Authors: Laurey Bright
The Older Man by Laurey Bright
Silhouette Special Editions - 761
Daphne Clair w/a Laurey Bright
Handsome widower Grant Morrison needed a temporary nanny, and who better than Rennie Langwell for the job? After all, she adored his children and was quite capable in the kitchen. Yet there was one role that Grant would never let her fill—wife.
The stubborn man seemed to think she was suffering from a schoolgirl crush. Somehow, Rennie would just have to show Grant Morrison just how grown-up she was… .
Grant wasn’t about to take advantage of Rennie’s feelings for him. A beautiful woman with her whole life ahead of her, Rennie didn’t deserve to be saddled with an older man and an instant family. But resisting Rennie would only add a few more gray hairs!
Rennie ran her fingers lightly up Ethan Ryland’s leg, under cover of the crowded table, only to have her hand firmly removed and clamped in his. Rennie laughed at him, her sea-green eyes calling him a prude, and he smiled back at her chidingly, muttering for her ears alone, “Behave yourself!”
“Just trying to help,” she whispered into his ear. Risking a glance at the cool-looking blonde woman across the table from them, she found herself fielding a speculative and not exactly approving stare from the man sitting next to Celeste Ryland. Grant Someone, she remembered vaguely, Celeste’s escort. Not bad looking for his age, which she guessed at fortyish. Slightly austere, with that aquiline nose and firm chin. His stylishly cut hair was greying at the temples, his blue eyes slightly chilly.
She turned as a hand touched her shoulder, bared by the strapless gold dress she wore. She’d been glad that Ethan had offered to bring her tonight — it meant her father hadn’t had a chance to see the dress beforehand, since he’d come ahead with her mother. She’d been glad on several counts to join Grant Whatsisname and his friends at their table instead of searching the crowded ballroom for her parents.
Ethan turned to take a good look at the young man who was asking her to dance.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. She had known Kevin since schooldays, when he had called her Carrots and she had got into trouble for retaliating by kicking his shins. She had never particularly liked him, but smiled at him as she allowed him to fold her into his arms, because he had picked just the right time to remove her from Ethan’s side, and childhood prejudices didn’t count, anyway. She saw with satisfaction that Ethan had seized his chance and got Celeste up to dance.
“Who’s he?” Kevin growled in her ear. “The old guy you’re with?”
“Ethan isn’t old,” Rennie said. “He’s a family friend.” He had been a young honorary uncle to her and her brother ever since she could remember. Her parents’ rambling old home in the heart of Auckland was open house to anyone who liked to drop in or needed a place to stay. Ethan had always been a favoured guest. And on this visit it had been obvious that he was troubled. A lot of the time he looked grim and almost haunted. They had put it down to the fact of having lost his beloved older step-brother about a year ago. They’d been delighted if a bit puzzled when he insisted on being invited to the Legal Society Ball, thinking he was making an effort to pull himself out of his depression. But Rennie had seen his face as he gave Grant’s beautiful partner a seemingly casual greeting, and within seconds she had realised with stunning comprehension that the woman was Ethan’s widowed sister-in-law. And how he felt about her.
Poor Ethan. Rennie set out to help.
And she thought, loosely hooking her arms about Kevin’s neck so she could peer over his shoulder, that her strategy was working. It had been hard to tell if Celeste was worried by the boldly flirtatious glances Rennie had been throwing Ethan’s way, her intimate whispering into his ear, or even the teasing caress that he had so smartly nipped in the bud. But now Rennie could see that her expression as she looked up at him was tense, her cheeks flushed, and there was something in her eyes…
Rennie looked away with a flash of compunction. If Ethan had been miserable, he wasn’t the only one. She shivered a little, and Kevin’s arms tightened. She hardly noticed. She had lost sight of Ethan and his partner. Then she saw them again, Ethan practically hauling Celeste after him across the floor. They stopped at the table, and Grant got to his feet, his brows raised as he said something to Celeste. Then he looked at Ethan and, watching his expression, Rennie muttered, “Don’t you dare stop them!”
“What?” Kevin raised his cheek from its resting place against her bright hair.
“Nothing.” She smiled brilliantly at him to make up for her preoccupation. He had turned again so she was facing away from the table, and she crossed her fingers behind him.
But it was okay. Ethan paused on the way out, said, “Excuse us a minute,” to Kevin and took her aside. “Sorry, I’m running out on you,” he said. “You’ll come home with your parents?”
“It’s okay.” Celeste was standing a little way off, unable to hide a blaze of hope in her face, mixed with trepidation. “She’s in love with you, you know,” Rennie added with assurance. “Good luck.” She gave him a quick hug and shoved him toward Celeste before returning to Kevin.
“What’s going on?” he asked curiously.
“Nothing to concern you,” she said airily. The music quickened, and she eased herself out of his arms. “That’s more like it! All that slow stuff was beginning to be a bore.”
He didn’t look as though he agreed, but as she swayed her hips and shoulders and lifted her arms, moving to the beat, he followed suit, watching the light play on the slim curves outlined by the brief sheath of gold satin, and the long legs encased in shimmering nylon.
Grant, left without a partner, was alone at the table. He was watching her, leaning back in his chair, his arms folded. He looked more disapproving than ever, she thought, and wiggled her hips extra energetically, throwing back her hair as the music reached a climax, her eyes half closed.
Kevin swooped on her, his face slightly sweaty, and fastened an arm about her waist. “Do you want to go back to your seat?” he asked. “I’m with a young crowd over there,” he added hopefully.
She didn’t fancy returning to the table and that chilly blue stare. “I should find my parents,” she said. “I might join you later.”
She was dying to tell them about Ethan, she told herself. They’d been worried about him, too. But although they greeted her warmly and her father, after the first gulping breath at the sight of her dress, bravely ignored it, they were as usual the centre of a hilarious circle, and she couldn’t broadcast Ethan’s private affairs to the entire group. Someone soon swept her off to dance again, and she thought that really Ethan might prefer to tell them himself, if things went right for him. And if they didn’t — well, maybe he would rather she said nothing. He hadn’t confided in the family in the several weeks he had been staying with them.
She was dancing with Kevin once more when she noticed that he was still sweaty, and a bit pale too.
“Are you all right?” she asked him, as he seemed to grow heavy against her.
“Sure,” he said, straightening up. “It’s hot though, how ‘bout some fresh air?”
It wasn’t until they were outside in a darkened courtyard, with her supporting him, that she realised what was wrong. “How much have you drunk?” she asked him.
“Not that much,” he muttered. “‘Scuse me.”
She should have left him to it, she supposed. But instead she let him be sick and then led him to a tap on the wall and stood by while he rinsed his mouth and splashed water on his face.
“Thanks, Rennie,” he muttered, still swaying a little. “You’re a great girl, y’know that?”
“Sure,” she rejoined crisply. “You’d better sit down for a while.”
She found a wooden bench, and he sank onto it, pulling her down with him. “Thanks,” he said again. “Great girl.”
She tried to ease herself away but he clung with surprising strength, grappling her closer. “C’mon. Gimme a kiss, eh?”
“No! Kevin, stop it!”
“Aw, Rennie — “
She found herself engaged in a struggle, tried to kick at him but missed, and when she flung back her head to avoid his kiss, he began devouring her bare flesh above the strapless bodice. Which, with all the energy she was putting into avoiding him, at the moment didn’t feel very secure.
“Kevin!” She was furious with him, and with herself for allowing him to get her into this predicament. And as his hands tightened until they hurt, she began to be frightened.
The way they were sitting made it impossible for her to kick at him or use her knee. She reminded herself there were about five hundred people only yards away. If she screamed…
She made another attempt to push him off, but it was disastrous. He toppled from the bench, clinging to her. She tried to stay upright, heard a seam in her dress rip with the strain as he clutched at it, then went down with him onto the paving, banging her elbow and knee painfully, so that she did give a tiny scream.
A voice said quietly but with force, “What the hell…?” And Kevin’s grip at last loosened. She started to scramble up and felt strong hands lifting her to her feet, turned to find the Grant person at her side, with a look of wrathful contempt on his face.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes. No.” She inspected her elbow, which was stinging, and realised it was bleeding, a couple of drops falling onto her dress. “Damn!”
Kevin was getting unsteadily to his feet. “Mind your own business — ” he slurred, and tried an ineffectual swipe at the other man, who parried it easily with one hand and said with sharp authority, “That’s enough! You’d better start apologising, don’t you think?”
He wasn’t a particularly big man, but the implicit threat in his even voice made Kevin step back. “Sorry, Rennie,” he muttered resentfully. “Didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Then why didn’t you stop,” she said furiously, rather glad that Grant had kept a steadying hand on her uninjured arm, “when I told you to?”
“One little kiss,” he whined. “Be a sport, Ren. Di’n’ think you’d mind.”
Still holding Rennie’s other arm, Grant said bitingly, “Apparently she does. Go home,” he added, “you bloody young fool, and not in a car. Find a taxi.”
Kevin seemed about to argue, but a movement of Grant’s head sent him off into the darkness, grumbling under his breath.
Grant whipped a white handkerchief out of his pocket and efficiently tied it about Rennie’s elbow. As he jerked the knot closed, he said, “And he’s not the only fool. If you didn’t want him to make love to you, why let him bring you out here?”
“He said he needed some fresh air.”
He gave her a withering look. “Even at your age you can’t be that naive.”
“He looked sick. I didn’t realise until we were out here that he was drunk. I suppose that was stupid — “
“You could say that.”
“I’d just as soon you didn’t.”
“I’m sure,” Grant agreed dryly.
“Anyway, what’s it to do with you? I could have handled it — “
“Oh, yes? You weren’t handling it too well when I came along.”
Rennie was silenced for a moment. “I didn’t want to overreact. He wouldn’t really have hurt me.”
He looked her over in eloquent silence.
The ground hadn’t been too clean. Her super-special dress was dirty as well as bloodstained, and there was a little gape in front where the seam had gone. She’d scraped her knee too, she realised, and ruined a stocking.
She said, “I’ve known him since we were kids.”
“What does that have to do with it?” Grant enquired.
Nothing, she supposed.
Then Grant added, “Especially in view of the signals you’d been giving him. A bit pointless, wasn’t it, since Ethan wasn’t here to see any more?”
“What?” Working it out, she couldn’t believe the implication he was making.
“I suppose your feelings were hurt,” he went on, “and your ego needed a boost. But that sort of behaviour will only get you into trouble sooner or later. Be careful who you encourage in future — and how.”
Rennie took a breath. “Do you go around dispensing free advice to everyone you meet, or am I just privileged?”
“It’s good advice,” he said. “I don’t suppose you want to go back to the ballroom looking like that. How did Ethan suggest you get home?”
She gathered that he disapproved of Ethan, too.
“My parents are here,” she said stiffly.
“Are they expecting you to go home with them?”
“I hadn’t got round to asking them.”
“Shall I find them for you?”
“I don’t want to spoil their evening,” she said coldly. “I’ll get a taxi.”
“I’ll take you.”
“Thank you, but please don’t bother — “
“No bother. If it’s any consolation, my evening’s already spoiled. We can leave a message for your parents.” He pulled a notebook from his pocket. “Sit down a minute.”
She discovered that sitting down was what she most wanted to do. The incident had shocked her more than she liked to admit. But she wasn’t going to simply do everything this bossy man told her to. “No,” she said, as he started to scribble in the book. “Don’t.” They’d think it strange and worry.
She tried again to suggest getting a taxi, but Grant said as he closed the book and returned it to his pocket, “Someone needs to keep an eye on you. If you don’t want your parents to know what you’ve been getting yourself into, I suggest you accept my offer and shut up.”