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Though he would deny it if asked, Kipling Benedict felt oddly out of place at his younger brother’s vow renewal. He chalked it up to both of his younger brothers now being in committed relationships, but that didn’t make him feel any better. In fact, as he stood by Knox and listened as he pledged to love, honor, and cherish his wife, Bea, Kipling actually felt worse.
Worse because he was envious of what his brothers had. Though he could pound his fists into something, it wouldn’t change anything. He’d accepted a long time ago that his station in life was to be alone. Having fallen in love hard and fast in college, paired with only being seen for his net worth, left him not wanting to try again. Being alone was so much easier.
However, at times such as this, he became acutely aware of the differences between acceptance and contentment. Because while he may have accepted that he would be alone, he was not content.
“You may kiss your bride,” the minister said, dragging him back to the small historic chapel Bea had selected for the renewal.
Kipling clapped as his brother took his wife in his arms and dipped her low, snagging a kiss while he did so. They both looked so blissfully in love, he couldn’t help but smile at the joy and peace seen in the couple. If anyone deserved a happily ever after, they did. They had originally married in secret, but more than that, they’d both narrowly escaped with their lives after a security guard hired to protect Bea turned out to be the thug who had beat her up and left her for dead months earlier.
Kipling had asked Knox a few days ago if he was ready to give up his bachelor status forever since he was going public with his wedding this time. They’d been outside. Tilly sat at a nearby table in the garden and both Keaton and Bea sat with her. From what Kipling was able to pick up on, they were looking at a map and trying to determine the best location for a public vegetable garden. Bea looked up and winked at Knox.
His brother had only replied, “The wedding won’t come soon enough for me.”
Kipling felt the truth in his words that day, but now he saw it as the happy couple stood up, and laughed, only having eyes for the other.
Kipling felt his mouth curl up into a smile as the couple walked down the aisle, nodding to the small gathering of friends and family in attendance. Kipling’s hands froze when he saw who waited by the chapel doors.
Officer Alyssa Adams.
The corner of his mouth lifted. He hadn’t expected her to be here today. It was ridiculous how happy he was to see her. Especially since she made no secret of the fact that she didn’t like him, his money, or anything about him. The way Kipling saw it, she presented him with a challenge and he never backed down from a challenge. But it was more than that. It was the way she never backed down from him and how when she sparred verbally with him, it made him feel alive in a way he rarely felt.
He kept his eyes on her as he made his way down the aisle behind his brother. Though he had seen her wear a dress once before at the party announcing Keaton and Tilly’s engagement and the new division of Benedict Industries, today she wore a more formal one. It hit above her knee, showing off her long legs and toned calves. He’d always considered himself a leg man. Yes, breasts were great and he had no problem appreciating a woman’s backside, but legs …
There was just something about a woman’s legs. Especially when they looked like Alyssa’s. Long and lean and strong. It was so easy to imagine them wrapped around his waist while he angled his hips to—
“Stop it.” His youngest brother, Keaton, punched his arm. “Seriously, man. What happened to your poker face?”
They had made it out of the chapel and were waiting for the remaining guests to leave the church so they could all walk to the reception area.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kipling told Keaton. In truth, he shouldn’t be the least bit interested in the police officer. It seemed as if each time he saw her, she only gave him disturbing news about his family. Or worse yet, arrested him. He didn’t understand how he could possibly find her attractive, but he did. Not only that, but he wanted her. Badly.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about.” His youngest brother snorted. “Yeah, right.”
Kipling shot him a look that would have stopped another man in his tracks, but that apparently didn’t work on younger brothers. No, the look didn’t have any sort of impact on Keaton, who kept right on talking.
“You know,” Keaton said, nodding toward Alyssa who was currently chatting with Janie Roberts, her old partner, who would soon become Bea’s sister-in-law. “If you wanted, you could, I don’t know, ask her out or something.”
He thought about playing dumb, pretending he wasn’t sure who Keaton was talking about, but he’d never been one to play the fool and he sure as hell wasn’t going to start now.
“It’s not as simple as that,” Kipling told his younger brother. It was a pat answer, but the truth. Looking at Alyssa while she spoke to her friend, he wished things were different. Damn, but he could watch her for hours. Today, there was very little to be seen of the straight-laced investigator she was around him and he found the contrast mesmerizing. She talked with Janie using her entire body. She was so animated and her smile so genuine, he couldn’t look away. Not only that, but he’d always seen her with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and today it was free to dance around her shoulders in soft waves. The sunlight made the normal brown a plethora of colors: blond, red, and even hints of black.
Keaton narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. “Why isn’t it that simple?”
“I’m not going to stand here and explain myself to you,” Kipling said. “You’re going to have to take my word for it.”
“If this is about that girl in college…” Keaton started, but stopped when Kipling raised his hand.
“Don’t go there,” Kipling warned his younger brother. “Not now. Not ever.”
He would live his life and never complain if no one ever brought up the girl he dated in college. The one he fell hard for. The one he planned to marry. The one who made a fool out of him.
His stomach twisted and he wondered if he’d ever think of her without wanting to throw up. He reminded himself that at least he’d gotten out of the situation and hadn’t been stupid enough to elope. She’d actually suggested they do exactly that before they went to his house for Christmas break.
Even then, it appeared as if Keaton was going to argue with him. Fortunately, Tilly, his fiancée, came up to them and looped her arm through Keaton’s.
“Come on, you guys,” Tilly said. “The photographer wants to do some family shots.”
“Why do I have to get my picture taken?” Kipling mumbled while straightening his tie. “It’s not my wedding.”
But he followed Keaton and Tilly to the front of the chapel anyway, unable to keep himself from looking over his shoulder at Alyssa one last time.
* * *
“What’s the deal with the oldest Benedict brother?” Janie asked Alyssa as they watched the group move off toward the photographer.
“What makes you think there’s a deal?” Alyssa asked instead of answering.
Janie flashed her I know what you’re trying to do smile. “If I was uncertain as to whether or not there was a deal, that answer just proved there is one.”
Alyssa should have known she wouldn’t be able to fool Janie. They’d worked together and been friends for too many years for her to think she could pull one over on her. It didn’t matter that life would be a lot easier if there wasn’t a deal with Kipling; the truth was there was something between the two of them.
Maybe it was nothing but lust. He’d never hid his appreciation for the way she looked. Even when she shot him down and told him off, inside she was secretly thrilled she got a response out of him. The bigger part of her loved that it wasn’t only her mind Kipling took notice of. And sure, some small part of herself hated that she’d spent hours in front of the mirror today, trying to decide which dress he’d like, because she told herself she didn’t care. But that look of pure animal magnetism he’d given her as he walked out of the chapel?
Worth. Every. Second.
She wasn’t about to tell Janie that, though. Not with her already standing there like the cat who just ate the world’s biggest canary.
“The deal,” Alyssa told her, “is that nothing can ever happen between us. I arrested the man, for crying out loud. Not to mention, it would be a horrible breach of ethics.”
But Janie, of course, wasn’t going to be defeated that easily. She put a hand on her hip. “You mean like what I did when I started dating Brent?”
That was why Alyssa didn’t want to go down the Janie-and-Brent road. Janie had been working undercover at a local gentlemen’s club as a bartender, looking into the unsolved mystery of several kidnapped women, many of whom eventually turned out to be murdered.
She’d met Brent there, but unfortunately he had been considered a suspect at the time and her boss had put her on administrative leave after finding out they were involved. Janie felt strongly that Brent wasn’t the man they were looking for, but even so, it was at great personal risk that she continued seeing him. Eventually, he’d been cleared by DNA evidence, but Janie had not been able to leave the case alone and was fired when her boss caught her investigating in the club. “I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that you were, in fact, fired from that job.”
“True, but life has turned out so much better,” Janie said without missing a beat. “No offense, but you couldn’t pay me enough to work at the Charleston PD again.”
She didn’t doubt it. Brent had asked Janie to move to Washington, DC, with him as he’d been offered a position in the capital city. The couple now lived in their city penthouse for half of the year and in his multimillion-dollar restored historical home along the Battery in Charleston for the remaining six. Not only that, but they were planning a wedding for the following May. Alyssa was getting ready to say something when Brent came up and interrupted them.
“Ladies.” He slid behind Janie and put her arms around her. “Pictures are over. Everyone’s heading to the reception.”
Since the chapel was centrally located, it was much easier to leave the cars there and walk to the small private ballroom where the small reception was going to be. Already, Alyssa could see Knox and Bea leading the group with the rest of the Benedict family following behind.
“Oh,” Janie said. “There’s Tilly. I didn’t get to speak to her before the ceremony.”
Months ago while working undercover, before she got fired, Janie had worked with Tilly and became friends with her. Tilly was now engaged to Keaton Benedict. Honestly, it boggled Alyssa’s brain sometimes how interconnected everyone seemed to be. Except her. She felt like an outsider and that realization made her want to leave.
“I think I’ll head home,” Alyssa said.
“Why?” Janie asked.
“I was only invited because of you and, seriously, what’s the point in going?” It all made perfect sense to her, but Janie was standing and shaking her head.
“You’re not getting out of it that easy,” her friend said. “Come on. People will talk if you leave now.”
“And we certainly can’t have that,” Alyssa mumbled, but allowed herself be led away.
An hour later, she was still trying to plan her escape. Staying had in no way made her feel any less of an outsider. Surely she’d been at the reception long enough to not cause offense if she left. She let her gaze wander to where Kipling stood, talking with his brothers. It occurred to her at that moment that he didn’t have a date. The more she thought about it, the odder it seemed.
He was a good-looking and wealthy man. One whom one would think would have his choice of women to date. Why would he show up alone at his brother’s renewal ceremony?
Of course, he picked that moment to turn around and in doing so, saw her staring. Caught off guard, she felt her cheeks flush and turned to watch Brent and Janie dancing. They were discussing something very intently, but laughing every so often. If she had to guess, she’d bet it was about their own wedding. The thought made her smile.
“Dance with me.”
She jumped. She’d been so intent on watching the couple on the dance floor, she completely missed hearing Kipling walk up behind her.
Without turning around, she replied, “No, that’s okay. I’m fine.” Because suddenly the thought of being that close to Kipling and having his arms around her, made her skin flush more.
“It wasn’t a question.”
She turned around to find him smiling and all but laughing at her. She decided to play along and raised an eyebrow. “Really? Don’t you know it’s not polite to go up and command a woman to dance with you?”
The hint of a smile teased his lips. “I thought you knew me well enough to know I’ve never been one to be called polite.”
She couldn’t think of anything to say back so she stood there, feeling flustered. Damn Kipling Benedict. She should have left after the ceremony and not cared about being offensive.
He took a step closer toward her. “I see you standing here, watching the couples dance, and yet you’re not dancing. And I realize you didn’t come with a date and I don’t have a date.” He shrugged. “We might as well have a go.”
“No, thank you,” she said. “I don’t want to be anyone’s pity dance.”
“Let’s get one thing straight, why don’t we.” He leaned down and spoke in a low voice she knew no one else heard. “I do very many things and I do them for all kinds of reasons, but I never do anything out of pity, especially when it comes to a beautiful woman.”
Her brain threatened to short circuit. She blinked. “Why would you…” She trailed off as his hand moved to stroke her shoulder.
“We’ve both tried to ignore it, but we know there’s something between us.” His voice grew rougher. “Let’s give into it just for today. For one dance.”
She looked toward the dancing couples, imagining his arms around her, and licked her lips, on the verge of saying yes. She shook her head. “It’s not appropriate. I’m involved in several cases that have ties to your family.”
“It’s one dance, Alyssa.” While he spoke, he still stroked her shoulder. The touch of his fingers made her want to feel his hands everywhere. “At my brother’s wedding. There’s nothing wrong with two single people enjoying themselves.”
Why did she get the impression he was talking about more than a dance?
She closed her eyes, but doing so did nothing to diminish the way his touch felt. She could get lost in his touch without even thinking twice. To agree to a dance would be one step down a path that offered nothing but heartache and trouble.
“Yes,” she said anyway.
His hand slipped off her shoulder and he held it out to her. God, she was actually doing this. She took the offered hand, noting how warm it was and she didn’t think she was imagining the strength it contained.
He didn’t say anything as he led them to the dance floor. She stared at him, not looking to either side for fear of seeing the other wedding guests’ reaction. She didn’t realize how stiff and uncomfortable she must look until he whispered, “It’s not an execution, you know. A smile wouldn’t be remiss.”
She smiled, but it felt fake. What didn’t feel fake was the way her body reacted when he slipped his arms around her. She lowered her head, hoping to keep to herself the fact that her skin flushed at such close contact with Kipling.
“If I’d known you would feel so good in my arms, I’d have asked you to dance long before now,” he said.
She tried to imagine them dancing at any of the previous times they’d been together. The image of them dancing while she arrested him made her chuckle with its ridiculousness.
“There we go,” Kipling said. “Now people will think we’re having a good time instead of assuming I’m torturing you.”
She pulled back to look at him and make a snappy comeback, but instead she found herself caught up in his eyes. They were the most mesmerizing color. A light brown that somehow appeared golden. How had she never noticed his eyes before and why did they seem so familiar?
The corner of his mouth uplifted in a half smile.“Cat got your tongue?”
“You looked like you were going to say something, but then you stopped.”
Had she? “I don’t remember.”
“That’s not good,” he said. “I don’t mind rendering you speechless, but affecting your mental capacity isn’t on my agenda.”
She’d like to know exactly what was on his agenda concerning her. She bet it was mind-blowing. But what was truly mind-blowing was the way he looked at her with such intensity. It was a bit unnerving and she was starting to understand why Kipling was so good in business. Not a lot of people could stand up to the scrutiny of his gaze. Fortunately, she’d had plenty of experience dealing with intense stares.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked.
“Like you’re looking for something or waiting for me to do something.”
“Am I?” he asked in such a way that proved he was, in fact, the most tedious man ever.
She decided not to even bother with a reply. She focused on a blank wall and willed the song to be over soon so she could start to pretend his arms really didn’t feel as good as they did and that his body didn’t seem oh so right pressed up against hers.
“Actually,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d like to have dinner with me?”
She stopped dancing completely. “Are you asking me out? Seriously?”
“For someone who didn’t want to cause a scene, you aren’t being the most discreet right this second.”
She glanced around and saw that they had quite a few eyes watching them. She smiled at them and nodded to Kipling to start moving again.
“Why would you ask me out?” she said.
“You know, I didn’t peg you as the type to need an ego boost, but you’re smart and attractive.” The sincerity of his expression took her breath and she had to look away. “And I’m willing to bet underneath the layers of sarcasm, you have a delightful personality. I’d like to find out.”
“I arrested you.”
“And you later released me.”
“I have actively investigated your family.”
“And you’ve found no evidence of anything shady,” he said, obviously enjoying their exchange way too much.
“Now, I wouldn’t say that. Difficult? Maybe. But not impossible. Not for you.”
“I don’t … I mean … It’s not…” Why did this man leave her so flustered? “Not a good idea.”
Thankfully, she was saved from having to say anything else by the song coming to an end. She pulled out of his embrace, turned, and walked away, while ignoring the way he called after her.
* * *
Jade stood across the street from the reception, knowing there was a possibility that anyone leaving the venue might see her. This was the closest she’d been to any of the Benedicts in over a month. Maybe her subconscious wanted them to see her.
She’d hidden her birth certificate in the oven of the house Knox and Bea were renovating. The unassuming scrap of paper that proclaimed for anyone to see that the Benedict clan was more than the three brothers everyone knew about. There was also a daughter no one knew about. Not a legitimate one, of course, but fathered by Franklin Benedict himself. She’d assumed, when she left the birth certificate, that it’d be found by Knox or Bea. But what if they hadn’t found it yet? Worse still, what if it’d been found by someone who had no idea what it was and they’d thrown it away?
Or, maybe whoever found it thought it had been left by someone with dubious intentions. She had to admit, they would have correctly guessed her original plans. But, as time had passed and she’d gotten to know them, she’d realized they weren’t evil like she’d always been told. And by the time she’d left the birth certificate, she’d only wanted to get to know them better.
It had been a rash move on her part to leave the birth certificate. She always felt a bit socially inept and had no idea how to introduce herself as the found sister that no one knew was missing. Not to mention, there had been doubt on their part about who she was and what she wanted due in part to her initial interaction with Tilly that could not have been seen as anything other than questionable.
But the truth was the next move would be up to her. She’d not only dropped a bomb on the Benedict boys—she still couldn’t wrap her mind around the words “her brothers”—but she’d left no way for them to contact her.
It had made sense at the time, but looking back now she saw it for what it was: a way to delay meeting everyone face to face and having them remember, every time they saw her, that their father had been unfaithful to their mother. She hadn’t been ready for the looks they would have for her. She still wasn’t.
Which was why she was currently standing on the opposite side of the street from the reception, instead of being somewhere safe and away from The Gentleman and his crew. She wondered if Tom was still looking for her. Maybe it was wrong of her to come back to South Carolina. She had actually left the state for a few days, and went down to the northern part of Georgia. But that hadn’t lasted long. The call of both South Carolina and her unknown family was too strong for her to stay away for long.
She was going to have to do something different soon, though. She was quickly running out of money. Not to mention food. Although with the ocean nearby that was oftentimes easier to deal with, since she could catch fish. Sleep was another issue which she hadn’t been handling very well. Now that she was back in South Carolina, she needed to get back to her old habits of sleeping for just a few hours, then getting up, and changing places.
She inwardly cursed herself. She was getting soft and forgetting everything The Gentleman had told her. She just needed to toughen up. Maybe a few more days on the street would help.
The only thing that made her uneasy—well, one of the things that made her uneasy—was that she had not seen Tom. He had been after her before she left for Georgia, and she expected him to still be around. He wanted revenge for the beating he’d received for something she’d done, but truthfully, it was The Gentleman he should blame. Regardless, so far, she had seen no sign of him. Though, she would much rather see Tom than The Gentleman.
No, if there was one person she wanted to stay away from, it was The Gentleman. She was probably a fool for coming back to the state of South Carolina with that man still looking for her. But to not come back would be to let him win, because she knew he would never stop looking for her.
The plan was to somehow approach the Benedicts and work out together how to approach The Gentleman and bring him down.
She could almost imagine it. In fact, she was so caught up in the fantasy of her newfound family embracing her with open arms, and the downfall of The Gentleman, she didn’t hear the footsteps behind her until it was too late.
Strong arms came around her. She inhaled the scent of evil. And then she heard it speak.
“Welcome back. I’m going to make you wish you stayed away.”
She tried to struggle but he was too strong. She felt a pinprick in her neck. The last thing she remembered before darkness overtook her, was Knox and Bea coming out of the reception hall. Standing in the sunlight and kissing.
Copyright © 2018 by Tara Thomas