boil. All thoughts of calming down were consigned to the deepest hell.

   “My ride wanted more than I did. I left.” Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her huddling into the seat. The small sign of vulnerability tore at him. All of his protective instincts awoke fully armed.

   “Did he hurt you?” His hands had turned into claws on the steering wheel.

   A pause. “No.”

   “Taylor.”

   “Don’t Taylor me!” she cried again, but her voice broke at the end—another uncharacteristic sign of weakness. “He was a bozo.” She sniffed. “I thought he was someone I could trust. We were at a party on the Shore thrown by Dracena Medical—the place where I’ve been temping for the past three months. My contract ended yesterday, but they invited me to the party anyway. When it began to break up, one of the project directors offered a few of us a ride home. I didn’t realize that I was going to be the last one left in the car until it was too late.” She was babbling, betraying her fear even as she tried to convince him of the lightness of the matter.

   “I’d never have gone with him otherwise. I thought I’d get dropped off first because the others live farther out, but apparently, they’d all decided to get off in the city and go dancing. He didn’t tell me that. I still thought it would be okay until…well, as soon as the others left, he started talking about…s-spending the night with me.”

   Jackson became quietly murderous at the evidence of this man’s predetermination to get her alone. “Did he hurt you?” he repeated, knowing that she’d told him the truth about why she’d accepted the ride. He’d long ago learned of her wariness around most men.

   She mumbled something under her breath.

   “Did. He. Hurt. You?” He was ruthless, aware that her emotional state made her susceptible to questioning. Freed from the constraints which had forced him to keep his distance in the past, he would protect her with every breath in his body. “Answer me.”

   “He ripped my shirtsleeve when I was leaving the car. And he’s got my purse. No big deal,” she muttered.

   A wave of red rose in front of his eyes. “Name?” Taylor had always touched the deepest, most primitive part of him. Tonight, that part was beyond furious.

   “Jackson, I…” She sounded hesitant.

   “Name?” The night outside wasn’t as dark as his thoughts about the man who’d dared to assault her.

   “Why?” The question was far more confident, his stubborn, temperamental Taylor rising back from the upsetting experience.

   He gave her an imminently reasonable answer. “How else are you going to get your purse back?”

   “You’re, um…not going to mess him up are you?”

   “What do you think I am—some sort of mobster?” He was well aware that he looked like one. Big, dark and thickly muscled. Half of that was genetics. Being part Italian and part Viking tended to do that to a man. The other half was nightmares. Exercise took his mind off them. Add his black hair and eyes and he could easily pass for one of the mafioso.

   “Maybe.” She didn’t sound timid, as one should while conversing with a mobster.

   “I’ll just pick up your purse. No problem,” he lied. This creep was going to have major problems.

   “Promise you won’t hurt him first.”

   “Why?” The thought that this might’ve been just a lovers’ quarrel rocked him. Pain squeezed his gut at the idea of her wrapped in another man’s arms. Blinded and numbed by the horrifying revelation after Bonnie’s death more than a year ago, had he left his pursuit of Taylor too late?

   “Because I don’t want you in trouble.”

   The relief he felt at her response should have shocked him. “Tell me his name.”

   “Promise first or I won’t say.” She folded her arms. The smell of wet wool rose into the air.

   He swore under his breath, well aware that she was mule-headed enough to do exactly that. “I promise not to touch him,” he gritted out.

   Deprived of his preferred form of revenge, he accepted that the man could be taught a lesson in another way. He knew a few men whom he could count on to do what was right, and one of them was a detective in sex crimes.

   There was silence from the recalcitrant woman in the passenger seat, as if she was debating whether or not to trust his promise. At last, she sighed. “Donald Carson.”

   He nodded, absurdly pleased that his word was good enough for her. “Are you warm yet?” He was beginning to overheat, but she’d been soaking. She needed to get out of those wet clothes but he wasn’t going to make that insane suggestion. Being alone with a naked Taylor was not the best of ideas. Especially when the primitive side of his nature was blazing with the need to brand her with his mark.

   “Getting there.” Her voice was soft, unintentionally stoking the hunger inside of him.

   Desire burned through the anger, turning his voice rough. “There is a picnic blanket in the back seat.” He was aware that the cadence of his speech was changing, as his long-dormant instincts awoke. It was a habit that betrayed too much, and he made a concerted effort to rein it in.

   He heard her move. “It’s still in the plastic wrap.”

   “It was part of a gift. I threw it back there months ago.” Rain pounded the windscreen as he drove out into a particularly unsheltered part of the road. “You still live in New Lynn?” He named a suburb about thirty minutes out of New Zealand’s biggest city, under normal circumstances.

   “Uh-huh.” Her voice was muffled.

   When he chanced a quick glance, he saw that only her bright little face remained uncovered by the woolen blanket. With long black hair beginning to curl in the heat, and thickly lashed blue eyes smudged with tiredness, she looked like a bedraggled and bad-tempered kitten.

   And he wanted to scoop her up into his lap and kiss and cuddle her until she melted for him.

   His reaction to Taylor went against all of the vows he’d made after he’d found out the terrible revenge Bonnie had taken on him for leaving her. Standing over his estranged wife’s grave, he’d sworn to never again let a woman close enough to wound him so terribly. At that moment, while his heart felt like it had been ripped from his chest to lie torn and bleeding on the crying earth, such a vow had been easy to make.

   However, around Taylor, that pain-fueled promise held about as much weight as air. She’d affected him in an inescapable way since the minute he’d first seen her standing in his office doorway. Married at the time, he’d convinced himself that he liked Taylor because she was a good kid and a hard worker. Now, there was no Bonnie, and he’d seen Taylor with her blouse stuck to breasts that were definitely those of a woman.

   “Where’s your brother?” He tried to lead his mind down less inflammatory paths, but all the while he was thinking that maybe it was time he gave his instincts what they’d always craved. A long, slow taste of sweet little Taylor.

   “Nick’s on a wilderness camp with his class, in Riverhead forest, just out of the city.”

   That explained why she was out so late, as she organized her life around Nick’s needs. He’d only met her brother twice, once during a barbeque for employees’ families and again when he’d unexpectedly needed Taylor to come into work on a Saturday and she hadn’t been able to find a sitter. However, Taylor’s daily reports—glowing updates more like a mother would give of her firstborn, than a sister of her brother—had made him feel like he knew the boy intimately.

   “You’re still temping with the same agency?”

   “Yes.”

   “I’ve asked for you when I needed a temp.” Each time, the hapless replacement had had to bear the brunt of his unreasonable temper at her absence.

   “Oh.” She turned a little toward him. “I didn’t know.” A pause. “I don’t work in the film industry anymore.”

   “Why not film?” Had she been avoiding him, he thought with a flare of anger that was rooted in possessiveness that he’d never consciously acknowledged. Until now.

   “It’s not the kind of environment I want to be in.”

   Stopping at a red light, he faced her. “Environment?”

   She shrugged, her cheeks a little pink. “Excess, glamour, money, money, money.”

   He’d always known that she’d fight against coming into his world. “What about art?”

   “What about it?” she scoffed.

   He smiled and accelerated with care when the light turned green. “Poor Taylor. Disillusioned so young.”

   “Don’t patronize me.” The order was sharp.

   She’d been the only one of his secretaries who’d given him backchat. He’d offered her a permanent position after her contract ended, but she’d been adamant in her desire to leave. He’d wanted her more than he’d craved anything in his life, but honor had forced him to let her go, before he stole both her youth and her innocence. Yet, he’d kept waiting for her to walk back through the door. The memory made his voice curt. “Sorry.”

   “No, you’re not.”

   He shrugged. “What can I say? For a kid, you’re very cynical.” At thirty-two, he was only eight years her senior, but in his heart, he was decades too old.

   

   Taylor’s temper started to simmer. Why did Jackson always treat her like a child? “I’m not a kid!” Her feelings around him were definitely those of an adult.

   His big body tended to do things to her insides that scared her, because she had no idea what to do to feed those wild, hot feelings. With her history, she could never, ever allow herself to love a man, but the minute she’d met Jackson Santorini, she’d learned that she couldn’t stop herself from lusting after this particular male.

   A deep chuckle heated both her cheeks and her temper. “Next to me, you’re a baby.”

   “Crap.” She was so furious that she could barely get the single word out.

   “Crap?” He was laughing at her again, in that superior masculine way of his that made her want to scream.

   “Age makes no difference to the person you become once you’re an adult.” She needed him to accept her as a woman, though she shied away from the implications of that need.

   “Of course it does.” His response was infuriatingly calm. “More experience, more life lived.”

   “More years doesn’t necessarily mean more experience!”

   His sardonic look dared her to prove it.

   She did, goaded beyond endurance. “I’m bringing up a child. Can you say the same?”

   “No.” His response was so cold that the inside of the car suddenly felt like a freezer.

   It was clear that she’d offended him deeply with her careless words. Not for the first time, she wondered if his childless marriage had been his choice. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “I shouldn’t have said that.”

   “It’s true.” An emotionless response.

   She bit her lip, debating whether to continue. “Yes. But so soon after Bonnie’s death…I shouldn’t have said it. I wasn’t thinking.”

   It was her own emotional anguish over the possibility of losing custody of Nick to her stepfather, Lance, that had made her so reckless. Even tonight’s desperate attempt to forget her fears for a few hours had ended in a nightmare. Except for being picked up by Jackson, her day had been sheer hell. And now, she’d made him angry. Somehow, that was the worst feeling of all.

   “It’s been twelve months since Bonnie overdosed.” Jackson knew his voice was hard, but so had been surviving the losses a year ago. “You know our marriage was finished long before then. Hell, the whole world knew.”

   They’d been married, but not to each other. He’d had his work and for a brief glittering moment of pure happiness, Taylor’s smile. Bonnie had had drugs. They hadn’t even slept together for over two years, except for that one fateful time four months before her death.

   She’d been so lovely that day, a shimmering memory of the girl he’d wed, before news of her father’s death had stolen her joy. He’d long since learned that that girl had been a mirage, but when she’d turned to him for comfort, he hadn’t been able to deny her. Not when grief had ripped apart the mask of sophistication that had become her face.

   And they’d created a child.

   Whom Bonnie had murdered when she’d taken her life with a cocktail of drugs. If she hadn’t, he might have been a parent, too, able to refute Taylor’s claim. He could still feel the knives that had sliced through his soul when the autopsy had revealed her to be pregnant. Further tests had proven that the child had been his flesh and blood.

   But, even that incredible grief hadn’t compared to his rage at discovering that Bonnie had known of the tiny life growing inside of her. She’d known that his child was in her womb when she’d taken her final lover, and she’d known that his child was in her womb when she’d ingested the fatal drug cocktail.

   At that moment of understanding, hate had spread through his body like a virus, decimating his ability to feel tender emotions.

Two

   “She could be nice sometimes,” Taylor said, betraying the soft heart behind that tough exterior.

   “When she wasn’t drugged to the gills.” He knew too much about the kind of pain “nice” Bonnie could inflict.

   “I wonder why she did all those things.”

   He knew she was talking about the drugs and that final affair, unearthed by the press and gleefully announced to the world. What would she say if he told her that Bonnie’s famous lover had been the last in a string of men?

   He’d stopped touching Bonnie as soon as he’d discovered the infidelities. His love for her had died long before. After a lonely, barren childhood, her joyful charm had drawn him, only to teach him an even deeper sense of isolation. They hadn’t shared a bed again, except for that day four months before her death. After hours spent at work in Taylor’s company, aching for things he had no right to demand, his defenses had been at an all-time low. Seeing Bonnie smile after weeks of depression, he’d desperately wanted to believe that they could salvage their marriage.

   As the forgotten child of an impulsive celebrity union, he’d promised himself that he would not repeat the cycle of divorce and remarriage that characterized his parents, and which had already spread to his three younger half siblings. Even the youngest, Valetta, had a broken marriage under her belt.

   Driven by that promise, he’d kept trying to glue together his and Bonnie’s shattered relationship. He’d even let Taylor go without a single touch, stifling the hungry need her presence always aroused.

   But even his most precious vows had a breaking point—he hated Bonnie for teaching him that lesson. The final straw had come the day she’d flaunted her faithlessness, meeting her newest lover in a place haunted by the paparazzi. That humiliating betrayal had forever severed any remaining loyalty he’d had toward the girl he’d married, and he’d immediately filed for divorce.

   He still remembered her reaction.

   “Oh please,” she’d mocked, cocktail in hand. It had been barely 10:00 a.m. “As if you’ve been faithful.”

   The tragedy was, he had. The only infidelity he could be accused of was of the mind. In his bleakest moments, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Taylor, but he would’ve never touched her while a wedding band encircled his finger. Never. She deserved better than that.

   After he’d walked out on Bonnie, a cautious hope had taken root in his heart. Once the divorce was final, he’d intended to seek out Taylor and see if someone so young and untouched could find something to love in him.

   Then all of his dreams had crumbled to dust. Bonnie’s death hadn’t shocked him; she’d been trying to kill herself for years. It was discovering the murder of his child that had destroyed his hope. He’d been bleeding too badly to do anything but merely function.

   Taylor’s voice broke into the nightmarish memories. “I mean, Bonnie had beauty, talent, wealth and you. What was missing in her life?”

   Jackson’s heart slammed hard into his rib cage at her befuddled tone. “Maybe I’m not such a prize.”

   “I know you’re incredibly loyal and generous. Your protectiveness might annoy your wife but she’d know it sprang from deep caring. That would make it bearable.”

   Her naive belief in his goodness rocked him to the deepest recesses of his misbegotten soul. “I wish you were a reporter.” They’d savaged him after Bonnie’s last affair, taken his humiliation and broadcast it to the world. Jackson Santorini’s private pain sold a lot of papers.

   When Bonnie had overdosed, they’d turned on him again, like a pack of wild dogs, vicious and unfeeling. But, they’d done such a good job the first time around, he couldn’t give them any more rage or any more anguish.

   

   “Plus, you’re gorgeous.” Taylor wondered what she was doing. Her words were true. What was also true was that she could never deliver on the promise implied in the flirtatious tone. And even if she could have, she was nowhere near Jackson’s league. The man was linked with superstar actresses whose beauty shone from the silver screen and glittered on red carpets.

   Just last week, she’d read an article where a titian-haired actress had stated that the reclusive head of Santorini Studios was her dream man. Though the megastar couldn’t understand why such an important man chose to live in so small a country, it made him all the more interesting to her. All the more desirable.

   “I don’t think anyone would describe me as gorgeous.” Jackson’s response was dry. “But thank you.”

   She scowled. “You’re not pretty, not like the actors. There’s nothing soft about you. Your face is strong, interesting…gorgeous.” She wasn’t going to back down. Just like the world-famous actress, dark-eyed, dark-haired Jackson Santorini was her dream man.

   Some people might say that he was a little too muscular, but on Jackson, the bulk looked good. Very, very good. She wanted to reach over and squeeze one of those taut arm muscles to see if there was any give at all. Then she wanted to bite down on that firm, golden flesh.

   And therein lay her problem.

   Jackson had been the best employer she’d ever had. The most demanding but also the most appreciative. A permanent job with him would’ve been perfect…if she hadn’t stupidly gone and fallen in lust with her married boss.

   Until she’d met him, she’d thought of lust as something frightening and dirty. Given her childhood, she knew that was understandable. But, the moment she’d seen Jackson Santorini in the flesh, it had hit her like a thunderbolt. She’d been flabbergasted, having no idea what to do about the heat that pooled in her stomach like high-octane fuel whenever he so much as glanced at her.

   Even more disturbing were the other emotions that had crept in while she wasn’t guarding her back. Dangerous emotions like trust. And hope.

   Not that she’d ever followed up on the attraction. Touching another woman’s husband was an unbreakable taboo. Even if her morals hadn’t stopped her, practicality would have—she’d seen firsthand what happened to discarded mistresses. But she hadn’t been able to stop fantasizing about her sexy Italian boss, even as she adamantly refused to open the door to any other feeling.

   When the media storm had broken over Bonnie’s lover, she’d wanted to slap the other woman for throwing away a man of Jackson’s worth. Though she’d had no right, she’d ached to go to him, and try and soothe his unbearable pain. How dare that woman hurt Jackson where he was most vulnerable—in that proud heart of his?

   It had been over a year since their last meeting but her feelings hadn’t changed. Even her upsetting experience at Donald’s hands couldn’t alter that, because she trusted Jackson on a gut level. She’d never felt safe with a man until he’d started bullying her with his protectiveness, walking her to her car and more than once following her home late at night to ensure that she arrived safely. And he’d never made any demands in return.

   The truth was, her sexy ex-boss still made her burn.

   

   Jackson was stunned by Taylor’s little speech. Nobody had ever called him gorgeous, not even starlets who thought he might be influenced by flattery. That was a lie too big even for them. And yet he knew that the woman in the passenger seat did not tell lies. Who else but Taylor would’ve dared to inform him that he looked like he was strung out on cocaine when he’d dragged himself into the office one Monday after fighting with Bonnie all weekend?

   The question was, what was he going to do with the knowledge that she considered him gorgeous? At that moment, his attention was caught by flashing red lights up ahead. “Looks like there might have been an accident.”

   “I hope no one was hurt.” Taylor leaned forward, blanket clutched tight. When he glanced at her, he saw that heat had given her face a soft pink glow that was at once enchanting and innocently seductive.

   “Let’s see.” Reaching the poncho-clad cop standing in the middle of the street, he wound down the window. Sharp drops of rain immediately assaulted his face. “What’s the problem, officer?”

   The young man leaned down. His eyes flicked to Taylor and then back to Jackson. “There’s been a three-car crash up ahead. Pretty messy. We’re detouring people up though there.” He pointed to an upward-sloping street on his right, the route marked with orange safety cones.

   Jackson nodded. “Was anyone badly injured?”

   “No fatalities.” His relief was clear. “Drive safely.” Moving back, he let them pass.

   After turning up the small incline, Jackson said, “Look, you need to dry out and with this detour and the weather, we won’t reach your place for at least another hour.” Water sloshed around the tires as he came to a level section of the road. “You can spend the night at my place—the drive will only take twenty minutes.”

   “I can’t do that!” she cried.

   “Why?” It angered him that she didn’t trust him, when he’d never given her reason not to. Okay, so maybe he’d yelled at her once or twice while she’d been his secretary, but she’d yelled right back and they’d got along fine.

   Once again, she surprised him. “Because paparazzi stalk you. They’re probably hiding in the bushes by the door. I don’t want to be famous.” She sounded determined.

   He shook his head at her amazing mind. “If there is a paparazzo there tonight, piccola, I swear I’ll beat him up for you.” The endearment slipped out without thought. “Of course, he’s probably already drowned.”

   A laugh escaped her. “Well, if you promise.”

   Traffic being much lighter on this side of the city, they reached his eight-month-old Mission Bay home in less time than he’d anticipated. Pressing an electronic key, he drove the car through the security gates. About fifty meters up the drive he pushed another button to raise the garage door before driving in. It shut behind them, enclosing them in a dry haven lit with a strong white bulb. The sound of rain on hard surfaces was muted to a soft lullaby, lending an unexpected intimacy to the air.

   “Don’t you think garages should have bleary yellow lights?” Taylor stretched out to pop her door open.

   He let her lighten the mood, giving her space. For now. “You think something’s wrong with my ambience?” Stepping out, he found her standing beside her door like some sort of disheveled fairy wrapped in tartan.

   She wrinkled her nose at him. “When I’m no longer in danger of turning into an icicle, I’ll tell you.”

   Biting back his first real smile for a year, he led her out of the garage, through the converted basement which he used as a gym, and up to the first floor of his home. “Bathroom’s upstairs on the right.” He pointed to the stairs leading up from the living room. “There should be fresh towels on the rails. I think the cleaning service came today. I’ll find you a robe and throw it through.”

   “Don’t peek.” She started to struggle up the stairs, trying not to trip on the blanket she refused to release, an empress giving an order to a lowly servant.

   Shaking his head at her impudence, he dropped his keys on a table in the living area and walked into his study.

   Ignoring the blinking message light on his phone, he placed a call to the Auckland Police Station. As usual, Detective Cole McKenna was pulling the graveyard shift. After Jackson explained the matter to one of the few men he trusted implicitly, Cole swore creatively under his breath.

   “Your lady doesn’t want to press charges?”

   Jackson thought about Taylor’s attempts to brush off the entire incident. “I’d like to take care of it without pulling her into something messy.”

   “Yeah, that’s what I figured. I need a diversion from paperwork anyway. Let’s see—Donald Carson, Project Director at Dracena Medical.” He tapped some keys. “Got him. I think 3:00 a.m. sounds like a good time for a visit.”

   Jackson itched to face Carson himself but he’d made a promise and if he saw the man, he’d surely break it. “Thanks.”

   “I’ll swing by your place and drop off your Taylor’s purse when I’m heading off shift, just after six.”

   Yes, Jackson thought, she was his. “I don’t want Taylor to start thinking I’m about to get arrested so leave the black and white at the station,” he joked, trying not to let his frustration at being unable to act himself seep into his tone.

   Cole chuckled, seeing through him. “Lady must be something special if you’re trying to behave.”

   They hung up on that note. His tension easing now that he’d done something about the man who’d dared to hurt Taylor, he quickly played back his messages. All four were from very smart people, including his mother, wanting something.

   The demanding note in his mother’s voice wasn’t unusual. A rising star when she’d inconveniently fallen pregnant with Jackson to Anthony Santorini, her husband at the time, Liz Carlyle had had neither the time nor the inclination to raise her son. She’d saved that for his half brother Carlton, born almost ten years later.

   As for Anthony, the celebrated director’s paternal instincts had finally kicked in nine years after Jackson’s birth, when he’d sired Mario closely followed by Valetta, with wife number three.

   However, now that Jackson was a success, both Liz and Anthony preferred to forget that the closest they’d ever come to parenting him was writing checks for boarding schools and nannies. Neither had any compunction against using family ties to solicit his help. Frowning, he noted the details of the messages before erasing them. He’d take care of their requests later.

   After he took care of Taylor.

   Heading upstairs, he passed the closed door of his admittedly huge bathroom and entered his bedroom, knowing he had an unused robe someplace. Except when he reached the closet, he picked out his favorite.

   

   The instant she shut the bathroom door, Taylor dropped the blanket and started removing her damp clothes, pausing only to place her cell phone in a safe spot. Clipped to the waistband of her pants, it hadn’t disappeared with Donald. The small change in her pockets clinked as she dropped her pants to the floor—forgotten from an earlier purchase, the money would have been just enough for the bus.

   She noted the sunken spa to the left but headed straight toward the shower. Encased in glass, it had an enormous amount of space, the fixtures steel and glass. Obviously, it had been custom-built for someone much bigger than her.

   Immediately, her brain bombarded her with images of Jackson’s muscled bulk in the shower, his arms bulging with strength as he did things to her in the watery enclosure that were surely not anatomically possible.

   “Even if they were, you’re such a coward that you’d run a mile if he tried.”

   With a self-mocking laugh that was tinged with a trace of disappointment, she stripped and stood in the centre of the cubicle, under the three showerheads. The spray hit her so high that she was in danger of drowning. She reached up and tried to tilt them down but they wouldn’t budge. Giving up, she stood shivering on the tiles outside. Jackson’s firm knock came a minute later. Cracking open the door, she peeked around it.

   “You should be getting warmed up. I told you I’d throw it in.” He scowled, all male annoyance and faintly menacing good looks.

   And yet she trusted him. He had a rock-solid integrity that defied her to put him in the same unflattering category as the rest of his sex. A thought nudged at the back of her mind but she pushed it aside. Her stepfather’s attempt at wresting custody of Nick from her was her problem and despite his kindness, Jackson wouldn’t want to know about it. After all, she’d just been his temporary secretary.

   She grabbed the robe, hiding behind the door. “Wait.” Snuggling into the garment, which smelt reassuringly of Jackson and devoured her entire body, she tugged the door fully open. “I need you to set the showerheads lower. I feel like I’m standing under Niagara Falls.”

   Shaking his head, he walked into the humid room. “They’re electronic.” He showed her a control panel on the outside wall of the shower. “See?”

   Taylor flicked her gaze up from her appreciative view of his backside. The man was muscled everywhere. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to run her hands all over that beautiful golden skin. “How was I supposed to know your house was gadgety?” Grateful that she sounded normal, she made a face at him. “Okay, fix them anyway now that you’re here.”

   Giving her one of his rare but extremely lethal grins, he did as ordered. “Enough, shortie?”

   Nurtured by the warmth of that smile, something woke in her heart, something that wasn’t lust. Used to protecting herself from emotions that promised joy but could just as well lead to incredible suffering, she tried to ignore it. “Thanks, Mr. Mobster.” She could barely wait to luxuriate in the heat. “I need to thaw now. Shoo.”

   He left with another grin that seared her nerves. Disgusted at both her physical and unexpected emotional susceptibility to a man so far out of her reach, she shucked off the robe and stepped into the shower.

   

   Jackson stood outside the bathroom, trying to relearn to breathe. It wasn’t easy when erotic visions of Taylor in black lace dominated his thoughts. His lovely guest had apparently started stripping at the door and not stopped ’til she’d reached the shower. Ignoring the trail of feminine clothes, ending in a pair of black lace panties, had been a forced lesson in self-control. Especially when he noticed that the bra matched.

   He hadn’t thought that Taylor would be the black lace type. Showed how much he knew. Groaning, he leaned on the wall with both hands and dropped his head against the white paint. His shoulders were rigid with tension, his jaw set as he wrestled with instinct.

   “I will not seduce Taylor,” he repeated over and over, and knew he was lying. Having her encased in his robe wasn’t enough. He wanted her encased in him, while her body sheathed his in hot, wet welcome.

   Poor, sweet Taylor would probably run a mile if she discovered what he was thinking. Bundled up in his white robe, she’d looked even smaller than usual. Though she wasn’t a petite woman, next to his bulk she appeared fragile. His biceps bulged as he tensed his body, trying to tame the desire rippling through him, hot and voracious. Its talons tore at his control, hungering for heat and abandon and sheer, unadulterated pleasure.

   Taylor had definitely awakened the sleeping tiger within him. The question was, did she have any interest in satiating it? Well…she had called him gorgeous. Despite his frustrated desire, he smiled, remembering the first time he’d seen her.

   He’d looked up from drafting changes to a contract, expecting to find a mature woman in his office doorway. The agency knew his requirements. He didn’t want some young would-be starlet trying to impress him with her “charms”—he wanted superb typing skills not mediocre acting skills.

   The woman in the doorway had had dark hair pulled back into a severe bun, lush lips softened only by gloss and lovely blue eyes. He’d detected a trace of challenge in those too-blue eyes, as if his reputation didn’t scare her. She’d been dressed in a knee-length skirt and fitted jacket, both in solid navy, looking every inch the executive assistant.

   He’d wanted to groan in despair. It would’ve taken a blind man not to notice that she was stunning. He’d known from experience that if he gave her the slightest encouragement, she’d pull out some undoubtedly beautiful hair from that bun, undo the buttons on her jacket and sashay over.

   “I need this dictation typed yesterday,” he’d growled, throwing her a tape.

   She’d caught it and left, without commenting on his brusqueness. Dismissing her from his mind, he’d started to race through another piece of work, aware that without a competent secretary, his day was likely to end sometime in the wee hours of the morning.

   Less than half an hour later, she’d walked back in. Handing him several typed sheets, she’d picked up his handwritten edits to the contract and returned to her workstation. Wondering at her confidence, he’d turned his eyes to what she’d given him and just about died of shock.

   Stalking out, he’d stood over her desk. “Name?”

   “Taylor Reid.” Her response had been cool.

   “Do you want to be a movie star?”

   Blue, blue eyes had widened. “Good God, no.”

   He’d grinned at that disgusted statement. It had been the first time that she’d made him smile. “Fine. Good work. Do I have you for the next three months?”

   “Yes.”

   His delight in having found an extremely efficient secretary hidden beneath the form of a beautiful woman had been borne out. By the end of her first week, she’d organized his office, caught up on the backlog of filing and yelled at him when he’d raised his voice to her.

   And somewhere along the way, he’d found himself coming to work just to hear her tart responses to his questions, and bask in her sunny smile. They’d never crossed any line, never even touched, but in his heart he’d known that he wanted to claim her as his woman. Only his promise to himself that he’d be faithful, unlike his philandering father and womanizing half brothers, had kept him from taking her. Or perhaps it had been the fact that Taylor had seen him as honorable and he’d wanted to live up to her expectations.

   Now, there were no barriers to what he wanted to do with sweet, sexy Taylor, and his body was demanding he make up for almost three years of abstinence, broken only by that one, bittersweet afternoon with Bonnie. After her death, he’d had plenty of offers and no trouble refusing them all. He’d thought his emotional centre had died with his child, taking with it his need for a woman’s soft touch. But his reaction to Taylor told him that his body hadn’t shut down, it had merely gone into hibernation, waiting for the one woman who could bring him back to life.

   Taylor.

   The shower shut off. Shaking his head, he pushed off the wall and headed down the stairs to the kitchen. After her assault tonight, Taylor would hardly be reassured if she found him waiting for her outside the bathroom, blatantly aroused and more than ready to peel off her single layer of clothing. He didn’t know if he could control himself around skin pink from heat, body naked and touchable under the robe. His robe.

   Then, minutes later, she walked into the kitchen, wrapped in that damn robe. “Is that coffee I smell?”

   He’d kicked off his shoes in the living room and saw that she was barefoot, too. “You’ll get cold on the tiles. I’ll find you some socks.” He didn’t even to try to fight his protective instincts toward her.

   She came to stand next to him, holding out a hand for the cup of coffee he held. “Coffee first.”

   “This is…mine,” he finished, as she stole the cup and took a big gulp. He watched her swallow, heard her sigh in appreciation and felt all sorts of things harden in his body. Her fresh, womanly scent made him want to strip her down to her glowing skin and crush her body under his, while his hands stroked and kneaded. Frowning, he backed off a couple of steps. “How are you feeling?”

   “Better.” She turned, cradling the cup in her palms. “Donald didn’t really scare me—I guess I just felt betrayed.” Disappointment edged her tone.

   He understood. “You’re safe here.”

   Her smile was glorious. “I know. I trust you.”

   Dio! he thought. No way in hell could he seduce her now. “I’ll get you those socks.”

   “Don’t worry about it. Let’s go in the living room instead.” She put down the now empty cup. “Are you coming?”

   Bemused, he followed her into the spacious room. A small music system was arranged in wall brackets on the left, while a large sofa upholstered in blue sat against the opposite wall. However, the main feature was the floor-to-ceiling window immediately in front. Stretching from one end of the room to the other, it looked out over the sea to the dormant island volcano of Rangitoto. Tonight, the weather obscured most of the view, allowing only a glimpse of crashing breakers.

   “It’s so open.” She walked across the plush dove-grey carpet to spread her palm against the glass.

   He came to stand beside her. “It’s reflective. No one can see inside, even if they get into the grounds.”

   Next to him, Taylor’s profile was clean and pure. The curling hair around her face looked like it would be incredibly soft to the touch. The urge to reach out and test his theory was so strong that he shoved his hands into his pants pockets and clenched them tight.

   “Your home’s very tidy.”

   To him, it looked barren. “I don’t live with a kid.”

   She smiled fondly. “He is a tad messy but I suppose muddy sneakers come with little boys.”

   “I’m surprised you let him go on the camp.”

   Her eyes moved from contemplating the turbulent sea to fix on his face. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

   He raised a brow. “You’re very protective of Nick.”

   “I’m his only family.” Her defensiveness was clear. “I can be protective if I want.”

   He left the topic for now, aware how touchy she was about her brother. He’d tried to broach the subject with her while she’d worked for him, but she’d frozen him out. At the time, he’d been frustrated at having to accept that he didn’t have any rights over her brother…or over her.

   Yet.

   He wouldn’t touch her tonight, because he’d promised her safety and he would never renege on that assurance. But, after tonight, all bets were off, because he wanted rights over Taylor. All sorts of rights.

Three

   “One of the spare rooms is made up. It’s to the right of the upstairs bathroom. My bedroom’s across the hall if you need anything.” Jackson’s tone was businesslike.

   Taylor knew a dismissal when she heard one. “Yes, boss.” She looked from the tumultuous weather outside to the powerful man standing next to her. He could be just as dangerous as the storm winds.

   “I certainly never heard that when you were working for me.” His words were light but the look in his eyes was intensity itself, hot and possessive.

   She knew what that look meant and had from a very early age. She just didn’t want to deal with it. Heart thudding, she said an abrupt, “Good night,” and left.

   There was no lock on the bedroom door but she didn’t worry. Jackson would never assault her. That didn’t mean he didn’t want her. In the past, when life had threatened to become too bleak or lonely, she’d hugged the awareness of his desire to her, safe in the knowledge that nothing would ever come of it. She wasn’t that kind of woman.

   And Jackson wasn’t that kind of man. His personal code was stronger than lust or passion. He wouldn’t have broken his wedding vows no matter what Bonnie had done. But now his wife was gone and he’d acknowledged the smoldering fire between them, if only with his dark eyes.

   Confused by her warring emotions, Taylor started to get ready for bed and then realized she had nothing to sleep in. About to search the closet in the room, she heard a heavy tread outside her door. A curt knock followed.

   Opening the door, she found Jackson holding out a white shirt. “Thought you might need this.” His voice was low and that banked fire in his gaze wasn’t apparent.

   Her heart turned over. “Thanks.” Just as she took the shirt, her cell phone, which she’d dropped into the pocket of her robe, rang. Immediately, worry shot through her. “That might be Nick. Hold on.”

   Unfortunately, it was her stepfather, Lance Hegerty, on the line. “Where are you, Taylor? No one’s answering at your place. Where’s my son?”

   She knew he’d said the last deliberately—a cruel reminder that Nick was only her half brother. No matter that she’d raised him, in the eyes of the law she had less of a right to Nick than Lance, his biological father.

   “Why are you calling? It’s late.” Her voice threatened to tremble. She crushed the shirt in her hand.

   “You haven’t responded yet.”

   She knew her face was losing its color. Turning her back to Jackson, she said, “I have two more weeks.” A bare fourteen days before time expired to file legal papers in opposition to his claim for sole custody.

   His laugh was cruel. “We can do it easy or we can do it hard but I’ll win. Remember that and don’t forget your place, brat—you’re nothing but a rich man’s castoff. My son deserves better than a life with you.”

   She hung up, hand shaking. Lance could reduce her to tears with a few well-chosen barbs, but she prided herself on never breaking down where he could see or hear her.

   “Who was that?” Jackson demanded.

   She could almost feel the heat of his big body against her back. The urge to tell him was overwhelming, but remnants of the fear generated by the call held her back. Jackson was a rich and powerful man, too. He might take Lance’s side. Bewildered and a little lost, she could barely think. All she knew was that she couldn’t let that monster take Nick. Suddenly, panic hit her. What if Lance took him by force? She had to call the camp and warn them!

   When she turned to face Jackson, the clean, male scent of him taunted her with promises of safety. “Someone I don’t want to talk to,” she admitted, trying not to let him see the panic riding her.

   “Do you want me to deal with it?”

   She shook her head. “No. I think I’d like to go to sleep.” Her words were blunt, her inner resources depleted by the force of her apprehension.

   Though his dark eyes narrowed, he left, his shoulders almost filling the doorway. Despite the horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach, the urge to touch those shoulders made her throat dry. Big, strong Jackson seemed like the safest port in the storm of her life.

   Trembling, she closed her door and immediately called Nick’s camp counselor. After waking her from a deep sleep, she made the poor woman do a bed check on her brother and then swear that she’d ensure that no one but Taylor was allowed to pick him up, during or after camp. She wanted to go get him right now, but Nick had been so excited about the camp, she couldn’t bear to cut it short.

   Calmer now that she knew he was safe, she got out of the robe and into the shirt. It came almost to her knees and she had to fold back the cuffs several times before her hands poked through the sleeves. But, for some reason she didn’t want to face, it comforted her to be wearing Jackson’s shirt. She crawled into bed, craving sleep.

   Instead, fear hammered at her temples, creating an excruciating headache. Whimpering in pain, she sat up, aware that her suffering was stress induced. She needed to release some of the pressure by asking for help—by asking Jackson? Out of the grip of the illogical terror that had bewildered her after the call, she knew that her fears that he’d take Lance’s side were groundless. Jackson Santorini might be dictatorial and dominating, but unlike her tormentor, he had honor.

   Life had forced her to be strong, but this time there were so many burdens on her that she felt as if she would collapse. Despite that, her heart rebelled against asking Jackson. She remembered how his family ignored him, except when they needed his help. Becoming another burden chafed, but she’d do anything to protect Nick. Including asking the help of a man who made her wish for impossible things.

   Afraid that her courage would desert her if she delayed, she jumped out of bed. It was only when she was standing before Jackson’s bedroom door that she remembered her only clothing was his shirt. Her knuckles had hit the wood by then and it was too late. The door swung open before she could retreat. Jackson stood in front of her, wearing a pair of white boxer shorts.

   Captivated by the view, she lost her train of thought. His thickly muscled wall of a chest, covered with a sprinkling of black hair, was only the start. Ropes of muscle ran across his shoulders and arms, and his abdomen was ridged in a way that told her he carried no excess flesh. His thighs looked like tree trunks. She’d been right—the man was muscled everywhere.

   He shifted and she jerked her head up, aware that she’d been staring. But, how could any red-blooded woman resist indulging herself with such a prime example of masculinity? Especially a woman who’d been shown time and time again that this masculine power would never be turned against her. She expected to see amusement in those dark eyes, but something else awaited her.

   Desire.

   Hot, rippling desire.

   Scorching desire.

   She was familiar with desire—Jackson inspired dreams of such erotic power they left her drenched in sweat. But she was even more familiar with desire in men’s eyes. After she’d turned fourteen, her mother’s boyfriends had looked at her with eyes hot with wanting. Then there had been that…she didn’t like to think about that much. It still made her feel dirty and used.

   “Cara.” Jackson’s husky whisper sent shivers racing through her, but she couldn’t move away.

   He tipped up her face with a finger under her chin and then bent down to press his lips gently against hers. Instinctive defense mechanisms kicked into place and she stood still, not fighting but not responding either. Frustration gnawed at her stomach as she realized that despite her age and knowledge of Jackson, childhood terrors still had a stranglehold over her.

   He broke the kiss. “My apologies. I did not realize that you did not accept my kiss.”

   So formal, she thought, so icy, when his lips had been warm and soft. She felt suddenly bereft but knew it was her own fault—the fruit of cowardice. “I accepted.”

   He braced his right hand on the doorjamb, his face expressionless in a way she hated. “Like a statue. I won’t touch you again if that is what you prefer.”

   That option didn’t sound good to her. Nibbling on her lower lip, she looked down at the lush grey carpet and then back up. “I don’t deal well with men wanting me.” While she didn’t trust Jackson’s desire, she trusted his intellect. He would never judge her for her fear, not when he’d been hurt so much by others. “I…had some bad experiences when I was younger.” She hadn’t meant to admit that much but couldn’t bring herself to regret the confidence.

   Jackson’s protective instincts were jolted awake. “Who?” he demanded, his tone barely above a growl. Closing the distance between them, he put one hand on her hip. He’d expected her to recoil but to his pleased shock, one fine-boned hand fluttered to rest on his bare chest. Heat engulfed his body but he ruthlessly caged the fire, aware of the fragility of her faith in his goodness.

   “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” Her answer didn’t satisfy him, but then she said, “I wanted to talk to you about the phone call.”

   He was placated by that evidence of her trust. For this night, it was enough. “Who was on the other end?”

   “Why didn’t you press for more information before?”

   “I figured I had no right to know.” Her face was so solemn, so lovely in the frame of midnight-dark hair. He loved Taylor’s thick, curling mane. Dreams of the silky strands spread over his arm as she slept beside him had tormented him since their first meeting. “Do I?”

   Taylor knew what he was really asking. “I don’t know if I’m ready to let you into my world.”

   He was silent for a moment. “Why?”

   “You’re…” How could she admit that she was scared of what he made her feel, what he made her ache for?

   “You trust me, don’t you?”

   The answer came easily because he’d always been far more than just her boss, no matter what she’d tried to convince herself. “I’m here.” And she wouldn’t be if she didn’t trust him on a deep, unshakable level.

   That trust was rooted in the knowledge that he’d never coerce her to do anything against her will. Jackson was a protector. And she needed his protection from Lance. More importantly, Nick needed his protection. “Nick is the most precious part of my world,” she whispered, making a decision.

   “I know.”

   “He’s returning from camp in a couple of days,” she told him. “Do you want to come pick him up with me?”

   “Yes.”

   Taylor felt something change in their relationship at that moment. With her invitation, she’d accepted Jackson’s claim over her and made a claim of her own. But did she have any right to him when her whole being was wracked with fear over Lance’s threats to take her brother away?

   “You only ever speak of Nick.” One big hand stroked her hair. Instead of fear at the intimacy, she felt a shy sense of pleasure because this was annoyingly protective Jackson. “Do you have no other family?”

   “Not in truth.”

   “Tell me what that means, piccola.” It was a masculine demand disguised as a request.

   Taylor found that she wanted to tell him. He’d never been given any privacy with his life and it seemed only fair that he should know something of her as well. And the truth was, she needed to tell someone and aside from Jackson, who was there?

   The first words took time, but he didn’t hurry her. Standing in the hallway with her toes digging into the carpet and Jackson’s heat surrounding her, she’d never felt safer. He might want her, but he would never force her—she’d stake her life on that. “My mother brought us up, well, she brought me up anyway. She died when Nick was six.” Keeping her voice steady was an effort. “I was twenty and her death wasn’t a surprise. She was an alcoholic.”

   To her shock, right then, Jackson picked her up and walked into his bedroom. The only light came from the full moon outside. She remained absolutely silent as he pulled a blanket off the bed and then sat down in a window seat similar to others about the house. He slung the blanket around her shoulders and held her in his lap like she belonged to him, while he leaned against the wall. She sat up but his body surrounded her. Protected her.

   “Why am I telling you?” she asked, wondering how it was that she felt so safe with him. And whether she should be frightened at the reason behind the feeling.

   “Because you obviously need to talk. Did that phone call have anything do with your brother?”

   “How…” She gasped at his perception.

   “It terrified you. You only react like that when Nick’s hurt.”

   Her nod was jerky. “It was Nick’s father, Lance.”

   “Your father?”

   Her blood seemed to turn ice-cold. Taking a deep breath, she told Jackson the reason why Lance cared nothing if he destroyed her. “He’s not my father.”

   Jackson looked down at the flat sound of Taylor’s voice. “What?” The urge to wrap her up in his arms and press her against his chest was almost irresistible. He fought the urge because he needed to see her face.

   “My mother, Helena, was pregnant by another man when she married Lance.” She stared fixedly at the dark square of the bedroom doorway. “My biological father was already married. He didn’t want his mistress after she became pregnant and refused to get rid of me. She was destitute.”

   “That wasn’t your fault.” He was shocked at the self-recrimination in her tone.

   “Lance never let her forget,” she continued. “Almost every week, he’d say something to remind her that I wasn’t his, that he’d taken her in when she was ‘knocked up.’ He didn’t even give me his name.”

   Jackson felt his hands curl into fists but forced himself to remain silent, aware that she needed to talk. It humbled him that she trusted him enough to share something so painful. He’d had no choice when his secrets had been ripped from him and used to sell newspapers, but he knew just how much courage it took to deliberately entrust another person with such private pain.

   “And she never stopped reminding me that it was because of me that she was stuck with a man who beat her when he was bored, and…and used her.” Her slim shoulder shifted as she took a deep breath that hitched. “While I was growing up, Lance used to disappear without explanation for weeks, and then return like nothing had happened.

   “My mother used to wait for him, as if he’d come back and rescue us from poverty. Then one time, he didn’t come back. They divorced when Nick was barely two.” She stopped speaking, staring down at her hands.

   Jackson wanted to strangle her parents. Instead, he gave in to the urge to touch her and closed one of his hands over hers, not certain that she’d tolerate any further contact while mired in the past.

   Her eyes were confused when she finally turned to look at him. “Why did she love him for such a long time? Why did she? We both knew he had other women. Was she that grateful that he took her in when she was pregnant?”

   Jackson could imagine her mother’s befuddlement at this child of hers who was so without deceit, a child who wouldn’t allow her to forget grim reality in useless illusions. “She sounds like a woman who lost her way.”

   “Yes.” Poignant sadness colored that acknowledgement.

   “Where does Nick’s father fit in?”

   Fear clouded her gaze. “Lance didn’t return for him after our mother died. Even before her death, I was the one who took care of Nick. But now he’s back.”

   Encouraged by her lack of resistance to their linked fingers, he reached out with his free hand and stroked her hair off her face, shifting his body closer to hers at the same time. “What exactly does he want?”

   “Nick.” Pain devastated the pure blue of her eyes to a dull shade. “I’ll fight him ’til I have nothing left, but I’m afraid. He’s Nick’s father. I’m only his half sister.” She leaned just a little into his stroking hand.

   He was pleased that she saw him as a source of strength. “You’ve raised him.”

   “You don’t understand. Lance isn’t some riffraff—he’s rich. He always was, though he never gave us a cent. I suppose he married my mother because she was so very beautiful and he wanted her. But, then, he threw her away. He didn’t care about Nick then.” Desperation was apparent in her too-fast speech.

   “He told me that he’d remarried and had a stable home for his son. I think he only wants Nick because he can’t have children with his new wife.” She was shaking, as if with rage. “I can’t let that happen! Lance will hurt him. I saw him hit Nick when he was a baby!” Releasing his hand, she clutched at his forearm. “I saw him!”

   Gently disengaging her fingers, he took a chance and wrapped his arms around her. After a momentary hesitation, she softened. “You must not worry so, piccola. I am here.” Her pain tore at him. “How rich?”

   “He’s a partner at Hegerty Williams. He’s the Hegerty.” She named a prominent law firm. “He knows judges and psychiatrists. He said he’d have me declared unfit if I didn’t give him Nick, and that he’s convinced judges who are friends of his that I have a bad lifestyle.

   “I’ve tried to fight it but all my motions to the court keep getting denied and his accepted. I’ve fought every way I can but I don’t know how much longer I can stall him. I’m so scared. I can’t lose Nick. I can’t.”

   Jackson felt his instincts growl in warning. How dare anyone threaten this woman? This strong, beautiful woman, who, unbeknownst to anyone, belonged to Jackson Santorini. He pulled back and tilted her face up with a finger under her chin, his anger intensifying when he saw that her eyes were shiny with tears she refused to shed.

   “Do you trust me, Taylor?” If she didn’t, he was damn well going to teach her to, even if he had to cuddle her in his lap all night long.

   She nodded. “Yes.” Then she scowled. “I don’t think I should’ve admitted that.”

   He was pleased with her despite her dark expression. “Then believe me when I say I’ll help you.”

   “I’m sorry to ask this of you. I know how people always want things from you. I don’t want to be like them!” Her frustration was clear.

   “I know you don’t think like that.” He’d always had to fight her pride to give her the smallest consideration. Stroking the cool smoothness of her cheek, he said, “Come now, piccola. Where is my little tigress?”

   Her full lips curved upward in a rueful smile. “I think she’s in hibernation.”

   “That’s more like the Taylor I know.” Without stopping to think, he pressed a hard kiss to her lips, withdrawing the instant he remembered what he’d done. “My apologies again…” His gut twisted at the thought that he might’ve broken her fledgling trust in him.

   Her fingers on his mouth stopped him. “I…I don’t mind when you touch me.” Her eyes widened, as if she was surprised by her own words.

   He was touched by the admission. “A woman should enjoy her man’s kiss, baby, not merely allow it.” With her face bathed in the soft light of the moon streaking in through the window, she looked indefinably vulnerable.

   “I’m not sure I know how to enjoy.” Her words were brutally honest. “C-could…you…”

   He leaned closer, enclosing her with his body. “What would you like, piccola?”

   “A kiss. Like it’s supposed to be,” she whispered.

   Her words betrayed that for her, kissing had never been a pleasure. One day soon, he’d find out who had abused her, but for tonight, he would kiss her as an innocent was meant to be kissed—with tenderness and just a stroke of passion. Just enough to tantalize.

   While Taylor’s heart pounded so hard that she could feel every beat in her throat, Jackson moved one big hand to cradle her head and lowered his mouth to hers. Braced for pressure, all she felt was a teasing graze of lips on lips that left her with no idea how to react.

   “Just feel.” He grazed her lips again but this time, lingered over the caress. “It feels good doesn’t it?”

   She nodded, throat dry. There was no pain, no force, nothing but the male scent of Jackson and the burning heat of his almost naked body. Her hands were on his beautiful skin and she could feel the raw power barely contained beneath the surface. Despite the blatant evidence of male muscle, she let her lashes flutter shut. If he’d wanted to hurt her, he could’ve done so long before this moment. All those nights working alone with him, she’d never once felt less than safe. His old-fashioned sense of chivalry had even stopped him from inviting himself in for coffee when he’d followed her home.

   “Then just feel. Sweet, sweet, Taylor.” His hand tipped her head back and he dropped a single kiss on her neck. She whimpered in surprise.

   “Relax for me, bellissima,” he cajoled, as his lips touched hers again, hot but undemanding. “Feel.”

   Seduced by that deep voice, she did as he asked. She just felt. Felt the soft-hard duality of his lips, felt the tenderness with which he was coaxing her to open her mouth for him, felt the shudder that ripped through him when she did. Yet, he didn’t invade her mouth. Instead, he teased her with feather-light strokes of his tongue across her lips. As each slow lick built her desire, he whispered hot promises to her in Italian, his voice darkly smoky, teasing, tempting but not delivering.

   At last, she gave a frustrated little moan and pressed closer, her hands clenching in his hair to hold him to her. Only then did he touch tongue to tongue, a quick foray that didn’t remind her of the forceful kisses that had hurt and shamed her as a girl, because he invited rather than took. Curious, heart thudding, she followed. His arms tightened around her, chest muscles tensing as her breasts were crushed between them, barely covered by the shirt. Beneath her bottom, she could feel the hard ridge of his erection. Panic tried to rise but failed, because despite his obvious arousal, his touch remained heartbreakingly gentle.

   Their lips parted with a silky wet sound, deeply intimate in the semidarkness of the room. The man holding her nipped at her full lower lip with his teeth. “You taste like you belong to me.”

   Instead of inciting fear, his possessiveness heated her blood. “I like touching you. Kissing you.” She was talking with her lips on his, her hands deep in his hair. The pure, sensual pleasure she derived from touching him enthralled her.

   “Good.” There was a very satisfied glint in his eye, and the thumb he ran across the lip he’d bitten was nothing less than proprietary. When he pressed her down against his chest, she sighed and gave in.

   Remnants of the passion that he’d aroused in her un-awakened body glowed like embers, keeping her warm and relaxed. A new kind of trust took root in her heart, a woman’s trust, a sexual trust, which dared her to take what her sexy ex-boss was offering and not look back to a young girl’s easily bruised sensuality.

   “Are you awake, cara?”

   “Yes.”

   A pause. “Do you wish to tell me why you have such fear of men’s desires?”

   “I promise I will, but not tonight.” She couldn’t bear to taint the sweetness of that kiss, the almost unbearable tenderness of it, with such horrible memories.

   “You must sleep then.” He stood, with her in his arms.

   At her door, he set her on her feet. She put a hand on his arm as he turned away. “Thank you for your help.”

   Something dark shaded through his eyes. “I do not want your gratitude, Taylor.”

   Somehow, she knew it wasn’t rejection but a question. “It wasn’t gratitude. It was trust.” It took courage to confess that. Before she’d met Jackson Santorini, she’d never trusted a male in the prime of his life.

   He touched her hair again, a softer curve to his unsmiling mouth. “Go to sleep, piccola. I will find a way to help you and your brother.”

   It was a measure of her trust that she slept the night through, without nightmares. Truth to tell, it scared her a little, this faith she had in Jackson. A woman could be fooled into love with something as powerful as trust to lead her astray. And her love was the one thing that Taylor would never entrust to any man.

   Not even Jackson.

Four

   The next morning, Jackson drove Taylor home.

   Prior to starting the trip, he’d astounded her by producing her purse. Cole had dropped it off early that morning, while Jackson had been working out. His friend had also indicated that Donald Carson was now so terrified of being labeled a sexual offender by the police, it was a sure thing that he’d never assault a woman ever again.

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