Skylar Dupree wasn’t the risk-taking type, but neither was she the type of woman to falter once she’d made up her mind. The only other time in her twenty-six years she dared do anything remotely defying tradition was leaving law school. Yet that had been more for self-preservation. Her parents were pragmatic; she tended to be more easygoing and laid-back.
Skylar paused on the curved stone staircase of the thirty-five-room castle. Easygoing wasn’t going to cut it this time, not if she wanted to grab Rio’s attention.
Just the thought sent her heart rate skittering out of control. Rio could look straight through you with hard, unblinking black eyes. He exuded danger. Nothing seemed to bother him. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d seen him smile, and those times had been when he was with his closest friends, Blade and Shane. As far as Skylar knew, he’d never bestowed upon anyone else a smile, let alone his laughter.
The task she’d chosen for herself was scary. Since Shane’s marriage, Rio was head of security for Blade’s business as well as Blade’s personal bodyguard. Even Rio’s security team had a healthy fear of the man reported to be deadlier than a viper, and just as stealthy. She’d heard one of his men refer to him as “smoke” because of his elusiveness.
Skylar had flown in that Sunday afternoon from Navarone Resorts and Spas’s headquarters to go over the final preparations for a charity auction and ball to benefit the Music Department of St. John’s College, where Mrs. Grayson was chair. The auction was two weeks away. The big draw to get the right people to come was that the auction would be held in Navarone Castle, near Santa Fe, a place heretofore off limits to anyone but close family and friends.
Much had been speculated about the home of the billionaire, which had a real moat, a working drawbridge, a helipad, and a lake. Sierra, Blade’s wife, might have owned the castle before her marriage, but Blade ensured their privacy by buying up all the surrounding property within fifty miles. You might get on the property, but with its constant patrols, you were quickly escorted off, which gave Navarone Castle even more of an air of mystique.
Continuing down the stairs with her iPad clutched to her chest, Skylar stepped into the comfortable great room. Sitting in sky-blue leather chairs and love seats were Blade, Sierra, and her mother on one side. On the other were Shane and his wife, Paige. Rio, arms folded, standing by the immense stone fireplace, glanced up. Her heart did a fast jitterbug.
Rio looked incredibly handsome in a long-sleeved white shirt with the cuffs rolled back to show strong wrists. He had a silver watch on one arm and a wide silver band on the other. His jeans delineated the long, sleek muscles of his thighs and made Skylar’s mouth dry.
In Tucson he’d always worn tailored clothes, the same as Blade. Here, Rio was more casual. The curly black hair she’d dreamed of running her fingers through was held at the base of his neck with a silver clip. His bronzed, hard body was honed to perfection.
There was nothing in his midnight-black eyes that indicated he desired or felt anything at all for her. Skylar stared back at the flat eyes that seemed to see right through her and stiffened her spine.
One day he’d look at her with desire.
“Hi, Skylar.” Sierra rose from her seat and went to greet Skylar. “I’m sorry we weren’t here to meet you.”
“That’s all right.” Skylar smiled. She and Sierra had hit it off immediately. “I enjoyed looking around the castle again. You have a beautiful home.”
“Thanks.” Sierra glanced back at Blade. “We like it.”
Skylar’s smile increased. One place she’d bet was off limits was the grotto downstairs that was Sierra and Blade’s secret place.
“Please have a seat.” Sierra took the other woman’s arm. “Can I get you anything?”
“No, thank you.” Skylar greeted everyone as she took a leather chair. Everyone spoke. Rio nodded.
“Is everything going as planned?” Ruth asked.
Skylar knew Ruth could have asked that question earlier, but hadn’t. Mrs. Grayson also didn’t let on she’d seen or talked with Skylar before. She smiled her thanks.
“Yes, Mrs. Grayson. In fact, we’re ahead of schedule. As planned, the auction will be by invitation only. Thanks to Lance’s help, a printed color catalog with the starting bid for each item has already been sent out.”
“Good thing,” Sierra interjected. “Because he and Fallon are off on their honeymoon.”
“Still discussing if she’ll be able to go scuba diving due to her pregnancy.” Blade glanced at Sierra. “She’s almost as strong-willed as another woman I know.”
“Aren’t you and Lance the lucky ones?” Sierra grinned and kissed Blade on the cheek.
Skylar cut a sideways glance at Rio. His arms remained crossed, his gaze somewhere over her head. He wasn’t going to make this easy. Back to the business at hand.
“I personally called everyone to ensure they received the catalog and still plan to attend.” Skylar pulled out the guest list and stood to give it to Rio. “This week, four of the invitees asked if they could bring a guest. It was to be expected that some would ignore the one-month time limit to invite a guest. I know you’d want to check the people out before I committed.”
He crossed to her in his effortless stride that reminded her of a stalking cat. Long, lean fingers took the list without looking at it. “Thank you.” His voice held no inflection.
Trying not to sigh, Skylar retook her seat. She needn’t have bothered wearing a tangerine-colored dress that complemented her complexion and hazel eyes. However, she wasn’t giving up.
“The items will be arriving by special courier or delivery service starting Tuesday. I’ll be here to check and sign them in. I’ll return each day until we have all the items in place,” Skylar told them. “We’ve already selected the room where they’ll be displayed.”
“That’s too much trouble,” Sierra said. “It would be easier and make more sense if you stay here.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Blade said.
“I couldn’t,” Skylar said, surprised by the invitation. While they were planning the auction, she’d always flown in and out of Santa Fe.
“We have plenty of guest rooms.” Sierra leaned against Blade. His arm immediately circled her slim shoulders. “We’re leaving for a new Navarone property in the morning; you’re welcome to stay here.”
Skylar didn’t know what to say. She was very aware that a lot of trust had gone into the invitation. If Rio stayed, she might run into him more. The thought had no more than materialized when she discarded it. She was not going to impose on Blade and Sierra’s kindness to go after Rio.
“It won’t be any trouble,” Skylar finally said. “I don’t mind the trip.”
“We won’t take no for an answer,” Blade told her.
“You’re staying and that’s final,” Sierra said firmly as if the matter was settled.
“Please.” Ruth leaned forward in her seat. “What you’re doing is to help my Music Department. We’ll benefit from your hard work. I’ll always be thankful. You could have passed when I asked if you had any ideas on how to raise funds. You didn’t. You even offered to take vacation time to help.”
“I appreciated the professionalism, but as I said then when you mentioned what you would be doing, using your vacation time won’t be necessary,” Blade said, his gaze direct.
Sierra patted his knee. “He’s even gotten over being a little miffed that you thought you had to ask. He forgot all men are not as wonderful as he is.”
Blade smiled at his wife, then Skylar, and she breathed a bit easier. She well remembered the harsh look on his face that day in his office. She hoped never again to see it directed at her and remained silent.
“Stay,” Blade said. “It would make up for my poor behavior.”
Blade wasn’t above apologizing. He just seldom had to. Shane had a grin on his face as he held Paige’s hand. No one had to tell Skylar that Blade’s love for Sierra and hers for her mother were the reasons behind the apology.
Skylar recalled Ruth’s words, No man should walk alone. Her gaze went to Ruth again as she wondered if she was trying to give Skylar a gentle push in Rio’s direction.
But as Blade’s bodyguard, he went with him everywhere or was at least nearby. Was he staying this time? She had her answer seconds later.
“To ensure the auction pieces remain safe, Rio is staying,” Blade told her.
“I should be going with you.” Rio unfolded his arms, his attention on Blade and Sierra.
Sierra lifted both hands in a fighter’s stance. “Don’t worry, Rio. I promise to take down anyone who looks suspicious.”
Shane was the only one who laughed. He ignored his wife’s nudge.
“You checked out the island; the men there were trained by you or Shane. You and Shane made sure my name is buried so no one outside the company knows we own the property,” Blade reminded him. “From the vantage point on the island you can see a boat miles away. We’ll be safe.”
“That’s why I should be there—to make sure.”
“I want you here.” Blade rose to his feet and went to Rio. “This is important to Mrs. Grayson. There’s some valuable merchandise coming. I trust you to ensure it’s kept safe.”
Rio remained silent. Skylar’s eyes and everyone else’s were on Rio and Blade. No one, absolutely no one—outside of Sierra—went against Blade’s orders. She sensed Rio might be the second. Protecting Blade and Sierra was more than a job to him.
Shane went to the two men. “I’ll fly down with them and check it out.”
Rio’s gaze slowly tracked to Shane’s and stayed there for a long moment before returning to Blade. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll begin checking on the list.”
Skylar blew out a breath as Rio’s long strides took him from the room and up the stairs to the command center on the second floor of the castle’s front wing.
“You shouldn’t tease him,” Ruth said to Sierra.
“Who said I was teasing?” Sierra lifted innocent eyes to her mother.
Ruth shook her head once, then stood and pulled a set of keys from the pocket of her denim skirt. “Come on, Skylar. I’ll drive you to your hotel to get your things.”
Sierra stood, her arm going around her mother’s waist. “Since I’ve seen how Skylar packs, I’ll send a driver with the SUV.”
Ruth smiled at Sierra, then Skylar. “She likes clothes as much as you do.”
“You never know what you might need.” Sierra spoke to Skylar. “We’ll wait dinner for you.”
Skylar smiled. Sierra and her mother weren’t taking no for an answer. “I graciously accept. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
* * *
In less than fifteen minutes Skylar had checked out of the Casa de Serenidad Hotel. Thank goodness she had been so anxious to get to the castle that she hadn’t begun to unpack. Outside, she climbed into the SUV, and they headed back to Navarone Castle.
Skylar wasn’t the impatient type, but she was anxious to get back. She wondered if Rio ate with his men or Blade and Sierra. Everyone had someone, except him. But he didn’t seem to need anyone. He certainly wasn’t afraid to speak his mind—to anyone.
“Back again,” the driver said, startling Skylar out of her deep thoughts.
“Thank you.” She got out of the vehicle and walked to the back. She almost winced at the amount of luggage being unloaded. Besides the large trunk, she’d brought five large suitcases. It had taken her weeks to decide what to wear in the hope that Rio would stop looking through her and be just a little bit interested. With him staying and checking in the merchandise with her daily, it might just happen.
“Mrs. Navarone instructed me where to place your luggage. Please, go on in.”
“Thank you again, Jefferson.” Skylar picked up her overnight kit.
“I can take that as well.” The driver closed the back. “Don’t worry, Eli is sending someone to help. Besides, we’re both used to helping Mrs. Navarone load and unload for trips.”
Skylar placed the case on the stone driveway and laughed. “That’s very kind of you. Thank you.”
The driver tipped his hat. “No problem.”
Skylar went up the steps and rang the doorbell. There was a key pad for a code, but she didn’t know it.
The door opened. Eli Patterson, the house manager, stood there in his black suit, freshly starched white shirt, and shiny leather shoes. Of medium height, he had a lined, fatherly face and a balding head.
“Hello, Mr. Patterson,” Skylar greeted.
“Hello, Ms. Dupree. I’ll assist with your luggage,” he told her. “Mr. Navarone asked that you see him in his office as soon as you returned. This way.”
Unsure of what was going on, she followed the house manager past the wide foyer, then left to an arched door at least fifteen feet tall. Opening the door, he stepped aside.
Thanking him, she entered the office, an immense room lined with bookshelves, a fireplace, and tall windows with silk burgundy draperies. On the slate floor were handwoven area rugs. Blade sat behind an antique mahogany desk with ball-and-claw feet. Her eyes narrowed on seeing Shane and Rio standing on either side of him.
“Thank you for coming, Skylar. Please have a seat.” Blade indicated the chair in front of his desk.
Skylar sat down in the straight-back chair, upholstered in a deeper shade of burgundy than the curtains, demurely crossed her legs, and placed her clutch in her lap. She’d learned not to jump to conclusions just because she was summoned by Blade, and not to ask questions.
“One of the men on the list you gave Rio is Sherman Tennyson, a venture capitalist. Several months ago, Tennyson used my name to entice backers into buying property. The deal folded.” Blade’s black eyes hardened. “A lot of good men lost money. Tennyson put the word out that it was my fault.”
“No.” Skylar’s voice was barely above a whisper as she placed her hand on her galloping heart. People who made huge mistakes at Navarone were out the door.
Shane picked up the story. “Blade has been able to overcome the lies, but Tennyson lost a lot of his credibility, along with money he could ill afford to let go.”
Blade’s fist clenched on top of his desk. “Tennyson hates my guts, and the feeling is mutual.”
Skylar came to her feet. “Mr. Navarone, I just checked to ensure he had the funds to purchase if he chose. I apologize.”
Blade waved her apology aside. “There’s no need. You foiled Tennyson’s plan.” He leaned back in his chair, the sides of his mouth kicking up. “You didn’t just okay the names as he probably expected because the auction is in two weeks and he has money. Instead you had the foresight to give Rio the list of names before committing. You did well.”
“I agree,” Shane said. “Good thinking.”
From Rio there was nothing. Trying to keep from looking at him, she retook her seat. “Should I call Mr. Hampton, the man who had asked if Tennyson could attend?”
Blade’s smile was like the sharp edge of a knife. “I’ll take care of it. That’s all.”
Eternally thankful she wasn’t the unfortunate man, Skylar came to her feet. “I’ll go change for dinner. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye,” Blade and Shane said.
She told herself not to turn, but a force stronger than her will had her glancing over her shoulder at Rio to see if there might be a spark of admiration. She saw nothing but eyes devoid of warmth. Unconsciously she narrowed hers before turning to leave the room.
Stubborn man! He might not know it, but he’d only made her more determined!
Copyright © 2013 by Francis Ray