Katie Benson closed her eyes as she pressed her head against the cushioned pedicure chair, the strong scents of acrylic and nail polish less offensive after being in this salon for three long hours. Having had highlights and a trim, as well as a manicure and now a pedicure, she was more than ready to finish up this pampering session. If she could just get the butterflies to stop fluttering around in her stomach, she’d be good to go.
“Tell me again why we’re having a spa day in the middle of the week.” Her best friend, Piper Drake, spoke from the adjoining recliner. Piper’s shiny auburn hair cascaded in long ribbons over her freckled shoulders.
“Blake is coming.” Katie anticipated Piper’s reaction, having told her everything about her past before moving to Edison Bay, the small sunny Florida town on the southwestern Gulf Coast.
Piper’s eyes grew round. “Blake, the award-winning kisser and bodyguard?” She fanned her face with her hand.
Mention of that one and only kiss with Blake made Katie’s heart flutter, and she pressed her hand over her chest, careful not to smear her French tips. “Well, he isn’t exactly a bodyguard anymore. Blake is director of security for my dad now. He spends his time managing everyone else’s business.” Including hers apparently.
“Your dad is a mega-land developer, so it’s understandable to have security issues.” Piper scrutinized her manicure, then bent her fingers to blow on the tips. “He’s been very successful, and there are a lot of people who would like to see him fail. That’s just part of business, I imagine.”
Katie’s brow twitched. She wondered how much her dad and Piper had talked when she’d taken her best friend home with her last Christmas. “We used to get threats all the time. Mostly from his competition or someone opposed to one of his development projects.”
Katie remembered a time when she and her brother hadn’t been allowed to leave the house, not even to go to school. A wild group of rabid protestors made a threat of some kind. She quivered at the memory, despite not knowing all the details. It had been a scary period just before Blake came into their lives.
Piper nodded. “People always resist change, even when it’s progress and beneficial to the economy.”
Katie knew her father had tried to keep bad things from her and her brother in an attempt to reduce their fears. He’d often commented he didn’t want timid kids. Probably one of the reasons she as an adult enjoyed her independence so much.
Security concerns had been part of Katie’s life for a long time. Not until college did she realize most families didn’t employ bodyguards.
Reminded of bodyguards, she shuddered, still mortified ten years later by her brazenness the night she’d tried to seduce Blake in the swimming pool.
“Do you know why Blake is coming?” A flush washed over Piper’s face, which Katie thought odd but didn’t question. With Piper’s fair skin, even a queasy stomach showed on her face. Katie had learned not to read too much into Piper’s expressions.
“I have no idea.” Katie swallowed over the lump in her throat. “Dad just called and said to have my guest bedroom ready for him.” How was she ever going to be able to sleep with Blake Malone in the next room?
“Oh my God! He’s going to be staying with you? In your house?” Piper ratcheted the tension with her animation.
Katie’s stomach lurched. “I haven’t seen him since my brother’s wedding five years ago. We’ve only talked on the phone a few times since then.” How could Dad do this to me? For almost ten years, her father had given her freedom to live her life as she saw fit and without interference.
“You can’t think of a reason why he’s coming now?” Piper gave her a curious gaze.
Katie squirmed, and her pedicurist grumbled, slapping her leg. Jeez, why’d she think this would be relaxing? As soon as the coral-colored polish dried, she and Piper could blow this joint.
“I’m afraid he might have found out about Nathan the loon.” Not a good thing for her independence. Her father would freak out and insist she come home, no matter how old or how long she had successfully taken care of herself. “I don’t know how, but it’s the only explanation, unless he’s coming for some other business reason. But then I don’t know why he wouldn’t be staying in a hotel if that were the case.”
When her comments met with silence from the adjoining chair, she glanced at Piper’s face. The peachy hue was a deeper shade.
Katie’s forehead tightened, and her eyes widened as the explanation dawned. “You called my dad?” Anger washed over her chest and up her neck. She gripped the armrest and draped her free foot over to the side of the chair, more than ready to put some distance between her and Piper.
“Katie.” Guilt laced Piper’s voice. “Nathan is dangerous. He’s stalking you. Anyone who keeps calling in the middle of the night, even when you’ve told him you’re not interested, is obsessed.” She frowned, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. “Not to mention all those crazy notes he’s left on your desk and car.” She drew a deep breath. “I’m worried.”
The pedicurist capped the polish, smiled as if not in the least interested in their conversation, rolled her short stool back, and got up. Katie pulled her other foot off the padded footrest and hobbled over to the drying station, purple foam-rubber toe separators in place.
Nathan McDonald was a pain in the ass, but he wasn’t a stalker, maybe just a little thickheaded and pitiful. Katie should never have led him on by being nice to him in the staff lounge that first day of school last year. His chasing had been going on for almost two years, and it was getting rather bothersome.
Katie shook her head, perturbed. “I can’t believe you’d call my dad without talking to me first.” Betrayal lanced her heart. “You’re my best friend. You’re supposed to be on my side. You know how domineering my dad is. I told you.” Her jaw tightened. “This is the last thing he needed to know.”
She should have never taken Piper home and introduced her to the family. They’d become good friends in college and even closer since, so she’d wanted them all to meet. For some reason Piper and her father had hit it off right away. Probably because he saw a way to spy on his daughter through Piper, and her best friend had fallen right into his trap.
“I am on your side,” Piper whispered as she joined Katie, easing her feet beneath the heat lamp. “That’s why I called. If something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself if I hadn’t tried to get help.”
Katie gave Piper the evil eye. “You’re in hot water, young lady.” She knew Piper meant well, so she’d have to forgive her meddling. But not before making her grovel a bit.
Piper snorted. “What else is new? Everyone seems to be mad at me today.” She frowned.
“Honestly,” Katie said. “I think everyone is overreacting.” Piper’s boyfriend, Carl, had made his opinion known two nights ago while they’d been out and Nathan had shown up, making everyone uncomfortable. Carl was as protective and bossy as the rest of the men in Katie’s world.
Nathan’s inability to comprehend rejection made him appear odd. Katie had told him outright she wasn’t romantically interested in him. He didn’t seem to trust she knew her own mind. But she didn’t think he was dangerous.
Forcing her mind away from the stressful situation with her unwanted admirer, Katie directed her attention at Piper. “What are you and Carl fighting about now?”
Piper let out an audible sigh, obviously glad for the change in subject. “Oh, as usual, it’s something stupid. I forgot to lock my car door last night.” She flipped her hands in the air. “He always makes a big deal out of everything. Nobody broke in. Nothing was stolen. You’d think Jack the Ripper was waiting in my backseat for all the fuss Carl made this morning.”
“Well, you are both redheads with fiery tempers.”
“Ah, thanks for reminding me, Blondie,” Piper shot back.
“Anyway, I think I’m dry.” Katie bent and removed the rubber from between her toes. “Let’s go get a cappuccino. You’re buying as punishment for snitching to my dad.”
Piper snorted. “Okay. But I need to be home in time to finish grading my third graders’ spelling tests before Carl gets off duty.” Carl was a deputy sheriff. “I’m kissing ass by making him a good dinner.” She gave a slight smirk. “And he told me to prepare to be disciplined for misbehaving and not following the rules.” Her eyebrows pumped.
Katie laughed, a wave of envy brushed over her chest. She would love to have a relationship like her friends shared. “I’m supposed to play cards tonight at the nursing home, but I guess I’ll have to cancel since Blake’s coming.” She mentally went over what needed to be done before he arrived. The guest room stayed ready, but she’d dusted, vacuumed, and added a few fresh Plug-ins before she grabbed the stack of graded essays for her high school English Lit class and headed to work this morning.
“If I didn’t have paperwork and make up sex, I’d take your place.” Piper giggled with a devilish spark in her beautiful copper-colored eyes. “You do realize that’s why Carl and I fight so much.”
“Ah, now I get it.” Katie chuckled. “If only we could all be so lucky.” She’d take any kind of sex with Blake, make up or otherwise.
“Maybe Blake will be more susceptible now that you’re a grown-up and no longer living at home.”
Katie rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to hold my breath. That man is made of steel. He doesn’t bend. Or at least he didn’t when we lived together.”
“That’s right. You were raised on a big estate with everyone living close to the main house.” Piper shook her head. “I still find that fascinating. You grew up so different than I did. Yet we’re so much alike. We’re even attracted to the same kind of strong, masculine men.”
Katie snorted. “Trust me. My life wasn’t always a bowl of cherries. Blake slept in the guesthouse off the pool. I couldn’t sneak out without him hearing me.” She giggled. “I tried a few times though. But he’d always catch me and send me back to my room like a naughty child. He was such a pain in my neck back then. But once my hormones kicked in, my opinion of him changed unfortunately.”
“It’s been ten years since the kiss incident when you were seventeen. Don’t be so sure he’ll be as hard to move—” Piper’s lips lifted in a grin “—emotionally I mean. He’d be thirty-eight to your twenty-seven now. Sometimes age softens people, and the difference isn’t as consequential.”
“Maybe,” Katie conceded. They’d labeled her seduction attempt the “kiss incident” after she’d first told Piper. Every time she had a disappointing romance—which happened often—Piper reminded her she’d been ruined by Blake’s kiss that night in the swimming pool. Well, duh.
Every man she’d ever dated had to live up to her fantasy lover, Blake Malone. Not only was it unfair to her boyfriends, it was an unrealistic expectation. Even Blake himself, in all likelihood, couldn’t live up to her fantasies of him.
“I’m not giving him a chance to reject me again.” She shivered. “But I can’t help wishing he were as attracted to me as I’ve always been to him. There isn’t a man on this earth that moistens my panties like Blake Malone. I bet he’s only gotten sexier with age. I wonder if he has gray hair.”
Piper laughed. “Thirty-eight isn’t old. I bet he’ll light your fire even more so now that you have more experience to compare him with and your body parts are fully matured.”
“Ha! If that’s true, I might go up in flames. Because he used to get me pretty damn hot, even with my teen-age body parts.”
Piper roared with laughter, flipping her hair over her shoulder as they exited the salon. “Such a drama queen.”
“Well, takes one to know one.” She smacked Piper on the arm, maneuvering through the throng of late-afternoon shoppers. “There’s no lack of theatrics in your life either.”
They laughed and continued toward the Starbucks kiosk.
* * * * *
Blake Malone pulled his pickup truck into Katie Benson’s driveway with mixed emotions. As he killed the engine, opened his door, and stepped out, he glanced around the surroundings. At dusk, darkness had slowly rolled in and crickets chirped. A blanket of warm humidity covered his skin.
He drew a deep breath of thick, murky air as the strain from driving three hundred miles was replaced by another kind of tension. He and Katie had finally reached the end of avoidance. The moment their past confronted the present.
It had been ten long years since he’d almost made the biggest blunder of his life. Well, the second most disastrous mistake. The first—getting himself shot by the gunman high on PCP he’d pulled over for speeding almost fifteen years ago—ended his barely begun law enforcement career.
He brushed his palms over his jeans and shook his head in self-reproach. This wasn’t the time to rehash old failures. He needed a clear head for the job he’d come to do.
Katie’s father, Thomas, had done a good job making up for the absence of a mother with both his kids. Hell, he’d done a pretty good job with Blake, if truth were known.
At twenty-four, Blake had been living a nightmare when the Bensons took him in. They’d hired him on the spot to act as personal bodyguard for the family.
After a rough childhood of always getting into trouble at school or with one foster family or another, Blake had finally settled down to the career of his dreams.
Thanks to a few good people, he was on the right track for the first time in his life. He finished the academy at the top of his class and was working hard to advance his police career.
One fateful night had ended it all.
He’d landed in the hospital clinging to life, shot three times. Forced into an early retirement, he’d met Thomas Benson through a mutual friend, and the rest was history.
Pushing his thoughts back to the present, he focused on Katie’s quaint, suburban neighborhood. There were houses on every side and few vacant lots. He was pleased to see the yards neatly trimmed without dense patches of wild growth. He inhaled the scent of fresh-cut grass.
The neighborhood looked to be filled with working-class families. It wasn’t home to the upper crust, which Katie could well afford. Swing sets in backyards and basketball hoops decorated a few of the driveways. Laughter of children playing and the sound of pots clanking as mothers prepared dinner came from every angle. This was the epitome of the average American family.
Her brother, Garrett, and his wife lived in a fancy house securely set in an elegantly designed gated community. Katie was clearly making a statement by choosing to live on her teaching salary instead of her trust fund.
Admiration for her grew. He’d known she was unique but seeing the difference firsthand made it more tangible. His heart swelled, and he tamped the riotous emotions elicited by the reality of Katie Benson.
Forcing his mind back to business, discomfort niggled as he tried to envision her residence from the eyes of a predator. Blake regretted waiting so long to come for a visit. Especially after he’d learned from his boss that she’d been on a mission to find Mr. Right.
He wondered if Katie knew her friend, Piper, had become so chummy with her father. From what had been relayed to him, Piper sounded like a regular motor mouth. Blake chuckled.
Staying away was intentional. He wanted the infatuation they’d both been toying with to die out. At the time, his back had been shoved against the wall, and he’d responded by convincing her he didn’t care, a complete falsehood. He swallowed the bitter taste.Not one of your finer moments, Malone.
Eleven years was too big an age gap, not to mention her father being his employer. It might have been unwise to break all ties, though. Maybe if they’d remained close friends, she would have confided in him, and he could have advised her not to get involved with this McDonald character.
Blake should have been running background checks on all Katie’s companions. Why Thomas Benson hadn’t insisted, he still didn’t understand. He’d made a remark about severing the umbilical cord or some such nonsense. Blake had definitely missed something between his boss and Katie before she’d gone off to school.
Thomas had always been protective of his family. Blake knew he still kept tabs on his daughter. He just insisted on being less obvious. That’s why Blake had a job. Nevertheless, Katie shouldn’t have to deal with unwelcomed pursuit by any man. No woman should.
Katie had always been too friendly for her own good. Her kindheartedness made her vulnerable. But that was about to change. If he had anything to say about it, she’d agree to come home to her father’s estate, and then Blake could keep a proper eye on her. He’d given himself a week to convince her. School would be out on break in a month or so. Maybe she could get a transfer. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, deciding to master one hurdle at a time.
The sound of an electronic garage door opening snagged his attention, and he turned to see her step out and walk toward his truck.
A shot of adrenaline pulsed through his veins, and his dick stiffened. Holy shit! He swallowed the saliva before he drooled. She was even more beautiful than she’d been at Garrett’s wedding five years earlier.
Her light brown hair was longer and shined with blonde streaks. It flowed over her sun-kissed shoulders in silky waves. She had on pink shorts and a white tank top. A pair of mint green flip-flops separated her feet from the ground. Her toenails were painted pinkish orange.
He battled to contain the urge to devour the luscious little package bouncing toward him.
“Are you going to stand out here all night?” she asked, giving him a sassy grin. Her sea blue eyes sparkled with mischief.
He took a step toward her. “I thought I might.” He smiled, leaned down, and gave her a hug, keeping his hips back so she wouldn’t notice his boner. He kissed her on the cheek then brushed his hand over her hair before letting her go.
She smelled freshly showered and feminine with a light, floral scent, and his cock hardened further, straining against his jeans.
“What were you doing out here?” She fiddled with her wristwatch, a sure sign of nervousness, while she backed away a few inches.
He glanced at her house, then the two on either side. “I was taking in your homestead.” He grinned. “You have a nice house. The neighborhood looks decent enough.”
“Really?” She tilted her head and raised her brow, reminding him of her playful personality. “I thought you’d prefer I live in a pompous, gated community like Garrett.”
He didn’t expect her to be easy on him. She never had before. “I would. But at least you don’t live out in the woods with no neighbors to watch out for you.”
She nodded. “I like it here. All my neighbors are nice. We watch out for each other.” Her hand tapped his elbow, and she led him into the garage. “You can park your truck in here if you want. There’s plenty of room.”
A large two-car garage attached to one end of the house held her small car. There was a neat line of shelving on one wall stacked with boxes and various items.
“Okay. I’ll move it in a bit.” He was eager to see inside her house. The scent of Italian sauce drifted through the air. “Did you make dinner? Something smells good.”
She smiled and opened the interior door, leading him into the kitchen. “Yes, I made spaghetti.”
“Mmm. I’m starved.” Maybe this wouldn’t be so tough after all. She seemed to be treating him with the comfort of old friends, inviting him into her home.
“I just have to make the pasta and heat up the garlic bread. Let me give you a quick tour, and then you can go move your truck and bring in your suitcase.” She led him through the house.
The interior was bigger than it looked from the outside. A set of sliding glass doors led out to the patio. “You always did like to cook.” He grinned.
Her home was welcoming, decorated in earth tones. The kitchen, elegantly modern with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, opened to a great room of comfortable looking furniture. An entertainment center with a flatscreen television and stereo equipment covered one wall. Mild pop music played softly, soothing the nerves after a hard day’s work. Scented candles flickered on the low oak coffee table.
Family photos decorated the shelves on either side of the television. He was surprised to see his picture among several of the shots. She apparently wasn’t too put out with him if she wanted to look at his mug every day.
She filled a large pot with water and placed it on the stove. “You can thank Maria for teaching me how to cook. Tonight’s dinner is her recipe.” He knew the Bensons housekeeper, Maria, was like a mother to Garrett and Katie. Their own mother ran off with a younger man before Blake came to work for them.
He placed his palm over his stomach. “Now I’m really anticipating the meal. No one cooks like our Maria.”
Katie scrunched her nose. “Wait until you taste my cooking.” Her lips turned up in a grin. “You might be surprised how much improvement can be made with ten years of practice.”
Just like that, the tension in the room sizzled. He didn’t want to think she referred to sexual practice, reminding him of her virginal state that blasted night. He chose to ignore her remark and continued to roam around the great room, admiring her house. “Your home is very nice, Katie.” He smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
She blushed. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.” She led him down a short hallway to the guest bedroom.
Pointing across the hall, she said, “The bathroom is over there, and this is your room.”
White plantation shutters covered two large windows bordered with floral curtains that matched the thick comforter on the oak framed queen-size bed. Two nightstands with a matching dresser and a lounge chair completed the furnishings. The scent of berries gave the room a clean, fresh ambiance, as if this were a luxury hotel.
Blake grinned. Some things were imbedded in one’s makeup. You could take the girl out of the indulgence, but you couldn’t take the luxury out of the girl.
“So.” She fidgeted with her watch as her weight shifted from one foot to the other. “Do you want to move your truck and get your stuff?”
“Sure.” Blake sensed a smattering of tension remained between them. Once, they had been the best of friends. He’d like nothing more than to see that relationship restored.
He went outside while she finished preparing dinner. Now that they’d made it through this first meeting, Blake was confident they’d get more comfortable as time went by. He wasn’t so certain his cock would agree. He braced himself for a long week of torture and plenty of cold showers.
© Joyce Palmer
Author: Joyce Palmer
Publisher: Cobblestone Press
Katie Benson left her life of privilege to become a high school teacher a few hundred miles from home. If only she could find a man who lights the flames of her desire as well as her former bodyguard, life would be complete.
Benson Security Director, Blake Malone has kept the little princess at arms length out of self-preservation after one night of almost crossing the line, ten years ago.
An unwanted admirer forces the two, with unfinished personal business, into close quarters where the spark of attraction continues to ignite, this time the boundaries of propriety are blurred.