C6 Where Danger Hides: Chapter Six
Taylor had to force herself to eat half the sandwich Carlos served. In any other situation she would have wolfed it down, but the grumbling in her stomach was stilled by the litany of information Noah laid out for her and the knot of nervousness that kept growing larger.
Carlos cleared the plates and refilled her wineglass before disappearing somewhere into the nether regions of the plane. She’d kicked off her shoes and Noah had stripped off his jacket and tie. If not for the intensity of the conversation or the tension radiating between the two of them, they might have appeared to be two people relaxing during a flight.
Noah was doing his best not to be dictatorial and Taylor was trying not to take offense at the arrogance that seemed to be a normal part of his personality. But the awareness was there, an invisible presence shimmering in the air.
As the plane cut through the darkened skies, hurtling her into a yawning pit of unknowns, Noah educated her on the story of Arroyo. From its start as an oil and gas lease company through its acquisitions and expansion, he was careful and concise. Her business-educated mind absorbed everything, filing bits and pieces away to pull out as she needed them. Josiah Gaines may have started out as a penniless nobody, but at his death, he could have bought and sold her grandparents one hundred times over.
“They didn’t think he was good enough to invite into their house.” Her voice was bitter. “Do you know they paid someone to get him drunk and take pictures of him in bed with some woman? They showed those pictures to my mother and it nearly destroyed her, but she insisted on confronting Josiah. My grandparents practically locked her away until they got her back to Tampa. Thirty-one years ago, things were a lot different from what they are now.”
“I can’t believe he just let her go. That isn’t his style.”
Rage flashed across her face. “According to my grandmother’s letter, he tried every way in the world to see her. They shipped her out of the country when they found out she was pregnant, gave him a note supposedly from her telling him to leave her alone and told her he’d married the woman he was in bed with.”
“Jesus.” Noah rubbed his hand over his face. “They certainly managed to destroy a lot of lives. But he threw himself into building Arroyo and the results are obvious.”
“Until all this happened,” she pointed out.
“Until now,” he agreed.
“I know this is a dumb question and you’ve probably already checked, but did you look at his calendar for the last day he was in the office?”
Noah grimaced. “Yes, but it certainly seemed a dead end.”
“What do you mean?”
He leaned forward, arms resting loosely on his knees, frustration in every line of his body. “I had Carmen send me what was on it. He had lunch with Howard Rivas, an old friend who handles all the insurance for Arroyo. Nothing out of the ordinary there.”
“And that was it?”
“Then he ordered the plane and said he felt like visiting some of the plants. Carmen said he was very low-key about it, although he seemed to be hiding some kind of tension.”
Taylor crossed her legs and rolled the stem of her wineglass between her fingers. “Did he often take trips like that?”
“Yes. No.” Noah spread his hands. “Not as much as he used to. He’d been sending Kate Belden on what he called the look-sees for quite a while. But he was still trying to come to terms with you and with Laura’s death. Carmen and I just assumed he wanted some time away from everything to get his head back on straight.”
“And who is Carmen?”
Noah actually smiled. “Josiah’s secretary. Now yours. A spitfire with a computer for a brain. Sometimes I think she should have been running the company.”
“If she was close to Josiah, she won’t be any too happy to see me,” Taylor predicted.
Noah shook his head. “Not true. She’ll see you as his extension.” He studied Taylor’s face. “Let her help you. She can make your life much easier if you do.”
“What kind of plants did he visit?”
“Farm implement and machinery manufacturing. He had contracts to sell all over the world.”
Taylor chewed her thumbnail. “That doesn’t sound very ominous.”
“No. It doesn’t. And it’s not a division that ever comes under any kind of scrutiny. The plants are all out in states like Idaho and Nebraska. I just figured they were good places for Josiah to do some thinking.”
“All right.” Taylor leaned back in her chair and sipped at her wine, her mind speeding like a race car. “Let’s leave that for a minute and get back to the people. I’ve got Carmen and Kate. And I can guarantee you I’ll be an unpleasant surprise as far as Kate’s concerned.”
“Probably,” Noah agreed.
Something in the tone of his voice told Taylor that Kate wasn’t one of Noah’s favorite people. She’d want to know more about that later.
“Any other key players I should know about?”
“Paul Hunter, corporate counsel. Kate’s lapdog.” He sighed. “Josiah refused to acknowledge it, one of his few weak spots. But I saw it and I don’t trust it. If there is something going on with Arroyo, I’d put my money on either or both of them.”
“And who should know better than you, as head of security?” Taylor hunched forward. “Who has been told about me and this whole setup? Am I just supposed to walk in tomorrow and say ‘Here I am’?”
“I’ve been keeping this pretty quiet while I tried to contact you. But today I had Carmen send out a company-wide memo. I contacted the board members personally.”
Taylor tilted her head. “And what did Carmen have to say?”
Noah drained the last of the coffee in his mug. “I checked in when I landed in Tampa. She said the grapevine is working overtime.”
“I’ll just bet.” She thought for a moment. “How did the board take it?”
“Better than the staff. I think Josiah was hoping to bring you onboard with Arroyo once the two of you got together. He’d been preparing them for changes when he got their proxies. They’re mostly old friends of his anyway, officers of other corporations on his level of wealth and stature and they had a healthy respect for him. I think they’ll be the least of our problems.” He unlocked his briefcase and handed her a manila envelope. “Checkbook. Credit cards. Arroyo ID tag. Passport.”
Her jaw dropped. “Passport? Am I going somewhere?”
He shrugged. “You might have to. You never know. Better to be prepared.”
“How did you get a photo to use? And the information to open the accounts?” She shook her head. “Never mind. I’m not sure I want to know.” She got up to refill her wineglass. “What else should I know? For instance, who’s taking care of the ranch since Josiah’s death?”
“Jocelyn Hart. She and her husband, Tony, run Rancho Arroyo. Your new home.”
“My new home,” Taylor said carefully.
“Josiah’s home. Now yours. It’s about forty minutes from downtown San Antonio. The name is more than window dressing, by the way. The ranch runs ten thousand head of cattle.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re kidding me.”
“Not for a second.” He shrugged. “There’s a full staff for both the ranch and the house. Jocelyn runs the house, Tony heads up the ranching operation. Jocelyn will take good care of you. She knows what she’s doing.” He hesitated in the act of bringing his cup to his lips, as if debating his next words.
Taylor cocked her head. “Something wrong? Are they going to attack me or anything?”
“No.” Noah finally swallowed some of his coffee. “On the contrary. Josiah pretty much left the Harts alone to run things and they’re a little nervous, Jocelyn especially, about you.”
“But why? She doesn’t even know me.” She frowned. “What did you tell her about me?”
“Very little. But she wants to make a good impression on Josiah’s daughter. She can be a very good friend, Taylor. I trust both of them.”
Taylor relaxed slightly. “That’s good to know.” He trusted the Harts, but did she trust Noah Cantrell? She wavered from one moment to the next.
“We’ll figure out time for you to meet with Tony and go over the ranch operation. Maybe take a riding tour.” He narrowed his eyes. “Do you ride?”
Taylor wanted to laugh. “Yes. I won’t embarrass myself. Or you. My God, I had no idea the scope of things I’d be stepping into.” She gulped half of her wine.
Noah removed the glass from her hand and set it aside. “Maybe you’d better cut back on this until we finish talking.”
She tried to reach for it to grab it back, but he gripped her wrists.
And there it was again, the heat that flared with the instant combustion of a Formula One engine, so incendiary it could have ignited the cabin. Their earlier encounter, rather than banking the fires, had only fed the flames.
We can’t keep doing this.
This wasn’t a devil riding only on Noah’s shoulders. She was just as securely in its grasp. She was like a child in a candy store, long deprived and now with a feast spread out before her.
“Noah?” Her voice was questioning, her eyes seeking answers. Tell him to back off. But just as in the bedroom, she was paralyzed in the grip of desire.
He stared at her for so long she began to feel uneasy. “God damn it,” he said at last and bent his head to capture her mouth.
She opened for him almost automatically and he slid his tongue in smoothly. She responded with a thrust of her own as if it were a given and pressed her body against his. Her breasts were crushed against his hard chest and there was no mistaking the thickness of his erection pressed against the softness of her belly. What was it about this man that made her take leave of her senses whenever he touched her? Made her instantly hot and wet, her pussy quivering for his touch?
He drew back his head and looked at her, his breathing not quite even. “Jesus. You make me crazy. I get too close to you and I lose my mind.” He lifted her, carried her to the couch and laid her back against the cushions before she could object.
When he pressed a button in the table next to the couch, the captain’s voice came over the speaker. “Yes, Mr. Cantrell?”
“Miss Scott and I are in the middle of a project we need to finish before we land. Can you tell Carlos not to disturb us until I buzz again?”
Taylor looked at him through eyes half-shut. This is true insanity. “They’ll know what we’re doing.”
“No. They won’t.” He raised an eyebrow. “Would you rather we went into the bedroom? Then there won’t be any question.”
Heat climbed Taylor’s cheeks.
“Let’s get something clear.” Noah pulled her blouse loose from her slacks and pushed it up to her neck. “You might have made the first move in San Antonio, but after that, it was my show.”
“I…” She swallowed and tried again. “I don’t…”
“Yes. You do. And the sooner you admit it, the sooner we can figure out how to take care of whatever this is between us and get on with business. The next week is going to be high pressure and you’ll be on display all the time. We can’t hide in a corner and fuck whenever the urge hits us. Which seems to be every five minutes.”
She struggled against his hold on her. “I was right. You’re an insufferable ass.”
A ghost of a smile teased at his lips. “I think the word you used was arrogant.”
“Why me?” She struggled to find words to give her some space “Surely you could have any woman you wanted, not some short, dumpy female who can’t begin to match your experience.”
He clenched his jaw so tightly she was afraid it would break. “I don’t know who’s been giving you such bad ideas about yourself, but you are more woman than any man should be expected to handle.” He traced the line of her breasts, paused at her waist then moved over her hips and thighs. “You have a wonderful lushness that makes my dick get hard when you even walk into a room. Everything about you shouts ‘female’. Does that answer your questions?”
He pushed her gently back against the cushions and unzipped the fly front of her slacks. With her legs draped over his lap, he slid one hand inside her lacy bikini panties, satisfaction blatant in his eyes when he discovered her wetness.
“The body never lies, little girl.” He slid his fingers into her folds and found her swollen, sensitive clit. He pinched it lightly and pulled.
Her breathing stuttered and she tried to squeeze her thighs together. “I thought…we were having…a business discussion. You said…no sex while we talked business.” She could hardly get the words out.
“No. I said I wasn’t going to fuck you. And I’m not. Next time I bury my cock in you, we’ll be taking a lot of time to get it just right.” His breathing was ragged, his voice not quite steady. “But I can’t keep from touching you. I want to feel that cunt flex around my fingers again. And my cock in your mouth.”
Electricity surged through her entire body. “This is insane.”
“No.” His voice lowered, deepened. “This is what we need.”
He pressed the pad of his thumb against her hot, swollen nub and slid two fingers inside her pussy. He began stroking her slick inner walls with a gentle rhythm. The movement of his fingers and the touch of his hand were hypnotic. This man only had to look at her and she was aroused. Touching her set a match to the flame. She loved the feel of his skin against hers and the hard musculature of his body as he held her splayed on his lap. She knew she was soaked.
“Oh, God.” She shifted and tried to spread her legs but Noah held her in place.
He increased the speed of his strokes, pushing his thumb harder on her clit. When he raked his nail across the throbbing flesh, Taylor nearly came off the couch. “Easy, little girl.”
Don’t stop what you’re doing.
She wanted to come so badly she ached. She wanted his whole hand inside her. No, she wanted that hot erection inside her.
God, what am I turning into?
“Please,” she begged.
But the incredible feeling rolling through her body wiped away all rational thought. She was on a rollercoaster, climbing to the crest of the peak, reaching for the downhill slide. Everything was moving, faster and faster, waves of sensation consuming her.
Noah moved one thigh infinitesimally closer to him. When he slid a third finger inside her and began massaging her clit in a circular moment, the rollercoaster bumped higher and higher. He increased the speed of his thumb and fingers even more, stroking harder, his eyes never leaving her face. When she began panting and moaning, he pushed her bra up over her breasts and took one nipple between thumb and forefinger. He pinched it hard and she poured into his hand. The walls of her hot channel clenched around his fingers, pulling at them. The orgasm swept over her, shaking her so hard she pressed her fist into her mouth to keep from screaming.
Noah stroked and petted her until the last shudders died away and her head dropped back. When her breathing settled to a semblance of normal, he rearranged her clothes, zipping and tucking and helping her to sit up.
Dizzy from the aftereffects of desire, she took the glass of wine he fetched for her, draining the rest of the liquid. Studying Noah’s face, she tried to see behind it, but he wore an impenetrable mask. Why was she so attracted to him? He made her do things she had only imagined in her darkest dreams, seducing her into a world of raw sex she could easily become addicted to. Once they landed in San Antonio, he’d be sticking to her side like glue, leading her through the maze of corporate intrigue that awaited her. And there was the question again. How would they manage to keep from succumbing to the lust that held them in such an inexorable grip? And pretend to the world that it didn’t exist?
He had been right about one thing. This thing that burned between them wasn’t going away by itself.
“You make me so hard I can barely walk.” His voice was almost guttural. “Touching you, making you come, only makes me harder.”
He was sitting beside her again, stroking her back, watching her through heavy-lidded eyes. When her gaze dropped to his groin, she saw his fly was open and that enormous cock made her draw in her breath. Noah cradled it in one hand, moving his fingers idly up and down.
Although he had his hand pressed lightly against her spine, Taylor didn’t need him to tell her what to do. Or even ask her. She wanted to do what she’d missed during that one night. He was right. When it came to sex, he was controlling her and that very power made her tremble with unbelievable need.
As she looked at him saliva pooled in her mouth and shivers skittered along her spine. Still shaky from the orgasm, she slipped off the couch and kneeled in front of him. Taking his cock in one hand, she slipped the other under his testicles which were lying heavy against his thighs. She’d never done this before. No other man had appealed to her enough, tempted her to taste them. But, somehow, with Noah she wanted to touch every inch of him with her hands and her mouth. As she took possession of him, instinct took over.
She swirled her tongue over the head, licking up the salty bead of liquid shining on the purplish skin. When she pressed her tongue into the slit, she heard the sharp intake of his breath. Slowly, she took him into her mouth, sliding her lips down his immense length. She loved the silky feel of skin over the hardened steel of his shaft. Moving her lips and hand in concert, at the same time she used her fingernails to tickle his balls, lightly tangling the soft covering of hair.
He groaned, a harsh sound, and when she raised her eyes, Noah was watching her. The black pools of his eyes glowed with the now familiar look of lust. She held his gaze as she continued sucking and stroking, teasing and caressing. At first, she gagged as her throat tried to close against the intrusion but she made herself relax and his cock slid in more easily. As he’d done to her, drawing out the sensations, refusing to let her reach that plateau, so she did to him now.
He groaned again and wound his fingers through her hair, holding her head and moving it, increasing her speed. She squeezed his balls and felt them tighten up.
“Jesus Christ, Taylor. Do it.” His voice was harsh with need.
She wanted to laugh at the power she suddenly realized she had over this powerful man. Guided by the pressure of his hands, she pumped faster and sucked harder and increased the pressure on his balls. When he pushed down harder on her head, she knew he was ready to come. In seconds, the first splash of liquid hit the back of her throat. She pumped and sucked until the spasms stopped, swallowing every bit of the semen he shot into her.
At last he moved his hands from her head and she sat back. Carefully, she zipped his fly, tucked in his shirt and fastened the button at the waistband of his trousers.
Noah reached down and pulled her up to him, pressing his mouth to hers and sliding his tongue inside, licking every inch. Then he sat back and held out a hand to her to help her up.
“I wanted to taste myself in your mouth.” He rubbed a thumb over her lips. “It’s almost enough to make me hard again. God, Taylor. You’re in my blood.” He kissed her very softly then got up from the couch, picked up his briefcase and extracted a folder. “Your schedule for tomorrow. Starting with the personal shopper at eight-thirty.”
Taylor groaned. “Can’t we hold off on that for a while?”
He shook his head. “Appearance is everything. You are what you wear in this circle of people.” He was careful to take a seat far away from her.
“Then the executive staff? The board? All in one day?”
“Get it over with all at once.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “You and I need to carefully plan how we handle this. What you say. How you say it. It’s important that everyone believes you’re in control from the beginning.”
“In control.” She stared at him. “Don’t worry about me. I can handle it.”
“I have no doubt about that. You have the necessary brains and determination. I’ll see you have all the tools you need and I’ll be with you every minute of the time. Just as I promised. I owe a debt to Josiah and I mean to repay it.”
“How noble of you.”
“No.” His voice was hard, his eyes burning into hers. “Not noble. A matter of honor.”
Whatever else he might have said was lost as the speaker in the cabin buzzed to life. “Mr. Cantrell? We’ll be landing in fifteen minutes.”
Noah depressed the Speaker button. “Thanks. Would you let Carlos know?”
Carlos moved silently through the cabin, putting it to rights. Then he disappeared again to wherever he went. Taylor retreated to the bathroom to repair whatever damage the little interlude had created. When she returned, she and Noah belted themselves in. Moments later, the plane bumped gently onto the ground and they sped down the runway toward the terminals.
* * * *
Taylor’s watch, reset for Central time, read eleven o’clock when the plane rolled to a stop and the engines were switched off. Carlos came into the cabin, opened the door and flipped down the stairs.
Noah studied her face. “I have people waiting for us. Are you ready?”
Taylor swallowed hard. Did what she and Noah had been doing show in her expression? Would people guess? Would that be their first impression of her? She looked at Noah, his face lacking any expression at all. Well, she could be as composed as he could. She was Taylor Scott, after all. Daughter of Josiah Gaines. She took a deep breath and nodded. “As much as I’ll ever be.”
“Good. Here we go.”
Warm night air, moved by a soft breeze, washed over her as she followed Noah Cantrell off the plane. Floodlights cut into the darkness, lighting up a row of private planes in their tie-downs and the steel building that housed the offices for private aviation.
Two black Expeditions, twins of those in Tampa, stood waiting on the tarmac with three tall, lean and lethal-looking men leaning against them. Noah’s hand was at her elbow as they descended from the plane and he steered her toward the waiting vehicles. One of the men broke from the waiting group and came forward, nodding to Noah.
Do they all come out of the same mold? Taylor wondered. Is there a place that manufactures men like this and you just call up and order them? I’ll take twelve, please. Black suits, not gray. Hysterical giggles threatened to bubble from her lips.
The man and Noah shook hands. “Everything okay, amigo ?”
Noah nodded. “Not bad, under the circumstances. Tomas, say hello to Taylor Scott, your new boss. Taylor, meet Tomas Sandoval. He’ll head your personal security detail.”
He dipped his head once. “Miss Scott.”
“Security detail?’ With a shake of her head, she turned to look at Cantrell.
“He’s one of four men assigned to you. Handpicked by me.”
Tomas nodded. “We don’t want to alarm you, Miss Scott, but since Mr. Gaines’ murder we’re ramping things up. Noah—Mr. Cantrell—felt that since you’re a wild card being introduced into the equation, so to speak, he didn’t want to leave anything to chance.”
She looked up at Noah, stunned. “I’m in danger? You brought me out here so someone could kill me?”
The muscles in his face tightened. “Not if I can help it.”
Tomas looked from one of them to the other, a flash of something in his eyes. Then he opened the tailgate of one of the Expeditions. “I’ll get Miss Scott’s things stowed. Then we’d better get going. Charlie and I will be the trail car.”
Behind him on the tarmac, two black Expeditions stood with open doors. Tomas retrieved her luggage and placed it in the first vehicle, then handed the keys to Noah, nodded and walked toward the other SUV.
Then they were off.
Noah wound his way expertly along Interstate 10 leading out of San Antonio. It seemed to take forever to leave the city behind, but then she realized it wasn’t much farther than driving from downtown Tampa to its northern suburbs.
“You have a busy morning tomorrow, so I hope you sleep fast.”
Taylor looked at her watch and realized her whole life had changed in less than six hours. “I’ll do my best.” Her voice held an edge of sarcasm that Noah ignored.
“Open that folder I gave you. The personal shopper comes at eight-thirty. Then you and I meet for an hour to go over details of the corporation. We’ll have a conference call with the attorney who drew up the will so you have all the details straight. There’s a copy of it in there. I suggest you look at it before you go to bed.”
“While I’m sleeping fast.” She grinned.
He slid a glance at her. “This is serious business, Taylor.”
She wiped the smile from her face. “You don’t need to lecture me, Noah. I never doubted that for one minute. Especially since I’ve just become target number two.” She blew out a breath. “What else?”
“Your office at corporate headquarters and a review with Carmen. The executive staff. We’ll break for lunch, which will give you a breather. Then the board of directors.”
“What am I supposed to say to them?”
“That’s part of what we’ll discuss in the morning. And watch out for Kate Belden and Paul Hunter. They’ll want a one-on-one with you right away. Hold them off until you’ve got your sea legs under you. At least twenty-four hours.”
Oh, God. Could she handle this? Yes. The new Taylor Scott can handle anything. If only her bones would stop shaking.
“I’m curious,” she told him. “What would you have done if I’d said no? If I’d turned you down?”
“I told you. I wasn’t coming back to Texas without you. That was a given.”
A given. For a minute, Taylor had the feeling she was swimming in deep water—the tide had carried her far from shore and no one had given her a life jacket. Any minute now, she might drown.
“Heads-up.” Noah’s voice intruded on her thoughts as he turned left. “We’re at the ranch. Your role as queen of the empire is about to start.”
Taylor hadn’t been able to see much in the darkness except a vastness space rolling away from her. Now they pulled up to a massive stone entrance with an iron gate, the initials RA twined in the center. Noah reached out to punch codes into an electronic box and the gates swung wide.
The ranch stood at the end of a long, curving driveway, a massive, sprawling one-story building that was lit up like a ball park. Lights shone everywhere.
She looked at Noah. “Is something going on here?”
“No. Just Jocelyn’s idea of a proper welcome.”
As Noah pulled up in front of the house, the heavy wooden door opened and a man and woman walked out to the edge of the open porch. Taylor opened the passenger door and climbed out of the vehicle, her eyes on the woman.
Five-foot-six at a guess, her slim body as erect as a soldier’s and not a strand of her short blonde hair out of place. Her linen slacks had a crease sharp enough to cut paper and her short-sleeved sweater looked as if it had been custom-knitted for her.
The man was a head taller, lean and wiry, with thick dark hair and heavy eyebrows. In a blue chambray shirt and Levi’s, shod in boots Taylor was sure were custom made, he looked every inch the ramrod for a ranch. All that was missing was the ubiquitous Stetson.
Taylor was doubly conscious of her own rumpled appearance and wondered if on top of that, she reeked of sex. She forced herself not to pat her hair or smooth her clothes, nervous gestures that would give away her shaking knees. I’m in charge, she repeated to herself. Lifting her chin, she strode forward and held out her hand.
“You must be the Harts. I’m Taylor. Thank you for getting things ready on such short notice and waiting up for me. I apologize for the late arrival.”
The fine tremor in Jocelyn’s body communicated itself in a nervous smile. Her hand, when she clasped Taylor’s, shook slightly.
“Welcome to Rancho Arroyo, Miss Scott. I hope you find everything to your satisfaction.”
“I’m sure it will be. Mr. Cantrell tells me my…Josiah depended on both of you heavily to run things here. I hope you’ll do the same for me.”
Both Harts relaxed visibly, as if to say, ‘Good. You’re not here to fire us or tell us how to do our jobs.’
Tony curled his lips in a slight smile. “Noah would certainly know.” His voice was low and pleasant. “We had the pleasure of working with Josiah for fifteen years. Rancho Arroyo is our home.”
“And I hope it will be for a long time. I’m sure you can understand what a shock this has all been to me. Thank you for accommodating the situation.”
Taylor could sense Noah’s silent approval as he urged her forward.
Jocelyn gestured toward the doors. “Please let me show you to your rooms. You must be very tired and I know you have a long day ahead of you tomorrow.”
Taylor smiled at her. “Thank you.”
The first hurdle had been crossed. Without giving voice to it, she and Jocelyn had silently taken each other’s measure and exchanged mutual approval.
Noah stopped to exchange a few words with Tony as Taylor followed Jocelyn through a massive foyer and down a wide hallway off to the right.
Taylor was used to guest suites in her grandparents’ house and others she’d visited, but this one went beyond all of them. The living room was big enough to hold a party, with a fireplace and an office setup. A bay window curved out of one wall and a small round table and chairs had been placed there, making a cozy nook to eat. Off to the left, she saw the bedroom and, she was sure, a bathroom beyond description.
“If there’s anything you’d like changed, please tell me.” Jocelyn’s voice was tentative again. “I wasn’t sure you’d be comfortable in Josiah’s suite, but I’ll be happy to make the switch if you’d rather.”
Taylor shook her head. “I’m having enough trouble taking all this in as it is. I don’t think I’m quite ready to sleep in Josiah’s bed.”
Jocelyn smiled and warmth darkened her blue eyes. “I understand.” She looked at Noah, who’d come into the room, then back at Taylor. “Noah has informed me you and he will be meeting in the study in the morning and requested I have breakfast served in there. But first you’ll have to deal with Audrey and the wardrobe business. Would you like coffee first thing?”
That brought a real smile to Taylor’s mouth. Her system didn’t start without an initial intake of caffeine. “Thank you. I’d love it. That’s very kind of you.”
“I tried to tell Noah you could wait on the clothes for a day or two, but he insisted we had to do it now.”
“She has to project a certain image the minute she sets foot in that den of vipers.” His voice was strangely harsh. “You only get one chance to make a first impression.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about the kind of impression I make.” Taylor waved her hand. “But it’s fine. I’ll deal with it. No problem.”
“Would you like anything now?” Jocelyn asked. “Lupe’s gone to bed, but I could probably scare something up.”
“Lupe?” Taylor raised an eyebrow.
“Our wonderful, wonderful cook. She feeds us all. Whatever you’d like, just tell her and she’ll fix it.”
“I hate to ask, but is it possible to get some tea now?”
“No problem. I’ll get it myself.”
“Oh! Please don’t go to any trouble.”
Jocelyn’s smile was warm and reassuring. “It’s really not a problem at all. And it’s my pleasure. I know this has been quite a night for you.”
“She likes you,” Noah commented. “You handled things just right. The Harts’ loyalty can’t be bought and their friendship is a treasured thing. Josiah considered them like family.”
“That’s good to know.” Taylor kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the couch. “If Jocelyn and Tony are running a smooth operation here, it’s not to my advantage to change anything. They have to know I’m in charge, but I’m not here to disrupt things.”
He eyed her with speculation. “Think you’re up to what’s waiting for you tomorrow? Except for Carmen, they’ll all be looking to slit your throat.”
“How comforting. Let me tell you something, Mr. Cantrell.” She got up from the couch and went to stand by the bay window, hands shoved into the pockets of her slacks. “No one was harder to please than my grandparents, two people who made their displeasure with me known every minute of every day. Until I read my grandmother’s letter, I didn’t know why. But I promise you, there isn’t a person I’ll meet tomorrow who’ll be any harder to deal with than they were. You pulled me into this situation, but I didn’t come here to be bullied. By you or anyone else.”
A knock sounded at the door, interrupting her monologue. Noah opened it and Jocelyn came in carrying a tray with tea and a plate of cookies, which she placed on the round table by the window. “Noah, your suite is ready for you. I assumed you’d be staying here tonight.”
He nodded. “Thanks. For everything. I know how last minute all the arrangements have been.”
“My pleasure.” She turned to Taylor. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll turn in. We’ll be having an early start tomorrow.”
Taylor gave her a weary smile. “Thank you, Jocelyn. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Yes. I’ll have your coffee here at eight. Will that give you enough time to be ready?”
Taylor nodded. “More than. Thanks again.”
“Fine. Good night, then.” She was at the door when she turned back toward the room. “I know you have a full schedule, but Tony and I want you to know whenever you’re ready, we’d like to sit down and explain the ranch operation to you.”
“As soon as I figure out what I’m doing.” She unclipped her hair and ran her fingers through it. Fatigue and the hours of tension had caught up with her. “In the meantime, if you just keep things running as they are, I’d be very grateful.”
“Of course.” And she was gone.
“Your suite?” Taylor looked at Noah with curiosity. “Do you live here at the ranch?”
“No. I have a home in San Antonio. But there were many nights I needed to stay here. Right now, I’ll be here for as long as it takes to get you settled in.”
Taylor’s senses went on full alert. Nights. Would those nights include more of the addictive sex that gripped them? How the hell am I supposed to handle this and find my equilibrium in this situation at the same time? Especially with a man who could easily consume me if I let him?
“All the sleeping areas are suites,” he went on. “In case you wondered. Josiah designed it that way.”
“Oh.” Taylor poured tea into one of the delicate china cups then gestured with the teapot. “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons. Just as he did for everything else.” She stirred sweetener into the hot liquid and squeezed a wedge of lemon, collecting her thoughts. “About tomorrow.”
“I think…” he began, but Taylor held up her hand to stop him.
“When I discovered what my grandparents had done, they were both dead and there was nothing I could do to make them pay. Josiah’s rejection didn’t help. When you showed up at my office, my first inclination was to tell you to take the will and stuff it. But then I thought maybe by doing this, I can achieve some kind of retribution for my mother.” She paused, weighing her words. “Once you’ve learned to live in a situation where any variation provokes the worst kind of emotional abuse, and not shatter under it, you can do anything.” She closed her eyes then snapped them open. “Anything.”
Noah looked at her with a strange light in his eyes. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have thought it was respect.
“There is far more of Josiah in you than you can even begin to know.”
She gave a short laugh. “A compliment? Am I hearing right?”
“Just consider it a quick assessment. This won’t be a cake walk, Taylor, but I’m beginning to think you can do it.”
“We’re in for a fight on all fronts, aren’t we?” Her smile was rueful.
“More than you know.” He came to stand beside her, took the cup from her hands and put it down on the table. He rested his big hands on her shoulders. “You’re nothing like either Josiah or I expected. You have a sharp mind, a wicked tongue and a fearlessness that you’ll need starting tomorrow. I had my doubts but he made the right decision.”
More compliments. She had to remind herself not to take them too seriously. She wasn’t foolish enough to think it put her on any kind of equal footing with this man, but she was grateful for the praise just the same.
“God, I hope so.” She desperately wanted to lean her head on his chest and draw from his strength, but that would show a weakness she couldn’t afford. He might assume command when they were naked with each other, but, fully clothed, she gave up no control to anyone. She’d made that clear and she couldn’t afford to ease back in any way.
Then he threw her a curveball. He bent his head and kissed her. A light brush of his lips against her, a breeze that dissipated so quickly she wasn’t even sure she’d been touched at all. Its very gentleness surprised her and unsettled her, an unexpected gesture from a man with a constant undercurrent of anger and a healthy dose of arrogance.
“Get some rest,” he called over his shoulder as he headed for the door. “You’ll need it.” Then he stopped to look at her, the supreme confidence back on his face. “And starting tomorrow night, don’t lock your door.”
Taylor just stared after him. Dealing with the corporate complexities of Arroyo would be a snap compared to handling this man. She was suddenly sure that Noah Cantrell would be her biggest danger of all.
* * * *
Even the sanctuary of his rooms didn’t ease the strain that had gripped Noah all day. He stripped off his clothes and turned his shower on full blast. Under the pounding of the hot water, the tension began to ease from his muscles.
Damn Josiah, anyway!
Noah had argued with him until he was hoarse, trying to get out of this obligation, but the old man would have none of it.
‘I don’t trust anyone but you with this. Just do it for me. It’s the only favor I’ve ever asked of you.’
That was true enough. For ten years, Josiah Gaines had been both his mentor and surrogate father, saving him when he would have destroyed himself. How could he have refused this?
But being with Taylor Scott was like standing too close to a fire. It required a lot of dissembling to control the heat she ignited in his body whenever he got within five feet of her. He had a constant erection and all he ever thought about was fucking her. Damn him for letting himself get involved with her in the first place. He should have walked out of that hotel room a month ago. Taylor Scott was trouble, just like all women, a lesson he’d learned in the most painful way possible.
Well, too late for that. Now he had to figure out how to put out this fire that threatened to consume him. Compounding everything was the sickening sensation that what he felt for Taylor was far more than lust. Cursing under his breath, he leaned against the shower wall, wishing he’d never heard of Taylor Scott. Wishing his heart didn’t show signs of coming to life again.
Ten bitter years had passed since a woman had nearly destroyed his life. His soul was permanently scarred, his emotions shackled. What would Miss Taylor Scott think if she knew his black secrets? He was sure the knowledge would change everything.
He turned the shower on to full cold, hoping the icy water would cool down his body and get his brain working. Otherwise he was cooked, because even in the midst of all this chaos, the thing uppermost in his mind was taking Taylor Scott to bed.