Heiress Behind the Headlines (5 page)

BOOK: Heiress Behind the Headlines
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

That was the squalid little truth, he thought, watching her face now that he’d slapped that down on the table, out in the open, between them. He thought a faint flush rose high on her cheekbones, but it could as easily have been the heat of the crackling fire.

He wanted her to admit it. To admit that this was why she’d turned up here, like his own personal ghost. That he was only the means to an end. He knew exactly what securing him—marrying him, even—would do for Larissa, what it would mean for her reputation and prospects. He should be more sympathetic to her plight. Weren’t his grandfather’s latest decrees about Jack’s duty to marry well, and soon, much the same kind of pressure? Wasn’t he taking this time on the island to come to terms with that inevitability? He really ought to relate.

But Larissa sighed, musical and put-upon all at once, and any sympathy he might have had vanished. They were nothing alike. Jack spent every moment of his day doing his duty, making himself the worthy successor to his family’s legacy. Larissa only wanted unrestricted access to her family’s money, the better to spend her life shopping it all away. He felt his jaw tense.

“I have other sources of income,” she said, waving a hand as if such sources grew thick in the trees. But then, in their world of endless privilege, stretching back across centuries, they often did. “It was Theo who was so obsessed with Whitney Media. He and my father and their high-stakes corporate games. I begin to nod off to sleep whenever
the topic comes up. I’m getting remarkably drowsy now.”

Jack laughed then, despite himself, and moved across the room in a few sure steps. He leaned down toward her, bracing himself on the arms of the chair, bringing his face far too close to hers as he trapped her in her seat.

“Let me tell you what I think,” he said, satisfaction surging through him at the faint alarm that flashed across her face. At least it was an honest reaction.
Any
reaction.

“If you feel you must,” she drawled, but he could see the pulse beat against the tender flesh of her neck, and he knew she was not nearly as unmoved as she pretended. He leaned closer.

“I think that you came to this island in the worst of the fall storms to drag me into this little battle you pretend you don’t care about.” He could smell her scent again, and it made his body harden, though he still held himself just slightly apart from her. There were many forms of revenge, after all, and not all of them required that he betray himself. “As you keep pointing out, I have become so boring, haven’t I? Positively respectable. Not one of your usual doomed bad-boy projects or untrustworthy celebrity lovers. I’d be the perfect ally, wouldn’t I, Larissa? I’d make you look reborn. Your father would eat right out of your hand if you brought him me on a silver platter, wouldn’t he?”

It was a fantastic plan, Larissa thought, her eyes searching his dark, commanding gaze. Brilliant, even. Nothing thrilled her father more than pedigrees that matched and/or exceeded his own. Bradford Whitney cared about nothing at all save the Whitney legacy, by which he meant his own continued wealth and consequence and all that entailed. Larissa had long been a grave disappointment to him in this area.

When she had brought Theo Markou Garcia home as her boyfriend, and had eventually made him her fiancé, she had mostly been interested in the fact that he came from absolutely nothing—a sin she’d been certain Bradford could never overlook. But she had underestimated Theo. He had taken over the company, becoming the son Bradford had never had in the process. That he had finally left her was, Larissa knew, something Bradford would never find it in him to forgive her. Much less the fact that Theo’s near-miraculous ability as CEO to make Whitney Media rake in profits had disappeared with him.

But Jack Endicott Sutton would be exactly the right kind of salve for Bradford’s bruised ego and slightly depressed portfolio. Any suggestion that Larissa, the great disappointment and stain upon the Whitney name, could link herself to a man like Jack? The single heir to two separate great American families, from Mayflower Boston and Upper Ten Thousand New York both—and the vast fortunes that came with each? A man who had transformed himself from notorious if beloved rake to dependable, hardworking, worthy successor to all his family’s innumerable riches? Bradford would be beside himself.

Larissa imagined that somewhere in the depths of the iconic Whitney mansion that sprawled over a whole city block on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, her father was suddenly filled with an unimaginable if unclear joy, simply because the very
idea
of linking the Gilded Age splendor of the Whitney name to the august Bostonian Endicotts and the clever Sutton robber-barons-turned-bankers had occurred to someone, somewhere. It would be like his personal Christmas.

But, of course, she’d had no such plan. She’d been running away from all of that noise and obligation since the day she’d woken up from her coma, more or less, and she’d
had no plans to return to New York City at all—much less to Whitney Media, and she’d certainly had no plans to involve herself in some doomed scheme toward respectability with Jack Sutton.

Jack was the very last man she would ever have sought out. Ever. She couldn’t trust herself anywhere near him, as tonight had already proven beyond any shadow of a doubt. But, of course, in order to explain to him why that was so, she would be forced to admit the kind of power he had always had over her. She couldn’t do it. There was too much to lose—and anyway, she was used to his low opinion of her. It was nothing new. She told herself it hardly even hurt.

“So quiet,” he murmured, taunting her, his voice snapping her back into the tense, dangerous present. Where his mouth was much too close to hers, his eyes were much too knowing, and the banked fire he lit in her was stoked to a worrying blaze already. “Did you really think that you could fool me? Did you imagine that your presence here would be casual in some way? This island is as inhospitable as they come. There can be no reason at all for you to be here at this time of year. None. Save one.”

“You are so conceited,” she managed to say, fighting her voice’s urge toward a much-too-telling tremor.

“You’re a terrible actress,” he replied, far too easily.

He squatted down in front of her chair, still caging her between his strong arms, but now his muscled thighs spread open before her and his face, his mouth, were much too close to hers. She dared not move. He was so big, so male, and as dangerous as he was compelling. She wanted to leap out of this chair and run, screaming, from the room—the inn—the island. But more than that, she wanted to lean forward and touch him. Both propositions were terrifying.

“Why don’t you just admit what you came for?” His voice was mocking. Knowing. Insinuating.

Larissa sucked in a deep breath. And then, because she knew that he would never believe her, that he saw only what he wanted to see—only what she’d worked so hard to show to the world for so long, and never anything else, never anything beneath that mask—she told him the truth.

“I had no idea you’d be here,” she said quietly. Matter-of-factly. Because she found she needed to say it, and it was safe here, now, where she would never be believed. Perhaps not even heard. His expression was already shifting to one of total disbelief. “It never occurred to me that there would be an Endicott in residence on Endicott Island. Why would it, at this time of year? I just put my car on the ferry headed for the most remote place I could find, and here I am. There’s no plot. No grand scheme to prove something to my father. I’ve thought as little about him—and Whitney Media—as possible.”

His mouth flattened, as if she’d disappointed him—again. She was entirely too familiar with that particular expression. And she told herself she was an idiot if she expected anything different, even from him. Even for a second.

“Of course not,” he said sardonically. “Because you’ve suddenly been seized with your typical wanderlust, except for some reason you chose this island instead of, say, Rio. The Amalfi coast. Anywhere in the South Pacific.”

That he didn’t believe her was practically written across him, tattooed onto his smooth warm skin. Flashing before her like all the bright lights of New York City. And, therefore, it was safe for her to tell him truths she would never have dared mention if she’d had the slightest worry he might believe them.

This is who you are,
a small voice pointed out inside of her, condemning her.
This twisted thing, good for nothing but lies and truths hidden away like ciphers.

“Maybe I’m trying to reinvent myself,” she said, making sure she smirked as she said it, making sure he couldn’t give her words any weight, any resonance. “Maybe this is simply part of a period of reinterpretation.” She shrugged her shoulders. “A deserted island in the late fall rains. What better place for rediscovery?”

He shook his head, letting his hands move from the arms of the chair. He touched her, tracing a pattern along her curled-up legs from knees to ankles, making that fire rage and burn anew. Then, unexpectedly, he took her hands between his. Her heart jolted in her chest. So hard she stopped breathing.

“You’re so pretty when you lie,” he said, almost tenderly, which made the words feel that much more like knives. Sharp and brutal. “You make it into a kind of art. You should be proud of it, I think.”

She didn’t know why she should feel so heartbroken, so sick, as if he’d ripped her into tiny pieces by acting as she’d known he would—as she’d wanted him to act. What did she expect? That somehow, Jack Endicott Sutton would see through all her layers of defense and obfuscation to what lay beneath? She didn’t want that. She’d never wanted that. So why did it hurt so much that he didn’t do it anyway?

But she knew why. She’d always known. There was something between them—something that sang in her whenever he touched her, something in the way he looked at her, that made her imagine things could be different. That
she
could be different. She hadn’t been able to cope with the idea of that five years ago. And whatever he’d seen in her then, she’d ruined it. She knew she had, because that was what she did. That was who she was. She ruined whatever she touched.

Why should Jack be any different?

“I see,” she said. She looked down at their hands, linked
now, the heat of that connection moving through her in ways she should not allow. But she didn’t move. She angled a look at him. “You are permitted to have a disreputable past, and then change when it suits you. But not me. Is that because you’re a man?”

“It’s because you’re Larissa Whitney,” he replied, and there was laughter in his gaze then. She wished it warmed her instead of chilling her to the bone. She wished she could drop this act, and make him really, truly believe her. She thought she could, if she dared enough. If she was brave enough.

But she had never been anything but weak. She doubted she ever would be. She took the easy road, because at least that way she could keep part of herself hidden. Safe. She had always tried too hard to keep something, somewhere, some kind of safe. Surely that counted for something.

And even if it didn’t, it was all she had.

“Fine, then,” she said, smiling back at him, even letting out her own little laugh in reply. Letting herself seem complicit—in on the joke. The very idea of her changing was
hilarious,
wasn’t it? Impossible! She should know. She was the one trying to do it.

“Come have dinner with me.” Jack’s voice was rich and dark, and made her yearn for things she couldn’t have, things she knew he’d never offer. Made her heart beat too fast, her blood pump too quickly through her limbs. He was seduction incarnate, and the worst part, she knew, was that he didn’t really want her. Not
her.
He wanted the projection. The act. He wanted who he thought she was. And still, even knowing that, she wanted him like this. Like she might die if she didn’t taste him again.

“Said the spider to the fly,” she replied, smiling over the crack in her voice, pretending she was trying to sound husky, alluring.

“I think we both know that the only one here weaving any webs is you,” Jack said. But he didn’t seem to care about that. There was a cool, assessing glint in his dark gaze, as if he was reading her too closely. He stood up then, pulling her to her feet in an easy, offhand demonstration of his effortless strength, his matter-of-fact physical prowess. It made her feel fluttery. “And who knows? Maybe you can convince me to be a part of your little plot after all. Why not try?”

He was so arrogant. So sure that he saw right through her, that he knew everything. All her games. All her plans. The whole of her shallow little self. She didn’t know if she wanted to punch him—or burst into tears. She wisely decided to do neither. She doubted he would react well to either extreme. And she doubted she would recover.

“Why should I?” she asked lightly, though it cost her to keep up the act. “You appear to already have your mind made up.”

“Convince me,” he said, in that low, stirring voice. His dark eyes were molten hot, so hungry and yet so shrewd, and they made her ache. They made her feel vulnerable, foolish.
Lost.
And then he smiled, and made everything that much worse. “I dare you.”

CHAPTER FOUR

T
HE
Endicott house dominated the southern half of the small island, announcing its grandeur and former ownership of all it surveyed in stark, unmistakable terms. The private lane wound down along the rugged, rain-lashed coast, no doubt affording spellbinding views toward the mainland on clear summer days, and then etched a path through the thick and silent woods. Pine trees stretched like tall, silent sentries on all sides, blocking out the dark, starless sky far above. Only when the narrow road finally climbed the last, far hill did the house reveal itself in all its glory, straddling the summit as it squared off, genteel and well-mannered, against the sea beyond.

Larissa was no stranger to beautiful, even iconic houses. She had lived in them all of her life. And yet she still felt her heart beat a little bit faster as she took that final turn in the battered, rocky dirt road. She let the car slow, and looked up at what Jack, with his typical upper-class New England understatement, had referred to as the Endicott “summer cottage.” Like most seasonal dwellings of the same type, all belonging to members of the same blue-blooded social strata as Jack, the house had a name. This one was called Scatteree Pines. It was an affectation of the very wealthy, Larissa well knew, with their multiple houses in various destinations, to distinguish them by the names bestowed
upon the different polished plaques that hung near each front door.

BOOK: Heiress Behind the Headlines
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Stargazey Nights by Shelley Noble
Truths of the Heart by Rockey, G.L.
A Whisper of Desire by Bronwen Evans
Red on Red by Edward Conlon
Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
The Crimson Shield by Nathan Hawke