Authors: Catherine Mann
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Adult, #Mistresses, #Man Of The Month, #Princes
“I owe you that much and more.” He kissed her lightly on the lips without touching her anywhere else, lingering long enough to remind her of the reasons they clicked. Her breath hitched and it was all she could do not to haul him in closer for a firmer, deeper connection.
Pulling back, he started toward the door.
“Tony?” Was that husky voice really hers?
He glanced over his shoulder. So easily she could take the physical comfort waiting only a few feet away in his arms. But she had to keep her head clear. She had to hold strong to carve out an independent life for her and her son and that meant drawing clear boundaries.
“Just because I might be able to forgive you doesn’t mean you’re welcome in my bed again.”
“Hey.” Tony’s voice rumbled through the dark. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
Her heart jumped. She bolted upright, the cashmere afghan twisting around her legs and waist. Blinking fast, she struggled to orient herself to the surroundings so different from her apartment, but the world blurred in front of her from the dark and her own crummy eyesight. Shannon pressed her hands to the cushiony softness of a sofa and everything came rushing back. She was at Tony’s, in the sitting room outside where Kolby slept.
“It’s okay,” Tony continued to chant, squeezing her shoulder in his broad hand as he crouched beside the couch.
Swinging her feet to the ground, she gathered the haunting remnants of her nightmare. Shadows smoked through her mind, blending into a darker mass of memories from the night Nolan died, except Tony’s face superimposed itself over that of her dead husband.
Nausea burned her throat. She swallowed back the bite of bile and the horror of her dream. “Sorry, if I woke you.” Oh, God, her son. “Is Kolby all right?”
“Thank goodness. I wouldn’t want to frighten him.” She took in Tony’s mussed hair and hastily hauled on jeans. The top button was open and his chest was bare. Gulp. “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
“I wasn’t asleep.” He passed her glasses to her.
As she slid them on, his tattoo came into focus, a nautical compass on his arm. Looking closer she realized his hair was wet. She didn’t want to think about him in the shower, a tiled spa cubicle they’d shared more than once. “It’s been a tough night all around.”
“Want to talk about what woke you up?”
“Not really.” Not ever. To anyone. “I think my fear for Kolby ran wild in my sleep. Dreams are supposed to help work out problems, but sometimes, it seems they only make everything scarier.”
“Ah, damn, Shanny, I’m sorry for this whole mess.” He sat on the sofa and slid an arm around her shoulders.
She stiffened, then decided to hell with it all and leaned back against the hard wall of chest. With the nightmare so fresh in her mind, she couldn’t scavenge the will to pull away. His arms banded around her in an instant and her head tucked under his chin. Somehow it was easier to accept this comfort when she didn’t have to look in his eyes. She’d been alone with her bad dreams for so long. Was it wrong to take just a second’s comfort from his arms roped so thick with muscles nothing could break through to her? She would be strong again in a minute.
The grandfather clock ticked away minutes as she stared at his hands linked over her stomach—at the lighter band of skin where his watch usually rested. “Thanks for coming in to check on us, especially so late.”
“It can be disconcerting waking in an unfamiliar place alone.” His voice vibrated against her back, only her thin nightshirt between them and his bare chest.
Another whiff of his freshly showered scent teased her nose with memories of steam-slicked bodies.
“I’ve been here at least a dozen times, but never in this room. It’s a big house.” They’d met five months ago, started dating two months later…had starting sleeping together four weeks ago. “Strange to think we’ve shared the shower, but I still haven’t seen all of your home.”
“We tended to get distracted once our feet hit the steps,” he said drily.
True enough. They’d stayed downstairs on early dinner dates here, but once they’d ventured upstairs…they’d always headed straight for his suite.
“That first time together—” Shannon remembered was after an opera when her senses had been on overload and her hormones on hyperdrive from holding back “—I was scared to death.”
The admission tumbled out before she could think, but somehow it seemed easier to share such vulnerabilities in the dark.
His muscles flexed against her, the bristle of hair on his arms teasing goose bumps along her skin. “The last thing I ever want to do is frighten you.”
“It wasn’t your fault. That night was a big leap of faith for me.” The need to make him understand pushed past walls she’d built around herself. “Being with you then, it was my first time since Nolan.”
He went completely still, not even breathing for four ticks of the clock before she felt his neck move with a swallow against her temple. “No one?”
“No one.” Not only had Tony been her sole lover since Nolan, he’d been her second lover ever.
Her track record for picking men with secrets sucked.
His gusty sigh ruffled her hair. “I wish you would have told me.”
“What would that have changed?”
“I would have been more…careful.”
The frenzy of their first time stormed her mind with a barrage of images…their clothes fluttering to carpet the stairs on their way up. By the top of the steps they were naked, moonlight bathing his olive skin and casting shadows along the cut of muscles. Kissing against the wall soon had her legs wrapped around his waist and he was inside her. That one thrust had unfurled the tension into shimmering sensations and before the orgasm finished tingling all the way to the roots of her hair, he’d carried her to his room, her legs still around him. Again, she’d found release in bed with him, then a languid, leisurely completion while showering together.
Just remembering, an ache started low, throbbing between her legs. “You were great that night, and you know it.” She swatted his hand lightly. “Now wipe the arrogant grin off your face.”
“You can’t see me.” His voice sounded somber enough.
“Am I right, though?”
“Look at me and see.”
She turned around and dared to peer up at him for the first time since he’d settled on the couch behind her. Her intense memories of that evening found an echo in his serious eyes far more moving than any smile.
Right now, it was hard to remember they weren’t a couple anymore. “Telling you then would have made the event too serious.”
His offer to “help” her financially still loomed unresolved between them, stinging her even more than last weekend after the enormous secret he’d kept from her. Why couldn’t they be two ordinary people who met at the park outside her apartment complex? What would it have been like to get to know Tony on neutral, normal ground? Would she have been able to see past the pain of her marriage?
She would never know.
“Shannon.” His voice came out hoarse and hungry. “Are you okay to go back to sleep now? Because I need to leave.”
His words splashed a chill over her heated thoughts. “Of course, you must have a lot to take care of with your family.”
“You misunderstand. I
to leave, because you’re killing me here with how much I’ve hurt you. And as if that wasn’t enough to bring me to my knees, every time you move your head, the feel of your hair against my chest just about sends me over the edge.” His eyes burned with a coal-hot determination. “I’ll be damned before I do anything to break your trust again.”
Before she could unscramble her thoughts, he slid his arms from her and ducked out the door as silently as he’d arrived. Colder than ever without the heat of Tony all around her, she hugged the blanket closer.
No worries about any more nightmares, because she was more than certain she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep.
With a little luck and maneuvering, he could extend his week with her into two weeks. But bottom line, he
ensure her safety.
At five, he’d caught a catnap on the library sofa, jolting awake when Vernon called him from the front gate. He’d buzzed the retired sea captain through and rounded up breakfast.
His old friend deserved some answers.
Choosing a less formal dining area outside, he sat at the oval table on the veranda shaded by a lemon tree, Vernon beside him with a plate full of churros. Tony thumbed the edge of the hand-painted stoneware plate—a set he’d picked up from a local craftsman to support the dying art of the region.
Today of all days, he didn’t want to think overlong on why he still ate his same childhood breakfast—deep fried strips of potato dough. His mother had always poured a thick rich espresso for herself and mugs of hot chocolate for her three sons, an informal ritual in their centuries-old castle that he now knew was anything but ordinary.
Vernon eyed him over the rim of his coffee cup. “So it’s all true, what they’re saying in the papers and on the internet?”
Absurd headlines scrolled through his memory, alongside reports that had been right on the money. “My brother’s not a Tibetan monk, but the general gist of that first report from the Global Intruder is correct.”
“You’re a prince.” He scrubbed a hand over his dropped jaw. “Well, hot damn. Always knew there was something special about you, boy.”
He preferred to think anything “special” about him came from hard work rather than a genetic lottery win. “I hope you understand it wasn’t my place to share the details with you.”
“You have brothers and a father.” He stirred a hefty dollop of milk into his coffee, clinking the spoon against the edges of the stoneware mug. “I get that you need to consider their privacy, as well.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
He wished Shannon could see as much. He’d hoped bringing her here would remind her of all that had been good between them. Instead those memories had only come back to bite him on the ass when she’d told him that he was her first since her husband died. The revelation still sucker punched the air from his gut.
Where did they go from there? Hell if he knew, but at least he had more time to find out. Soon enough he would have her in his private jet that waited fueled and ready a mile away.
The older man set down his mug. “I respect that you gotta be your own man.”
“Thank you again.” He’d expected Vernon to be angry over the secrecy, had even been concerned over losing his friendship.
Vernon’s respect meant a lot to him, as well as his advice. From day one when Tony had turned in his sparse job application, Vernon had treated him like a son, showing him the ropes. They had a lot of history. And just like fourteen years ago, he offered unconditional acceptance now.
His mentor leaned forward on one elbow. “What does your family have to say about all of this?”
“I’ve only spoken with my middle brother.” He pinched off a piece of a churro drizzled with warm honey. Popping it into his mouth, he chewed and tried not think of how much of his past stayed imprinted on him.
“According to the papers, that would be Duarte. Right?” When Tony nodded, Vernon continued, “Any idea how the story broke after so many years?”
And wasn’t that the million-dollar question? He, his brothers and their lawyers were no closer to the answer on that one today than they’d been last night. “Duarte doesn’t have any answers yet, other than some photojournalist caught him in a snapshot and managed to track down details. Which is damn strange. None of us look the same since we left San Rinaldo as kids.”
“And there are no other pictures of you in the interim?”
“Only a few stray shots after I became Tony. Carlos’s face has shown up in a couple of professional magazines.” But the image was so posed and sterile, Tony wasn’t sure he would recognize his own sibling on the street. For the best.
His father always insisted photos would provide dangerous links, as if he’d been preparing them from the beginning to split up. Or preparing them for his death.
Not the normal way for a kid to live, but they weren’t a regular family. He’d grown accustomed to it eventually…until it almost seemed normal. Until he was faced with a regular person’s life, like Shannon’s treasured photos of her son.
He broke off another inch of a churro. His hand slowed halfway to his mouth as he got that feeling of “being watched.” He checked right fast—
Kolby stood in the open doorway, blanket trailing from his fist.
Uh, okay. So now what? He’d only met the child a few times before last night and none had gone particularly well. Tony had chalked it up to Kolby being shy around strangers or clingy. Judging by the thrust of his little jaw and frown now, there was no mistaking it. The boy didn’t like him.
That needed to change. “Hey, kiddo. Where’s your mom?”
Kolby didn’t budge. “Still sleepin’.”
Breaking the ice, Vernon tugged out a chair. “Wanna have a seat and join us?”
Never taking his eyes off Tony, Kolby padded across the tile patio and scrambled up to sit on his knees. Silently, he simply blinked and stared with wide blue-gray eyes just like Shannon’s, his blond hair spiking every which way.
Vernon wiped his mouth, tossed his linen napkin on the plate and stood. “Thanks for the chow. I need to check on business. No need to see me out.”
As his old friend deserted ship, unease crawled around inside Tony’s gut. His experience with children was nonexistent, even when he’d been a kid himself. He and his brothers had been tutored on the island. They’d been each other’s only playmates.
The island fortress had been staffed with security guards, not the mall cop sort, but more like a small deployed military unit. Cleaning staff, tutors, the chef and groundskeepers were all from San Rinaldo, older supporters of his father who’d lost their families in the coup. They shared a firm bond of loyalty, and a deep-seated need for a safe haven.
Working on the shrimp boat had felt like a vacation, with the wide open spaces and no boundaries. Most of all he enjoyed the people who didn’t wear the imprint of painful loss in their eyes.
But still, there weren’t any three-year-olds on the shrimp boat.
What did kids need? “Are you hungry?”
“Some of that.” Kolby pointed to Tony’s plate of churros. “With peanut bubber.”
Grateful for action instead of awkward silence, he shoved to his feet. “Peanut butter it is then. Follow me.”
Once he figured out where to look. He’d quit cooking for himself about ten years ago and the few years he had, he wasn’t whipping up kiddie cuisine.
About seven minutes later he unearthed a jar from the cavernous pantry and smeared a messy trail down a churro before chunking the spoon in the sink.
Kolby pointed to the lid on the granite countertop. “We don’t waste.”
“Right.” Tony twisted the lid on tight. Thinking of Shannon pinching pennies on peanut butter, for crying out loud, he wanted to buy them a lifetime supply.
As he started to pass the plate to Kolby, a stray thought broadsided him. Hell. Was the kid allergic to peanuts? He hadn’t even thought to ask. Kolby reached. Tony swallowed another curse.
“Let’s wait for your mom.”
“Wait for me why?” Her softly melodic voice drifted over his shoulder from across the kitchen.
He glanced back and his heart kicked against his ribs. They’d slept together over the past month but never actually
. And never through the night.
Damn, she made jeans look good, the washed pale fabric clinging to her long legs. Her hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back, still damp from a shower. He remembered well the silky glide of it through his fingers…and so not something he should be thinking about with her son watching.
Tony held up the plate of churros. “Can he eat peanut butter?”
“He’s never tried it that way before, but I’m sure he’ll like it.” She slipped the dish from his grip. “Although, I’m not so certain that breakable stoneware is the best choice for a three-year-old.”
“Hey, kiddo, is the plate all right with you?”
“’S okay.” Kolby inched toward his mother and wrapped an arm around her leg. “Like trains better. And milk.”
“The milk I can handle.” He yanked open the door on the stainless steel refrigerator and reached for the jug. “I’ll make sure you have the best train plates next time.”
“Wait!” Shannon stopped him, digging into an oversized bag on her shoulder and pulling out a cup with a vented lid. “Here’s his sippy cup. It’s not Waterford, but it works better.”
Smoothly, she filled it halfway and scooped up the plate. Kolby held on to his mother all the way back to the patio.
For the first time he wondered why he hadn’t spent more time with the boy. Shannon hadn’t offered and he hadn’t pushed. She sat and pulled Kolby in her lap, plate in front just out of his reach. The whole family breakfast scenario wrapped around him, threatening his focus. He skimmed a finger along his shirt collar— Hell. He stopped short, realizing he wasn’t wearing a tie.
She pinched off a bite and passed it to her son. “I had a lot of time to think last night.”
So she hadn’t slept any better than he had. “What did you think about after I left?”
Her eyes shot up to his, pink flushing her face. “Going to see your father, of course.”
“Of course.” He nodded, smiling.
“Of course,” Kolby echoed.
As the boy licked the peanut butter off the churro, she traced the intricate pattern painted along the edge of the plate, frowning. “I would like to tell Vernon and your lawyer about our plans for the week and then I’ll come with you.”
He’d won. She would be safe, and he would have more time to sway her. Except it really chapped his hide that she trusted him so little she felt the need to log her travel itinerary. “Not meaning to shoot myself in the foot here, but why Vernon instead of my lawyer? Vernon is my friend. I financed his business.”
“You own the restaurant?” Her slim fingers gravitated back to the china. “
are responsible for my paychecks? I thought the Grille belonged to Vernon.”
“You didn’t know?” Probably a good thing or he might well have never talked her into that first date. “Vernon was a friend when I needed one. I’m glad I could return the favor. He’s more than delivered on the investment.”
“He gave you a job when your past must have seemed spotty,” she said intuitively.
“How did you figure that out?”
“He did the same for me when I needed a chance.” A bittersweet smile flickered across her face much like how the sunlight filtered through the lemon tree to play in her hair. “That’s the reason I trust him.”
“You’ve worked hard for every penny you make there.”
“I know, but I appreciate that he was fair. No handouts, and yet he never took advantage of how much I needed that job. He’s a good man. Now back to our travel plans.” She rested her chin on her son’s head. “Just to be sure, I’ll also be informing my in-laws—Kolby’s grandparents.”
His brows slammed upward. She rarely mentioned them, only that they’d cut her out of their lives after their son died. The fact that she would keep such cold fish informed about their grandson spoke of an innate sense of fair play he wasn’t sure he would have given in her position.
“Apparently you trust just about everyone more than me.”
She dabbed at the corners of her mouth, drawing his attention to the plump curve of her bottom lip. “Apparently so.”
Not a ringing endorsement of her faith in him, but he would take the victory and focus forward. Because before sundown, he would return to his father’s island home off the coast of Florida.