Riccardo’s gloved lanky fingers carefully unsealed the envelope. Slowly, he pulled it open and peeked in. Reaching for his tweezers he grasped the single photo and pulled it out and laid it on the desk before him. He began to carefully dust it for prints. None. He wasn’t surprised. He dusted the envelope, but he was willing to bet the only ones on it belonged to the dozens of mail handlers that got it to him. The fact that there was no note attached only made the hairs on his neck tingle more. His gut told him to treat it like it was a threat until he knew different. He leaned forward and picked up the phone to his secure line. “Hey Jeremiah, I need you and Jarrod to meet me in Virginia like yesterday. Yeah a little girl is in danger. Who? My daughter.”
Two weeks later….
Winnie tapped her last click on her keyboard transmitting the last of the assignments to P.D.A’s of the professional organizers in the field. She glanced once more to the letter that she’d scanned earlier, picked it up and gave it a perusal. What she didn’t understand was why this Elizabeth Lindsey insisted on she being the one to handle the account. She was certified, but up until now, she had remained in the office as coordinator to London. She bit the tip of her nail while twirling her hair around another finger as she considered what to do. After a few more minutes, she switched the phones over to the answering service, grabbed her portfolio and purse and walked out of the office.
She reached for her cell phone and texted Cynetra to tell her where she was going, and then headed West on Interstate 64. As she turned off James Road, she continued up what looked like another road, but she’d been told in the letter it would be the direct driveway of the Conte Estate.
Finally, she pulled up next to a black Lexus SUV. She reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed her things. Taking a steadying breath, she opened the car door and began up the cobble-stoned walk toward the picturesque house.
She could smell the scent of water and supposed it was the breeze stirring off the James River. Manicured lawn edged with a mixture of flowers added to the setting. Trees enclosed the property allowing for privacy. The only open view was the water, which was on the other side of the house. She took in the topiary shrubs at the door as she raised her hand to ring the bell, wondering how someone in such a house could have need of their services.
The door pulled open with an unbuttoned sleeve visible but little else. A full-fledged conversation was in flow and a confused Winnie stood her ground, leaning forward she yelled inside, “Hello?”
The blue shirt reappeared attached to a male body. Winnie’s eyes connected with sparse hairs on a naked chiseled chest and it skipped down to a firm six-pack before they rose and connected with chocolate brown eyes. She knew she was staring, but he looked like a Shemar Moore look a-like and for a moment, she was stunned. She could see he was on the phone, but that didn’t stop his full sensual lips from sliding into a knowing smirk, before he fervently waved her inside. She slowly followed behind him and watched as his shirt flapped at his sides. She was immediately faced with furniture in the middle of the floor. As her eyes scanned the room, it occurred to her that someone had just moved in and hadn’t bothered to arrange anything. She stepped past the foyer and followed his voice past the living room into the kitchen. This room appeared to have a lot of order to it, but she figured it was so through necessity. He gestured holding the coffee carafe up in an unspoken invitation. She nodded and watched him pull out another mug and pour coffee into it before sliding it toward her. He turned and walked toward his chrome refrigerator and pulled out some creamer and placed it and a sugar bowl and spoon before her.
“Yeah, well Rich I gotta go. Got some company.” He looked over his shoulder at her, “Mmmhmm every bit. Alright man. Later!”
He set his cell phone down on the counter and turned toward her while he continued to button his shirt. “Ms. Rossellini I presume. I’m Riccardo Conte,” he said as he extended his hand toward her.
She extended her hand to grasp his and wondered if she imagined the tingle that danced up her arm. She quickly pulled her hand back and now frowned at him over her coffee mug. After taking a sip, she placed it down on the counter. “Are you always so rude to your guests?”
Riccardo pulled a black and white stool that matched the art-deco styled kitchen. He smiled wide enough to reach the lines outside his eyes. “My apologies. It was a call from Japan that I had to complete. Do you forgive me?”
It took everything inside of Winnie to harden her glance. His spoke in the dulcet tones of Blair Underwood and she couldn’t explain how that affected the walls of her womb. She reminded herself that he charmed the panties off women. She knew firsthand the type of damage his charms could wreak upon a woman’s heart. Besides, as far as she was concerned this man was her cousin Gianni’s nemesis. His cowardice was why her family was mending now. Ahn-ahn–no matter how seductive his eyes were or how heart melting his smile, she had to be strong.
“So I expected to meet someone named Elizabeth. Why the subterfuge?” She asked watching him closely.
“Is that what that was? Or could it be that I’m just too busy to draft my own letters?” He winked at her then slid off the stool. “Let’s take a walk.”
She followed him into the living room again. He gestured. “All of this is a combination of my parent’s furniture and what I had moved here from my apartment in Colorado. This house had been closed up for a few months– well since the death of my mom. My dad died last year.”
“I’m sorry.” Winnie interjected.
“Yeah,” he sighed, “Me too. Now I have to relocate here at the same time I have begun to set up my new business.”
“What business is that?”
“I’m in security, “he said, “I can’t afford to work disorganized. So I need a few systems set up for me.”
They were walking toward the back hallway and he unlatched the sliding doors and stepped out. The wind was blowing softly and the river was the focal point. Winnie sighed, enraptured by the picturesque view.
“This is beautiful.” She murmured. She slid into one of the white cushioned chairs that afforded her a view through translucent plastic panels.
Riccardo pointed out over the banister, “My favorite view of the house. My parent’s bedroom suite is on this side. Soon as I can get over the fact that it once belonged to them, maybe I can wake up to this view every day.”
Winnie softened her glance. “Are you staying in the house?”
“Last night was the first night and it wasn’t fun.” He turned away from her and looked toward the water. It was quiet. A country quiet filled with a cacophony of natural sounds, insects, birdsong, the wind rustling through leaves, and grasses as it moved around the side of his house. It was melodic and she could envision easily being lulled to sleep.
She turned and looked at Riccardo. “So, which one of us is going to bring up the elephant in the room?”
He leaned his head over to the side and smirked before rolling his shoulders. He turned and faced the house as he leaned against the wall. “What elephant?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Winnie said rising from the chair. She handed him her coffee mug before she marched inside and started down the corridor toward the front door.
“Wait a minute!”
She stopped in her tracks and turned slowly and looked at him. “Yes?”
He walked past her. “Well you don’t expect me to get into it standing in this hallway do you?”
She followed him to the living room and squeezed past the mix matched furniture to an armchair across from the one he was sitting, she perched on the edge.
“What do you want to know?” he asked as he leaned back and crossed his thigh over his knee.
She smiled easily at him. She saw the jest dancing in his eyes and knew he was one that wanted to play games. She slid back and eased one leg over a knee and folded her hands over it. “I know I may look like I have nothing else to do but entertain you Mr. Conte. But I assure you, I have other customers. “
“Listen, I don’t know what you want from me. I’m a customer paying you to do a job. Skipping back down memory lane with you before I even chat with your cousin is a bit uncomfortable for me. “
“Okay, well tell me this; are you trying to taunt my cousin Gianni in any way? Because if so, I can tell you right now this deal is done.” She said as she gestured with a chop at her neck.
He looked down at the floor. “No, the last thing I want to do is taunt your cousin. I came back to set a few things straight. But I feel like I need to have the conversation with him before anyone. Does that make sense?”
She nodded, but still felt he was holding back crucial information that she needed. Still, she couldn’t argue that Gianni deserved a conversation with him first. And perhaps it was none of her business. She just couldn’t put a finger on why she felt unease settle over her heart. She tried to shake it off. She looked at him again. Maybe it was the slump in his shoulders that made her decide to concede, but the next moment she heard herself saying, “Okay. Well it’s Friday. We don’t work over the weekend. So Monday…”
“I’m sorry Edwina…”
“Winnie, I can’t live in this all weekend…”
“Um Mr. Conte…”
“Riccardo, I’m not sure If you understand what I—we do. I think you need to hire a moving crew to get things in place.”
“Winnie, I have sensitive information in my house. I’ve done some government work before moving back here. I can’t just let anyone into my house. It has to be you.”
“You’re kidding right?”
“Do I look like I’m kidding? I need us to work on it so that I can have a lot of it done by Monday. Monday, I begin actively working on a new case, and it’s an important account.”
Winnie looked at him, completely stunned. She wanted to help him and yet she didn’t know him. He was a stranger. Well of course, he wasn’t a complete stranger. His name had been bantered about in whispers among her family members for years, she just hadn’t known the significance until recently. Now, he was back and that was suspect too. Was he back to try to take Adrianna from Gianni and London? All of these questions bounced around her head. Now she wondered if doing this job, if perhaps spending a weekend with him could answer some of them. “A group of us could work on this faster…” she offered. But she saw his face twist before he stood and walked away.
He took quick strides from her toward the kitchen. Maybe he’d been wrong to ask her to come out to him house. He should have expected some resistance from any woman being asked to stay in the home of a complete stranger. This woman knew just enough about him to refuse. He had doubts about contacting Gianni’s cousin but he trusted her because he trusted Gianni—trusted his family. When he’d returned and found out that Gianni was in the process of adopting his daughter he realized it was singlehandedly the one act that had complicated as well as simplified his life simultaneously.
Now that he’d retired from the FBI, he wanted a life of peace. It was only when he’d gotten a picture of Adele that the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise and he realized that life of peace wasn’t going to be easy. His only connection to Adele had been Gianni and the child he’d never gotten to know—had never even been really sure existed until recently. When Adele had told him that she was pregnant, he’d been scared for sure. He let his father talk him into moving Colorado to reside with his aunt. But that burden had followed him all through his stint in the military, then a few black ops and eventually the FBI. He’d been all over the world and the one thing he hadn’t been able to find was peace of mind, because everywhere he went, there he was.
Now he was here, back where it had all began and he couldn’t blame Winnie’s apprehension in the least. In fact, he expected to hear the front door close any minute. Basically, he was asking that she spend an entire weekend with him, a stranger to get a house in order. And he’d had no choice. Now he was forced to do so alone. Jeremiah and Jarrod would arrive soon. Men he’d worked on missions with in the past. Men handpicked to help install security throughout his house. Since they’d retired, he would throw private investigating work their way here and there. Now that he was pursuing it full-time, they were going to work for him on a regular basis, their first assignment was to watch Adrianna.
“Hey!” Her voice startled him out of his thoughts.
“I’m in—I just need to run home and grab a few things.”
He turned and placed the mugs and saucers in the sink then turned back to her.
She narrowed her gaze in on his taut lips, “That’s not enough is it? Why didn’t you tell me that I was going to be kidnapped before I arrived here?”
“You’re free to go. But you can’t come back. I can’t take the chance that you will be followed.”
“Okay, If I agree to this bizarre plan, I need to be able to let someone know where I am and …” she looked at him pointedly, “You’ll have to tell me what you’re really protecting. And don’t tell me it’s some sensitive records. It’s something else and I want to know what it is. Do we have a deal?”
Riccardo grimaced. “Deal, but I tell only when I get ready to divulge. Then and only then do I promise to tell you why I’m taking such protective lengths.
She stood, “Okay you can walk me to the room where I’ll be staying.”
“I’d be happy to. Follow me.”
As they stepped around and over furniture in the hallway leading to the staircase, Winnie began to fuss. “I still don’t understand why this furniture is placed here like this.”
“My mother thought she was helping by hiring a few college students to move my furniture from Colorado for me while I was out of the country. She insisted so, I let her. In the meanwhile, she went into the hospital and I barely made it back to the States before she passed. Needless to say, getting this house in order was the last thing on my mind. I closed the house up and took a few free-lance jobs. I managed to do that for a year. Then a few weeks ago, I was tired of running. I came home.”
His heart was heavy as he climbed the last step. Running for a year was hard, but running for ten years was downright exhausting. He’d learned that there came a time in every man’s life when he had to face his fears and most of all see what was the measure of his character. He’d taken that look and found his character lacking. “Here’s the room you will be staying in. I hope you find it decent, I spent a great deal of the night preparing it for you.”
She entered the rose-colored room. There on the full-sized bed was a few outfits, jeans, tops, sweats, a robe, and underthings. She turned to him stunned. “How did you know my size?”
He held his hands up, “Okay before you think I’m creepy, I spotted you at the wedding. I did some research on you…”
“Aw c’mon, don’t tell me my clothing size is in any gigabyte online.”
“No, but …I’ve known a few women.”
“You know what?!” She exclaimed, stalking toward the bed and grabbing a pillow. “Get out!”
“Going!” He said ducking and closing the door on pillow impact.
After she changed, she walked back into the living room and reached for her portfolio. She pulled out a checklist and sat in a chair.
“Shouldn’t I be getting you some gloves or something?” Riccardo asked smirking at her.
“Uh nope. That’s not what I do. I am the support person. You need to figure out what of this furniture you are going to keep. Here’s some post it notes. Write stay or leave. Let’s get busy, we have a house to catalogue—well you do anyway.” She said now returning his smirk. “You will also need to arrange for a furniture pick up. I can do it but … well, you don’t want me to use my phone.”
Riccardo tossed his onto her lap. “Fine, my security people should be in place by then.
“That’s good because you’re going to need some help getting the extra pieces of furniture outside.”
He nodded. “I hear you.”
“Good. I’ll start making a few calls.”
He took a few steps and then looked back, “You know you’re a little cocky. You must have some brothers.”
She giggled and held up two fingers. “Built like Mack trucks too. When they realized that I wouldn’t let them treat me like a china dish, they decided to train me to be the best at whatever they wanted to protect me from.”
“No way! I might have to test your skills out on the court for some b-ball.”
“Alright,” she sighed pretending to crack her knuckles. “If you want to put some money on it, I’m not shy.”
Riccardo chuckled. “I will definitely take you up on that. I have absolutely no problem taking your money.”
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