“Jared?” Lexi’s voice drifts down the hallway and into Matthew’s study where I’ve been entrenched for the last two hours, going through his papers in search of anything we might have missed. I’m tired, but I can’t stop. I promised Lexi… I feel like I’ve failed her, Katrina, and Madeline all three.
Their father is dead and I never saw it coming.
“Dammit.” I toss the stack back down onto the desk, scrub my hands down my face, and sigh heavily. “In here, Lexi.” I call, leaning back in the chair to wait for her.
She comes through the door moments later, looking haggard. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her face splotchy. She’s still in the silk pajamas she’s had on all day. She’s a mess.
“Come here,” I urge, opening my arms to her when her bottom lip quivers.
She crosses the room in three quick steps and flings herself at me.
I pat her back as she burrows into my chest, shuddering.
For long moments, neither of us speaks.
“I miss him, Jared,” she finally whispers, her voice raw with grief.
Anger rushes through me at the sound, burning like lava.
She’s grieving and it is my fault. Had I just….
“I know you do, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”
“S’not your fault,” she whispers.
I rub her back, appreciating her platitude even though I don’t believe it.
She might not blame me for her father’s death, but I do. How can I not?
I was supposed to protect him, and I failed. He’s dead because I screwed up.
“Is Katie with Madeline?” I ask, trying not to dwell. Katrina and Madeline are in worse shape than Lexi is. They’ve been crying nonstop for the last two days. I can’t do a fucking thing beyond what I’m already doing, and it’s not nearly enough.
That fact galls.
“She is,” Lexi says with a pitiful little sniffle. “Grayson’s here, too.”
“That’s good.” I know relatively little about Grayson Barker save the basics – name, rank, social, no arrest record, decent kid – but he’s been good for Katrina the last few days. He’s kept her relatively calm, and she needs that right now.
“She talked to Savannah today.”
My eyes flicker to the picture of Savannah Martin that Matthew kept on his desk.
The girl is absolutely breathtaking with her silky brown hair, sweet smile, and wide brown eyes against porcelain skin. In the picture she’s laughing at something, her head thrown back. She damn near glows, those doe-eyes shining.
“Did she?” I ask nonchalantly as my jeans seem to get tighter. I’ve never met Savannah, and very purposefully know relatively little about her, but she is gorgeous. I find myself looking at the pictures of her scattered throughout the house more than I should. It’s disconcerting that she’s so captivating to me. I can’t afford the distraction, particularly now.
“Yeah.” Lexi pulls herself from my lap and wipes at her eyes. “She’s… things are bad, Jared.”
“What do you mean?” I ask carefully, instantly on alert.
Lexi frowns and runs a finger across the edge of the picture frame, her expression caught between anger and sorrow. “Toby’s abusive,” she finally says. The words comes out succinct, matter of fact. And angry as hell.
“He’s abusing her?” I can’t hide the growl in my voice. Nor can I hide the way my hands clench into fists on the arms of the chair. My biological father was an abusive prick who got off on terrorizing my mom. I was seven when he finally killed her – wrapped the car around a light pole in a drunken stupor. Any man who lays his hands on a woman doesn’t deserve to live. But the fact that the little brown-eyed girl who fascinates me is the one being hurt makes it worse somehow.
“She told Katie that it’s been going on since they went to Italy,” Lexi says, shaking her head. Disgust twists her words, anger roiling in her blue eyes. “He’s been hurting her for two years.”
“Why the hell didn’t she tell anyone?” Rage sweeps through me.
“I don’t know.” Lexi perches on the edge of the desk with a sad sigh. “Her mom abandoned her when she was a teenager. Melinda just packed her stuff and drove away, didn’t even say goodbye to Savannah.” Sadness glimmers in her eyes. “I’m not sure she ever really got over it, you know?”
“Yeah, I get that.” I’m not sure what else to say, to be honest. Matthew already shared this information with me about his lovely little ward, but it’s not any easier to hear the second time around. How does a mother just walk away from her child after fourteen years and not look back?
Lexi shakes her head again before looking at me. “At any rate, mom and daddy became her legal guardians afterward, but it was hard for Savannah. The other kids were cruel. You know how they can be around here.”
It’s not a question, but I nod anyway.
Teenagers, even the decent ones, can be brutal. In our world, they’re like rabid sharks. They’re spoiled and elitist, used to getting what they want and never being told no. No way would they willingly welcome the abandoned daughter of a maid into their affluent circles, especially not one as beautiful as Savannah. Teenage girls are downright hateful when it comes to anyone they perceive to be a threat.
“I guess she fell in love with Toby while they were still in school. She had a scholarship to study in England, but he convinced her to go to Italy with him instead. I never trusted him… he made sure no one else even looked at her when they were together.” Again, Lexi shakes her head, anger and sadness in her eyes. “We should have gone after her.”
“Why didn’t you?” As soon as the question is out, I know it’s unfair, but I don’t want to call it back either. Savannah was just a kid, for God’s sake. Someone should have gone after her, made sure she really was okay. I know things have been rough with T.I. under attack, but Matthew should have known better that to let a barely-legal teenage girl run off to a foreign country with a boy.
“We didn’t know she needed us,” Lexi says, stiffening at my tone. “Kit says she was always upbeat when they managed to talk….” Her shoulders slump as if she’s just figured out why Katrina and Savannah didn’t talk often. “Why didn’t she tell us what was happening?”
“She was probably scared,” I sigh, my frustration rapidly dissolving. It’s not Lexi’s fault Matthew didn’t check in on Savannah like he should have. Hell, I’m not even really angry at Matthew. His life has been a waking nightmare for the last year and a half, his employees and his family under near constant attack by God only knows who. “This boy took her to a foreign country, probably monitored what she said and did. He isolated her, made sure she was dependent on him, and had no way of letting anyone know what he was doing to her. He probably blamed her so she wouldn’t say anything.”
That’s what my father always did. Blamed my mother, told her it was her fault when he hit her. That she drove him to it, that she didn’t listen, and that he’d do better next time. That he loved her, needed her. He’d take care of her….
It was all bullshit, of course.
With abusive pricks, it always is.
“Bastard,” Lexi instantly mutters.
I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly.
“At any rate, it’s over now. She’s coming home for….” Lexi stops speaking and swallows convulsively, her lip quivering again. “She’s coming home for Daddy’s funeral and will be staying when it’s over.”
I freeze at this announcement. “Home? She’s coming back here? Now?”
I suck in a deep breath and let it out again with a muttered curse. “That’s not a good idea, Lex.”
“She’s not safe there, Jared.” Lexi crosses her arms over her chest, scowling at me.
“And no one here is safe right now either,” I snap. Lexi knows this better than anyone. It irritates me that she’s being purposefully obtuse now. Good God, her father was just murdered. “You can’t just bring her into the middle of this. Jesus, Lexi, think! If she’s been abused for the last two years, do you really think she’s going to feel safe here right now? Or that he’s just going to let her go? He’ll follow her back here, and then what?”
“We’re her family,” Lexi says, though she looks uncertain. “She should be here.”
I sigh heavily. They are her family, and I know this, but still. It’s not safe, for her or for them. The last thing anyone needs is another wild card added to the equation. Whoever’s responsible for the attacks on the Talbot family has already proven that they’re willing to kill. Bringing an abuse victim into the middle of that is sheer madness. Not to mention, who knows what in the hell her boyfriend is capable of doing.
“I know you’re her family, sweetheart, but this isn’t a good idea,” I say, feeling like a prick for having to say it at all. Savannah can’t very well stay where she is, not if that son of a bitch is…. I sigh and give in, furious with this Toby all over again. “Bring her home. I’ll make sure she’s safe here.”
I have no idea how in the hell I’m going to do that, but Lexi’s right. Savannah belongs here.
“Thanks, Jared,” Lex whispers, squeezing my hand. “I promise she won’t be any trouble.”
My eyes flicker to the picture on Matthew’s desk, to those brown eyes and that sweet smile.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat.
She won’t be any trouble.
Somehow, I doubt that.
Thirty-eight hours later, I find myself standing in baggage claim at SFO, waiting for Savannah to appear from behind the security checkpoint when someone runs into me, knocking me backs several steps. I’m so caught up in my own thoughts that I don’t even realize it’s Savannah until I reach out to grab her so she doesn’t fall.
A pained cry breaks from her lips the instant I touch her, her face draining of color.
I snatch my hands away, watching as she tries to pull herself back together. Anger burns in my gut as pain tears through her expression. I want to wrap my hands around her boyfriend’s throat and squeeze the life out of him for hurting her.
“Are you okay?” I ask as calmly as I can.
Savannah stares up at me with wide, frightened eyes, not speaking. Her tongue darts out to wet her bottom lip.
Heat twists through my guts at the move, and I can’t look away from her.
This is really her. Savannah. The little beauty I’ve purposefully learned little about since moving into the Talbot mansion. The same doe-eyed girl I’ve caught myself staring at in pictures often over the last year. The pictures haven’t done her justice.
In person, she’s stunning. Her hair is a subtle mix of mahogany and dark and lighter browns. She’s petite, all long legs and soft, womanly curves. Her cheeks are flushed, her creamy skin clear. And her mouth… Christ, she has a beautiful mouth.
Her eyes kill me though. They’re bright and wide, but the intelligent gleam is dull, faded with pain and sadness. If she’s slept, it hasn’t been recently and it hasn’t been well. Faint sleep deprivation bruises mar the skin beneath those eyes. She looks like she’s on the verge of shattering into tiny pieces.
The sight rocks me, unbalancing me.
And she still isn’t saying anything. She’s just staring at me, that sweet mouth partially open.
I cock an eyebrow at her.
“I’m sorry,” she whimpers as soon as I do, sounding choked.
I hate the sound as soon as it leaves her lips. I hate the frightened, uncertain look in her eyes even more. And I have no idea why she’s apologizing to me. She’s done nothing wrong.
“Savannah Martin?” I ask, though I’m not sure why.
“Ah… yes?” She sounds frightened again, but her voice is so soft and sweet….
“You’re Savannah Martin?” I ask again, just wanting to her hear speak again.
“Yes?” She clears her throat. “Yes, that’s me.”
The breathless way she talks and her wide eyes send my heart slamming hard against my rib-cage. Christ, to be inside of her when she makes that sound would be heaven.
I quickly cut that thought off.
“I’m Jared Corbit.”
“Katrina Talbot sent me?” Did no one tell her who was coming from her? I know they’re in bad shape right now, but someone should have told her something, for the love of God. She probably wants nothing to do with a strange man right now, and yet here I am.
I start to apologize to her for the confusion.
“Oh!” She blinks up at me and my heart slams in my chest again, halting that apology before it even forms.
God, she is beautiful. And I want her, want to be inside her.
I pull myself up short. I can’t think like that. Not about her.
Jesus, this is going to be hell.
“Okay. I didn’t realize–”
“Do you have any additional luggage?” I ask, cutting her off.
She sounds so uncertain I can’t help but lift a brow again.
“I have one bag,” she mutters. “Carousel Four.” Her cheeks flush a lovely deep rose.
I turn toward the carousel, suddenly grateful I’m in a suit and she can’t see what that blush does to me. “Not the time,” I mutter to myself. I glance back to make sure she’s following.
Her eyes dart up to meet mine. Her cheeks flush again, her eyes gleaming with something damn close to desire. It’s the first spark of life I’ve seen from her, and I can’t help the smirk that overtakes my lips.
That sparkle in her eyes fades out far too soon, leeching away right before my eyes.
“Which is yours?” I gesture toward the carousel.
“Oh, um…” She jerks her head toward the carousel and stands for a moment before pointing out a simple black bag. “That one.”
I grab it as soon as it circles toward us, ready to get her back to the Talbot estate before I do something I’ll regret. I’ve known her all of five minutes, and I’m already dying to kiss her.
“Ready?” I head toward the doors before she has a chance to answer.
Savannah doesn’t say anything else until we make it to my Jaguar, and then her mouth drops open, surprise flitting across her face. She looks so fucking cute, my cock jerks in my pants.
“You’re the chauffer?”
Christ, she’s killing me.
“No,” I snap and shove her bag into the small trunk. I’m being an ass, I know I am, but I can’t stop it either. She’s dangerous. An unknown. And I’m far too captivated by her. “Your carry-on?”
I hold my hand out for it as she looks between me and the car and then back again. She clutches the bag tightly in her fist as if she’s terrified to hand it over. She looks like a frightened little kitten backed into a corner.
I start to tell her not to worry about it, but she holds the bag out to me.
Our fingers brush as I take it, and good God, her skin is so soft and warm.
I jerk away, ignoring the jolt that races through me, and stash the bag before slamming the trunk.
She’s still gaping at me when I open the passenger door for her, and I can’t help but tease her a little. “Coming, Miss Martin?”
Her cheeks explode into a fiery blush, and her eyes widen. For just a minute, she looks alive again… her eyes sparkling… and then she bends to get into the car. A hiss of pain leaves her lips and she sways, grasping the door to steady herself.
Fury rolls through me again. Why the hell didn’t Matthew make an effort to check on her? To make sure she was really okay instead of just taking her word for it? The man was nothing but cautious and caring. To be anything less with Savannah, the foster daughter he spoke of fondly on many occasions, is maddening. He accepted her into his family, wrote her into his will.
How the hell could he just let her run off to a foreign country with a boy?
She was just a kid, for Christ’s sake!
I stride around to the driver’s side and climb in.
Savannah’s staring out the window, seemingly lost in thought. She doesn’t look at me, but another little whimper comes from her side of the car when I crank the engine.
The sound goes straight to my cock.
I grit my teeth and pull out into the flow of traffic slowly exiting the airport, trying to think of anything but the fact that she smells like vanilla and sunshine. She’s scared, hurt, and the last thing she needs is someone like me fucking up her life after everything she’s already endured.
I want to ask her why she stayed with Toby, why she didn’t tell anyone what he was doing to her. Why she went with him in the first place. My conversation with Lexi comes to mind and I think I understand why. Abandonment can be a harsh mistress, but fuck.
How could she not know she deserves to be treated like a queen?
“How’s Kit?” she yelps, startling me from my thoughts.
I glance in her direction and she instantly flinches away, cowering as far from me as she can get.
“Ah, she’s managing,” I mutter. Every time she jumps or apologizes, I feel like a bastard.
“You work for the Talbot family?”
“No.” I blink at her. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”
“No,” she answers. “Kit never mentioned you.”
“Ah. Aren’t you and Katrina close?” I can’t figure out why they haven’t told her anything about me. She was abused, for God’s sake. How could they not let her know someone she’s never before seen was coming to pick her up at the airport?
“We were. Once.” She sighs sadly. “I haven’t been around much.”
“Ah. Traveling?” It’s a stupid question, but I ask it anyway, wanting her to open up to me.
“Something like that.” The way she says it leaves no doubts that this is not a matter for discussion. Her tone is emphatic, final, almost curt. “Should I know who you are?” she demands.
“Lexi’s boyfriend,” I retort, no longer sure what I can say to her. Does Lexi not want her to know the truth? Lex is such a pain in the ass sometimes…. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Savannah’s one of very few who have not automatically assumed that I belong to Lexi. I appreciate that and find it frustrating at once. Everything about this is frustrating, irritating.
I’ve been on edge for days, wound up. Matthew’s dead. How the hell did I let this happen?
“Oh.” Savannah blushes, bowing her head. She plucks at her shirt, a sad frown twisting on her lips, and I realize she’s embarrassed, feeling out of place. Tears well in her eyes, and my heart physically hurts for her.
“I shouldn’t have come,” she whispers.
Frustration boils over instantly.
She’d really stay with the abusive prick after everything he’s done to her? Is that why she stayed so long in the first place? She loves him? The thought makes me sick.
I frown, trying not to snap at her. “Katrina wanted you here.”
“I–” She won’t look at me.
“She could use a friend right now, Savannah.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers miserably.
I clench my jaw, irritated by her apology, by her statement that she shouldn’t be here… by a thousand different things. Mostly, I’m furious at myself for letting any of it matter. She’s my concern only by proxy. The Talbot girls are my responsibility and they want her here. Anything beyond keeping her safe is not my business.
As she curls in on herself beside me, I have a feeling I’ll be reminding myself of that fact frequently
I also have a feeling that I won’t believe it then anymore than I do now.
“Savannah! Oh God, you’re here!” Katie converges on Savannah like a storm as soon as the girl climbs free of the car. She throws her arms around her and starts sobbing.
Savannah looks completely overwhelmed.
I wonder briefly if she’s going to faint, but her arms go around Katrina and squeeze.
Her eyes meet mine across Katie’s blonde head and I want, desperately, to tell her that everything will be just fine. She looks lost, fragile in a way that Lex, Katrina, and Maddi have come nowhere close to in the last four days. Their world has been shaken on its foundation, but Savannah’s the one who looks ready to break beneath the strain.
“Take her inside,” I snap, though I’m not sure if I’m talking to Katie or Savannah.
Savannah blanches at the sting of my words, but begins ushering Katrina into the house. She falters once, but quickly straightens and keeps going. Her face pales again though.
I jerk her bags out of the car and curse softly.
She’s been here less than an hour and I’ve already managed to frighten her.
This is not going well… and I have no idea what to do about it. I think that, for her sake, it may be better if she avoids me entirely while I’m here. She’d be safer far away from me. But for my sake? I hope she doesn’t avoid me. I want her to know that I’m not like her ex. That I’m not a threat to her and won’t hurt her. Even if I have been anything but welcoming since she ran into me, I think I’m glad she’s here.
I grab her bags and head inside, intent on doing… something. Apologizing.
When I see her with her arms around Katie and her expression so unguarded and vulnerable though, I can’t do anything but stare. She looks so lost, so broken. And so fucking beautiful, my heart aches.
Her eyes meet mine and she swallows audibly before stiffening and turning pointedly away from me.
I feel chastised, like an even bigger ass.
“I’ll take your stuff to the guesthouse,” I mutter and turn on my heel without offering the apology I came inside to deliver.
Katrina’s still sobbing when the door closes behind me.
It worries me that Savannah’s the one I want to console.
She is nothing to me…
And neither is Lexi.
“You promised to see this through,” I remind myself, cutting off that line of thought when Lexi’s tear stained face flashes through my mind. “Lexi and the girls need you. Nothing else can be allowed to matter.”
The reminder helps firm my resolve a little.
“How’s Savanah?” Lexi asks as soon as I step into Madeline’s room an hour later. Lexi’s curled around her little sister, her face tear-stained. She is always so lively it’s painful to see her like this now. I want to apologize to her again for failing to protect her as promised, but I know she won’t hear it.
“She’s with Katie,” I answer, proud of her for asking when she has so much else going on. I’m hard on her and she drives me insane at times, but little things like that remind me of what kind of person she really is. She may be many things, but she has never been cruel or self-centered.
Mad is sleeping restlessly, Lexi’s hand clutched tightly in hers. Her mouth moves, though no sound escapes her little lips.
Ah love, I am so sorry.
I’ve never seen Madeline like this before, and it kills me. She’s just a child, an eleven-year-old little girl. Her parents are both dead, and at least one of those deaths is my fault. That knowledge cuts deep, drawing blood.
“No one thought to tell Savannah I was the one coming for her today?” I ask Lexi quietly, pulling my gaze away from Madeline before the familiar fury starts roiling again. I need calm, focus. “She had no clue who I was.”
“Oh, no.” Lexi cringes, instantly contrite. “I didn’t even think… I’m so sorry.”
I want to be angry at her for forgetting something so important, but I can’t. She has every reason in the world to forget, and I’m just being a dick. I sigh instead. “How’s she doing?” I nod at Madeline.
Lexi’s expression crumbles. “I don’t know,” she whispers. “She’s so heartbroken, Jared. I don’t know how to help her.” The worry in her voice tugs at my heart.
I make my way to the bed and sit down beside her. She curls into me as best she can, letting me lend her a little of my strength.
“I’m glad you’re here, Jared. I can’t do this alone.”
“You’re doing fine, sweetheart.” I rub her back, trying to comfort her.
“I’m so scared,” she confesses, her voice soft. “What if I’m a terrible guardian? What if something happens to her or Kit? What if I–?”
“You can’t think like that,” I tell her. “We’ll find whoever is responsible and we’ll deal with it, just like I promised. You just have to be strong and let me help you. And I promise you that I will keep you, the girls, and T.I. safe.”
Madeline whimpers in her sleep.
Lexi instantly reaches out to soothe her.
“What am I supposed to tell her and Kit?” she asks me, switching gears. It’s not the first time she’s asked, and I have no better answer for her now than I did any time before.
“I don’t know, Lexi. Do you want to tell them the truth?”
“No.” She tucks a ringlet behind her sister’s ear. “Madeline’s just a kid. I can’t tell her that Daddy–” A sob catches in her throat and she can’t finish the sentence.
“Come here,” I demand and pull her into my chest again.
She starts crying as soon as my arms are around her, and I feel like a complete failure. I’ve watched her and her sisters cry so often in the last few days. I want to tear my hair out in frustration. I want to find the son of bitch responsible for all of this and tear his heart out.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to her.
“N-not your fault,” she tries to say through her tears.
I don’t respond.
She cries quietly for a few moments before pulling herself together again.
“I’m sorry I didn’t think to tell Savannah who you are,” she whispers when her tears finally stop. She pulls away from me, curling around Madeline again.
“I know,” I sigh. It’s not her fault. “What do you want her to know about all of this, Lex?”
She thinks it over. “It’s safer if she doesn’t know the truth, isn’t it?”
I nod reluctantly. I don’t want this to be the case but… “Yeah, it’s safer.”
“Then we just let her believe that you and I are–” Lexi frowns. “I hate this, Jared. I can’t even tell Kit the truth.”
We’ve had this discussion many times before, and I’ve always assured her that not letting Katie know what’s really going on with us has been for the best. But this time, sad brown eyes flash through my mind and I find I don’t have it in me to reassure Lexi that this is the right thing.
For the first time, I’m no longer sure that it is, or that I want it to be.
“We’ll figure it out,” I say instead, truly hating our choice for the first time in a year.
Lexi sighs, and I know she believes that as little as I do, that she likes it as little as I do. But there is no going back. There are no do overs. And too much is at stake to change the game now.
“Will Savannah be okay in the guesthouse?” she asks me.
I’ve upgraded the security system and changed the locks, made sure the windows are secure and the intercom is functional. She should be fine.
“I’ll keep a close eye on her,” I say anyway, sliding from the bed. I was complacent before, certain no one had gotten close, and look what happened. Matthew was killed, his fucking brakes cut. Savannah might be safe as a kitten in a box in the guesthouse, but I won’t make the same mistake twice. I won’t let her get caught in the middle of this.
“I won’t let anything happen to her.” The promise slips from my lips before I can call it back, and then it’s too late. When Savannah’s face flashes through my mind again, I don’t really regret it anyway.
Lexi relaxes slightly, relief flickering across her face. “Thank you, Jared. For everything.”
I want to tell her not to thank me yet, not until this is over and they’re safe.
I keep my mouth shut instead and slip from the room.