There were voices in the study as I entered the house. One of them I didn’t recognize. I decided I needed a shower more than anything, so I went up to my room to change first. I could only guess it was Nick’s replacement, right on schedule.
When I came down for dinner, my parents were already seated. There was another man sitting across from Dave at the long table. The stranger gave me the once-over as I entered the room. My first impression of him was coiled energy and muscles. Lots of lean muscles.
“Liam, you’re home tonight?” My mother greeted me, giving me a kiss on my cheek. “We’d have waited if I’d known.”
I leaned over and hugged her. “Of course I’m home for dinner. Just like a good boy.”
Her raised eyebrows signaled skepticism. She was shorter than me and plump. Her brown hair was cropped short, but her features were feminine and pretty.
“It’s a nice treat,” she said and sat back in her chair. “Liam, this is Scott Jackson. He’s here to take over for Nick.”
The guy rose and stuck out a tanned, strong hand. His brilliant gaze bored straight into mine. He was about six foot, with broad shoulders. His lashes were dark and long, and his arched black brows, square jaw, and cheekbones were beautifully symmetrical. His hair was blond and cut military-style. Even under his red dress shirt, those lean muscles were evident. He was better looking than Nick by far, and I felt a little jolt looking into those sky-blue eyes.
“Pleasure to meet you.” His voice was husky, quiet. But his grip was like steel.
“Likewise.” I pulled up a chair across from him, near my mother. “What are we eating?” I eyed the steaming bowls of food, trying to ignore my racing pulse.
“Pasta Michelangelo.” She pushed the plate toward me, and I helped myself to a big portion. I felt Jackson’s gaze on me as I scooped the angel-hair pasta and sauce. I took a bite, nodding appreciatively as the sweet and tangy flavor hit my tongue.
I met Jackson’s stare, but he didn’t look away, so I dropped my gaze and poured myself a glass of red wine.
“So I hear you’re the one who got Nick into trouble,” Jackson said. A small smile playing around his lips made his words seem less accusing.
“Whoa, no foreplay?” I asked, raising my brows.
“Liam,” my mother chided me.
“I don’t mean to be rude.” Jackson frowned. “Nick was my pal, so I’m curious.”
“Ask whatever you want. I don’t care,” I said, shrugging.
“I’m just trying to figure out how Nick got hurt,” Jackson continued.
“You’re not the only one,” Dave muttered across the table, chasing a piece of lettuce around his plate.
“Nick let his guard down,” I said.
“Nick was a wonderful young man, and we’ll all miss him very much,” my mother interjected, managing a nervous laugh.
My father’s voice boomed from the end of the table. “He was nice, but weak.”
Jackson ignored my dad and continued his line of questioning. “So if Nick says you instigated the fight with the guy, he’d be lying?”
“The guy was pissed because his girlfriend liked me.”
“Were you hitting on her or something?” he asked.
“She wasn’t my type.” My cheeks warmed.
“If she liked you so much, why was Nick the one who got stabbed?” His gaze seemed bright enough to scan my brain from across the table.
“Bad aim on the part of the guy with the knife?” Relentless little bastard aren’t you, Jackson?
Jackson narrowed his eyes. His expression was not amused. “Is this funny to you?”
“Of course not,” I said. “Nick was my pal
“You don’t seem to be taking it very seriously,” Jackson said.
“I don’t think I have the answers you want. You seem to be interested in details,” I responded.
“You were there. I assumed you might have some inside information,” he said.
“We weren’t exactly sober.” I met his gaze with a challenging expression. “So the details are a little fuzzy.”
My mother sighed. “I knew you two would get into trouble going out drinking every night.”
“I mean it. Nice kid, but he let you push him around, and that’s why he got a knife in the gut,” my father continued.
“The chick threw a drink in my face and lied about me groping her or something. From that point on, it got pretty confusing,” I said. “And you know, Dad, I wasn’t the one on duty.”
“No, but you were a bad influence on him,” my father said. “Nick had no backbone.”
“Look, I talked to Nick on the phone today. He’s going to be fine. Not to mention it’s never been my idea to have a babysitter following me everywhere I go.” I took another bite of pasta, not tasting it.
“I still say you got him into a situation he couldn’t handle,” said my dad.
I sputtered. “Was I supposed to be protecting him
Jackson cleared his throat. “Liam’s right. He was supposed to be looking out for your son, not getting hammered.”
I wasn’t sure if the new guy was trying to play nice with me or not, but I appreciated him trying to step in. My father was on the warpath, and I could use the help dodging arrows.
My dad mumbled a little at the end of the table but let the topic go, for now. “Did they almost die of shock seeing you down at the winery today?”
It was going to be that kind of evening. My dad would have his pound of flesh, one way or another.
“They did seem surprised,” I said.
“Can you blame them?” He toyed with his salad, his big bushy brows pulled together. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you hated it down there.”
I kept silent, chewing with great concentration.
“No. Liam doesn’t hate the winery. Do you, dear?” My mother prodded me under the table with a kick to my shin.
“Of course not,” I answered, rubbing my tender leg and squashing my desire to kick her back.
“Can’t imagine what there would be to hate about it. It affords you a good living. Don’t have to do a damn thing but reap the rewards,” the older man said with a disgusted snort.
I took my last bite of pasta, forcing it down with a sip of water. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”
My father huffed. “Don’t think I care for your tone, Liam. I suppose it’s our fault you dropped out of college?”
I was cringing inside as I watched the new guy over my wineglass. I’d been hoping to ease him into our little dysfunctional family. But I guess my father wanted to dump all the dirty laundry out on the table in full view tonight.
“Liam, if you’re done eating, would you mind showing me up to my room?” Jackson’s soft voice cut through the tension like a heated knife through cream cheese. He stood, and it seemed to have a quieting effect on my father, who nodded.
“You really should get the lay of the land, Scott,” Dad said.
“I should have shown you earlier,” my mother exclaimed.
Jackson displayed a playful grin. Small crinkles appeared at the edges of his blue eyes, and he flashed his white teeth as he looked at my mother. “I think I was drooling on your floor, so you decided to feed me first.”
I stared in disbelief as my mom and dad dissolved into laughter. Who were these people? Was he a witch doctor or something?
I led him out of the dining room, at a loss for words. Or to be more truthful, pretty irritated.
“Did you slip something into their wine?” I said, stomping up the stairs in front of him.
“Of course. I put some in yours too, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”
I shot him a disapproving look over my shoulder, but he met my gaze with that smiling confidence I was starting to hate.
We reached our floor, and I tapped on my bedroom door as we passed by. “This one’s mine.” I kept walking to the room next to mine. “This was Nick’s, so I’m guessing it’s now yours.”
He stopped at the door of Nick’s old room and stared at me, his lips twitching with humor. “Maybe it’s because your parents seem so protective, but I thought maybe we’d share the same room and sleep in bunk beds.”
“And braid each other’s hair every night?”
He reached up to his cropped hair, raking his tanned hand over his head. “Crap. I didn’t think this through.”
Jackson stood there grinning, as relaxed as a sunbathing sea lion. The discord at dinner seemed to have no effect on him at all. Maybe everyone he looked after had screwed-up family dynamics.
“I need to get my bag out of my car,” Jackson said.
“If you don’t mind, after that I’d be more comfortable if Dave gave me a quick tour of the house.” Jackson stood, hands on hips. “I’ll need the codes to any alarms. I need to know where all the entrances and exits are. Things like that.”
“Of course.” I nodded. “I’ll have Dave meet us up here after you get your stuff.”
It took about two hours for Dave to show Jackson the house. I decided to tag along because I was bored and Jackson was a good-looking guy. I quite enjoyed watching him bend over as he examined every door and window with meticulous detail. He wanted to know if we had any weapons, and he asked Dave if he had personal information for every employee on the estate for background checks.
“Nick didn’t do any of that.” I said.
“I did,” Dave volunteered. “I’ll get that to you tomorrow, bro.”
“Appreciate it, man,” Jackson said, giving Dave a slap on the back as the other man made his way downstairs.
“Most of our employees have been with us for years,” I said, observing their machismo interaction. “You don’t need to protect us from them.”
“You’d be amazed how many kidnapping attempts and assaults come from inside the circle of trust.”
“You’re the stranger, Jackson,” I said.
“Please, call me Scott.” He smiled. “And I’m not trying to be insulting. It’s not about who’s a stranger and who isn’t. It’s about motive.”
“There is no motive. This town loves my family.”
Scott was distracted as he answered, looking at his cell phone. “You’re missing the point. It isn’t about them liking
you. It’s about opportunity and need.”
“We pay our staff very well,” I said, irked at his dismissive attitude.
He took a deep breath. “You have no idea what’s going on in their lives. They could be in severe financial straits. Someone approaches them, and it seems harmless enough to them. They give info. They get a huge chunk of money, and no one gets hurt. Or so they think.”
His voice reminded me of the tone my kindergarten teacher used on me when I’d been annoying her as a child. I half expected him to reach out and pat me on the head. “I think it’s bullshit I even have
a bodyguard. I mean, we’re not the Rockefellers.”
The line of his mouth thinned, although he kept a smile around his eyes. “No, but your family is wealthy enough to make you a target for extortion.”
“It seems a little over-the-top to me.” I scowled. “We only had that one incident.”
Scott’s face became still, and he seemed to be looking past me. “Sometimes it starts out like that.”
His empty gaze sent a chill through me, but he turned away and fiddled with the alarm keypad, and I couldn’t see his face. “What does that mean?”
“Let’s just say it can get real ugly, real fast.”
I swallowed. “Did someone die or something...on your watch?”
His gaze was odd and fervent as he gave me what I considered a nonanswer. “In some situations the best you can do is keep loss of lives to a minimum.”
“So is that a yes?” What the hell?
“I’m not trying to scare you, Liam.” Scott looked tired all at once. “But it’s important you let me do my job. That might include implementing procedures you think are unnecessary.”
“Crap. I would think you guys would be trained to handle anything
“We are, and I’m not sloppy, like Nick.” Scott paused a moment. “But if my client won’t listen to me, I’m not fucking Superman either.”