Gentle Protector – Linda Wisdom

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Keri Burke hadn’t always been gun-shy around men. But, pregnant and alone, the owner of K.B. Temps certainly wasn’t ready to start learning how to trust again now. Why wouldn’t Ryan Kincaid, ruggedly handsome business tycoon, take no for an answer? Somehow her failed marriage, her difficult pregnancy, and her one disastrous mistake didn’t seem to matter. Keri knew that a man like Ryan was used to getting his way, and that spelled danger. The last thing she wanted was a keeper, especially one who could be so disarmingly gentle and wickedly sensual at the same time. Against her own will, he was bringing her back to life. He was kind and caring. Why was it so hard to believe that he was the man she could trust with her heart, her future, her life?

These business breakfasts were all alike and as boring as hell! Ryan grimaced as he entered the large banquet room filled with many white cloth-covered tables.
“You need to start attending these business functions,” Jason Caldwell, his partner, had informed him the day before. “It’s a great way to make contacts. You never know who you may meet.”
“Sure—all the old-timers who think they were the ones to bring prosperity to the city,” Ryan had answered.
Still, he showed up at the restaurant the next morning at seven sharp, was shown to the correct banquet room by an overly attentive hostess, signed in, and accepted the paper name badge; Ryan Kincaid, it said, with Kin-Cal Property Investments written underneath.
Ryan sauntered over to a long buffet table and poured himself a cup of coffee from the large urn. At least it was hot, if not totally drinkable. He turned to let his gaze wander over the room; standing apart from the group, he made an impressive image. Just over six feet, with hair the color of rich sable and eyes the same dark shade, he was an arresting figure in a dark blue three-piece suit with a pale blue shirt and matching tie. His lean body was that of a man who either didn’t have to worry about his weight or worked diligently at keeping himself in shape. The dark tan attested to his love of the outdoors. A sprinkling of silver at the temples, and lines fanning out around his eyes, and faint lines around his mouth, indicated a man past the thirty-year mark and on his way to forty who’d be a remarkable-looking man even when he was sixty.
Ryan’s eyes roamed over the clusters of people, passed over one group, then swung back again. He could only see her profile, but that was enough to capture his atten­tion.
Hair the color of rich antique gold shone brightly under the artificial lights, and he’d wager his life that it wasn’t the result of a hairdresser’s careful coloring job. Cut just below chin length in a sassy style that feathered away from her face, it gave him an excellent opportunity to study her well-defined features. Even her smile in profile was enough to leave him stunned. He studied her left hand, which was holding a coffee cup. Her only ring was on the second finger and certainly didn’t look like a wed­ding band or engagement ring. So far, so good.
As if she were aware that she was under observation, she slowly turned, allowing her eyes to sweep casually over the room until they encountered his dark eyes. For a moment they halted and widened slightly, as if sensing a message in their sable depths; then they swiftly looked away. He noticed with satisfaction that the hand that held the coffee cup wasn’t quite as steady now.
Ryan took a quick swallow of his coffee, set the cup down, and looked around for Jason. When he found his partner, he quickly walked over to the other man.
“Ryan, glad to see you could make it.” The gray-haired, portly man greeted him with a smile and clap on the shoulder. “I’d like you to meet—”
“First,” Ryan interrupted him, “the woman over there in the far corner—dark-blond hair in a sort of blue dress: Do you know her?”
Jason glanced over in the direction Ryan indicated. “Keri Burke. She owns a temporary personnel agency.”
“Introduce me.”
The older man laughed as if he knew something Ryan didn’t. “Old buddy, it would be easier for you to put the make on the queen of England than her.”
“She’s not married,” Ryan stated flatly; yet, he was a little unsure of his statement.
“No, but she’s dead set against men,” Jason explained. “There have been those who have tried, but none have succeeded to my knowledge.”
Ryan watched Keri, his brows knitted in a frown. “You can’t mean she’s—”
Jason laughed louder this time. “No, I just think she got burned badly and is a little gun-shy of men. Do your­self a favor and look around for someone else to play with,” he advised.
Ryan merely smiled noncommittally and wandered off, keeping an eye on Keri Burke, positive that she was keep­ing a cautious eye on his prowling figure too. He was getting more curious about her by the minute. What color were her eyes? What was her preference in music? His instincts spoke loudly and clearly. She wasn’t romantically involved . . . yet.
He deliberately stayed away from the group Keri was talking with, sure that if he approached her, she would find an excuse to leave. He’d bide his time until the moment was right. He didn’t have to wait long.
When the time came for everyone to be seated, Ryan made sure he took a seat at Keri’s table, directly across from her. When she flashed him a cool smile, he didn’t smile in return and received a puzzled frown from her. Now he knew. Her eyes were a curious combination of blue and green, and in the cool depths there was just the slightest hint of sadness. Most people might not notice it, but he did because he had gone through a bad hurt himself. Was that why she steered away from men? He silently cursed the man who had hurt such a lovely woman.
Keri could feel a strange heat invade her body under Ryan’s gaze. He was new to the area and to the club. She attended the monthly breakfasts on a regular basis and he hadn’t been there before. She was sure of that. He was someone she definitely wouldn’t have forgotten.
Of course, she had met Larry, an ex-boyfriend, there and she would never be able to forget the nightmare he had led her into. She was glad that he had left town, because she doubted that she would ever be able to face him again. Keri doubted that even the pain she had experienced due to her ex-husband Don’s callous treatment of her could equal what Larry had done to her.
She picked up her glass of orange juice and let the chilled liquid slide down her suddenly parched throat.
Men had looked at Keri before, and she usually was able coolly to let them know she didn’t appreciate them undressing her with their eyes. But this man was different. Oh, he was studying her with those dark eyes, but he wasn’t mentally stripping her. He was much more dan­gerous because his thought processes were delving their way into her soul!
“K. Burke.” His eyes swept over the badge stuck on the silky cotton just over her right breast. “‘K.B. Temps.’ Are you related?”
Keri nodded. “I am K.B. Temps.”
“Which is . . . ?” He arched a questioning eyebrow and leaned back in his chair, hooking an arm over the back. For a moment her eyes couldn’t stray from the enticing sight of the front of his shirt stretched across his chest just above his buttoned vest.
She had a strong suspicion that he already knew about her agency but for some reason preferred to hear it from her. “I have a temporary personnel service.” Her low voice was music to a man’s ears.
“Clerical?” he quizzed.
“All phases, Mr. . . . ?” It was now her turn to study his name tag. “. . . Kincaid.”
“How about a secretary familiar with real estate terminology, typing, shorthand, all the usual duties?” Ryan asked brusquely. “Someone who can take criticism without breaking down in tears, work overtime without complaining, and put up with a very bad-tempered boss?”
Keri’s smile was more breathtaking when he saw it straight on. “Are you sure you haven’t forgotten anything?”
“If she cracks under pressure just once, she’ll be out on her can,” he continued crisply, oblivious to the interested listeners at their table.
“Do I detect that you’re giving me a job order?” She decided it would be better if she put this conversation on a businesslike basis right away. She thought that he would prefer to put it on another level altogether.
“As long as I don’t get someone who looks as if she belongs in a centerfold,” Ryan insisted.
Keri dug into her purse, pulled out her business card, and handed it across the table to Ryan. He returned the gesture with one of his own.
“The rate for such an impeccable character can be high,” she cautioned lightly.
“As long as she’s worth it,” he told her in an arrogant voice.
Keri was grateful when scrambled eggs and bacon with hash brown potatoes and English muffins appeared. She already sensed that this very basic male was more than she cared to handle.
All the while she ate, she was very much aware of the man seated across from her. Ryan Kincaid was a go-getter. She could feel it in her bones that he was a man accustomed to getting his way, whether it concerned business or women. Right now he was busy exerting a potent charm over the other two women and two men at the table, especially the women. Even Addie Lake, a brusque, sharp-spoken woman in her fifties, had softened under Ryan’s sincere interest in her gourmet shop.
Keri knew something the others didn’t. Ryan had the uncanny ability to carry on a conversation with them while keeping his concentration solely on one person—her. The food was tasteless in her mouth. She wouldn’t have a man in her life right now. She couldn’t have one!
The speaker may have been good, but Keri didn’t hear one word. She was too conscious of Ryan lounging in his chair, one hand resting on the snowy tablecloth.
What was it about him that attracted women? He didn’t fit the conventional idea of a handsome man. His features were too rugged, his hands strong-looking, as if he enjoyed working with them; the fingers were slightly blunt at the tips, but she had a good idea that they could be gentle when stroking a woman. His jaw was uncompromising, his eyes too discerning. She felt as if he were seeking the path to her soul. He was a dangerous man who would be more at home in the jungle than in civilization.
Keri suddenly felt very uneasy. She fumbled under the table for her purse and slipped out of her seat. She had never walked out during a speech before, but this year had been full of a great many firsts for her. As she crept out of the banquet room she sensed a pair of dark eyes burning into her every step of the way.
Serena, the receptionist at K.B. Temps, greeted her boss with a broad smile. Her silvery hair, kept in a neat coil on top of her head, and the lines fanning out from her eyes and cheeks proclaimed her to be in her late fifties or early sixties, but her energy and enthusiasm for her job belonged to a woman much younger.
“The breakfast is over so early?”
“No, I just wasn’t interested in hearing about the benefits of advertising in local business magazines.” She picked up the pink message slips marked with her name. “Are all our new lambs in safe and sound?”
Serena nodded. Part of her job was to call and verify that the workers had reported to their new jobs on the first day without mishap.
Keri walked back to her office, greeting the other two personnel consultants on the way. Mondays were always their busiest days, and this was no exception, judging by the constant ringing of the phones. The typewriter keys rattled in the background as an applicant took her typing test.
Keri closed her office door in order to have peace and quiet. She walked around her desk to her chair before sorting through her messages. The top one seemed to jump out at her: Ryan Kincaid of Kin-Cal called. Please call him with the name of a replacement secretary. According to the time jotted in the corner, the call hadn’t been made more than five minutes after she had left.
She swiveled her chair around and switched on the small computer sitting on the credenza. In no time she had the pertinent information displayed on the screen. A number was punched out on the telephone and a seductive feminine voice answered the call: “Hello.”
“Cassie, it’s Keri.” She settled the receiver firmly between her shoulder and jaw. “How would you like to begin work for a bad-tempered ogre tomorrow?”
Cassie’s laugh was equally sensual. “Is combat pay involved?”
“I guarantee I’ll make it worth your while, because you certainly deserve every penny. This man wants a virtual machine, and if anyone can make him toe the line, I’m sure you can,” Keri said confidently.
“I take it he’s good-looking.”
“Cassie, your only duties are secretarial,” she reminded with a laugh, acknowledging a private joke between the two women. “This man is a new client, and something deep down tells me that the agency could get a lot of business from him as long as he’s happy with our service.” Since Cassie had been one of Keri’s first applicants and their working relationship had later grown into a close friendship, Keri knew she could talk to her bluntly. All she kept to herself was the fact that Ryan Kincaid was the kind of man to pack quite a punch in the masculinity department! That she preferred not to think about.
Cassie laughed. “All right, give me all the gory details. I’ll keep him in line.”
“Good enough. That’s why I called you first.” Keri dug into her purse, drew out Ryan’s business card, and read off his name, the name of the company, and the office address. “Give me a call at home tomorrow night and let me know how it looks over there. Just make sure you have him eating out of your hand—not taking a bite out of it!”
After Keri rang off with Cassie, she knew she had to make another call, which turned her hands to ice. It was a few moments before she could force her fingers to work properly. She was put through immediately.
“Kincaid.” His throaty voice sent shivers along her spine.
“Keri Burke, Mr. Kincaid.” The deep breath she had taken as she dialed kept her voice level. How could one brief meeting with this man affect her so? “I wanted to let you know that your temporary secretary is Cassandra Matthews.” A tiny smile flitted across her lips when she quoted the rate.
“She’d better be worth every penny, Keri, or I’ll take it out of your hide.” There was no indication in his voice that he was surprised by the high rate.
Even the way he said her name made her nerve endings tingle. “I’m sure you’ll be more than pleased with Cassie’s performance.” Her cool voice belied the tremors this man could create even across the phone. “I’ll meet you for lunch tomorrow then and let you know what I think about your impeccable employee,” Ryan inserted silkily.
Keri froze. He certainly didn’t waste any time, did he? But then, Larry hadn’t, either, when he first persuaded her to go out with him. “Isn’t it difficult to evaluate a worker after only a few hours?” she said evasively.
“Honey, I’ll know within five minutes if she’ll work out or not,” he declared. “Since I’m fairly new to the area, I’ll let you choose the restaurant.”
“It’s usually the agency who takes the client out,” she protested stiffly.
“Fine with me. What time shall I pick you up?”
She had fallen very neatly into his trap! There was no way she could back out now. “I’ll come by your office,” she replied. “Is twelve-thirty all right?”
“No problem there. See you tomorrow, Keri. And the name is Ryan,” he said, then hung up.
Keri set the phone down and leaned back in her chair. Even Larry hadn’t affected her so potently in the beginning. The beginning . . . The end would be more like it.
She quickly wrote up the pertinent information and took the paperwork out to Serena. The receptionist glanced over the company name and arched an eyebrow.
“Hmm, Ryan Kincaid. He was the sexy voice this morning.” She smiled up at her boss. “Where did you find him?”
“It was more like he found me,” Keri explained dryly. “He was at the breakfast this morning.”
“Talk about a fast worker,” Serena teased, then softened at Keri’s pale features. “You know very well you’re not going to be able to hide out forever, Keri. We’re all behind you here. If he tries anything, he’ll have all of us going after him with clubs!” She laughed, hoping to brighten her boss’s features.
It worked. Keri’s smile was brief, but it was there. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have all of you,” she said, sighing.
“It would be so boring around here!” Barb, one of the consultants, walked up to Serena’s desk and dropped a small stack of papers on it. “Mrs. Peterson called. She wanted four accounts-receivable clerks first thing in the morning,” she informed Keri. “Naturally she argued about the rate again.”
“Naturally,” Keri replied. “Was it the same old argument?”
“Of course. ‘We’ve been clients of yours right from the beginning, Barbara dear. I don’t understand why you can’t make an exception in our case. After all, we have referred a great many businesses to your agency.” Barbara mimicked the woman’s nasal drawl perfectly.
“I bet she pinches the fruit in the supermarket too.” Keri sighed, watching Serena turn to the small computer terminal at her desk and input the new information. The installation of the computers may have been expensive, but for finding data in a hurry, it was well worth the cost. Also, it had cut their file storage problems more than fifty percent.
“How about going out for Chinese food?” Barb suggested. “I’ve been having horrible cravings for chow mein over the weekend, but Craig hates Chinese food.” Craig was Barbara’s husband.
“Isn’t it a little early?” Keri glanced over at the clock on Serena’s desk and saw that it was just a little after twelve. Where had the morning gone? “I guess it isn’t too early. Sure, why not? Vicky should be back around twelve-thirty and we can go then.”
Keri returned to her office and decided to finish going over the billings for the previous week. Serena would be sending them out in the afternoon mail; Keri double-checked her figures before they were sealed in the envelopes. She went through the procedure not because she didn’t trust the other woman but to keep herself up-to-date on the traffic in the office. She also did her fair share of interviewing and testing applicants, especially when the office was busy. The business had grown a great deal in the past two years. Originally, she and Barb handled all of the client orders and the interviewing and testing of new applicants. But even now she would not withdraw from the working part of the agency. She had seen the owners of too many agencies drop out of the business end, only to appear when the money was available. The way her client load was increasing, she would have to think about hiring another consultant. She had already offered the position to Serena, but the older woman preferred to sit at the front desk, and Keri was grateful for that. Even on the busiest days the receptionist wasn’t ruffled. She calmed down apprehensive applicants, listened to their problems, soothed angry clients before they were turned over to the consultants, and was always there when she was needed. No wonder her six grandchildren loved her so much!
Not long after twelve-thirty, Keri and Barb were seated in a small family-run Chinese restaurant.
“Now, tell Momma all about it,” Barb instructed, once their orders had been taken and a pot of tea had been left at their table.
“What’s this? Have you been taking lessons from Amanda?” Keri arched her eyebrows when she men­tioned her sister.
The dark-haired woman grimaced. “No one could ever emulate the great Amanda!” Her eyes twinkled merrily.
“You’re lucky. You’ve only known her a year; I had to grow up with her.” Keri poured some of the fragrant golden tea into her cup. Individually her features could be considered ordinary, but together they presented the face of a woman men were attracted to. They always noticed her lovely smile, but the pain and sometimes fear in her eyes was something they seemed to overlook.
“I understand that Cassie is going out to Kin-Cal Investments to work for one of the big men,” Barb commented casually.
“That’s right.” She could match her tone for tone.
“I believe the name given was Ryan Kincaid.”
Keri nodded. “I met him at the businessmen’s breakfast this morning.”
The brunette’s eyes were filled with curiosity. “So that’s why he’s called us. He’s more interested in our illustrious leader than our temp personnel,” she observed smugly.
Keri shook her head. “I’m sure that if Mr. Kincaid has any kind of interest in me, he won’t have it for long.” She stopped when the waiter appeared with their food.
“I suppose I’ll have to fight you for the sweet-and-sour shrimp,” Barb drawled.
“To the death.” Keri laughed.
Keri was glad when the work day ended and she could go home. Her condominium was situated in a large, sprawling complex bordered by a golf course. Because the price of each unit was determined by how close it was to the golf course or swimming pool, Keri’s was comfortably situated in the middle.
Once inside she silently blessed the invention of air conditioning. She walked upstairs slowly and slipped off her business clothes, exchanging them for a pair of khaki shorts and a coral knit top. Then she ran back downstairs to the kitchen—a sunny room of blue and yellow—took a small casserole dish from the refrigerator, and slid it into the microwave. Five minutes later a hot meal was ready.
“Ah, the wonders of modern science,” she said dramatically, pouring iced tea into a glass.
The small round glass-topped table outside on the small patio was set, complete with a blue-print quilted placemat and matching napkins. There she could relax and enjoy the sunset.
Keri enjoyed her way of life. She finally felt that she had control over her destiny—at least, a good part of it. Gone were her years of working for someone else and paying for her ex-husband, Don’s, tuition, textbooks, and various school expenses, which hadn’t been cheap. When he had worked his way into a partnership with a prestigious civil-engineering firm in Denver, he decided he didn’t need a wife who could think independently. Fortunately, Keri had come out of the divorce with enough money to start her agency.
She had just loaded her dinner dishes in the dishwasher when the doorbell rang.
“Max!” she greeted the stocky man with a bright smile and a hug.
Max’s gray eyes studied her intently. “You’re too pale, lass.” His speech was thick with a Scottish burr. “You don’t get out enough.”
“I get out more than enough,” she replied with a smile.
“I thought we’d go for a walk.”
Keri eyed the gruff man with warm affection. “Is this walk for me or for you?” she asked, a trace of suspicion in her voice.
“You know the doctor likes me to take a walk each day,” Max rumbled, scratching his chin. His coarse features were slightly out of place from his many years as a well-known prizefighter in the British Isles. Upon realizing that his years in the ring were over, he had taken the money he had carefully saved over the years, moved to the United States, and settled in the warm and dry Arizona climate.
“Let me put on a pair of shoes.” Keri hurried upstairs to pull on a pair of jogging shoes and drop her house key into the pocket of her shorts.
Max’s heart condition required that he have some sort of moderate exercise, and most evenings Keri accompanied her kindly neighbor on his jaunt around the complex. Less than five minutes later they were walking briskly down the sidewalk.
“And how did you keep yourself out of mischief today?” she asked Max when they turned to cross a street.
“I played strip poker with two very lovely sixty-year-old ladies at the senior citizens’ recreation center.” He grinned wickedly.
“Ah!” Keri shrieked with laughter. “Talk about the original dirty old man!”
Max rubbed his fingers over a crooked nose that had been broken more than once. “Hell, woman, I may be an old codger in some people’s eyes, but I’m far from the grave,” he told her in his gravelly voice.
For some strange reason Keri could hear that remark come from Ryan Kincaid. Damn Kincaid for intruding on her thoughts!
Max glanced down in time to see an array of emotions crossing her face. “Are you feeling all right, lass?” he asked her gruffly.
“Just a little tired. It was a long day,” she replied. They soon reached the more affluent condos facing the golf course. When they halted momentarily under a street lamp, they were unaware that they were being watched by a dark figure in a nearby upstairs window. He stood there watching Keri take Max’s arm and look up with a dazzling smile that hit the observer in the pit of his stomach. He drained the remaining Scotch in his glass and slowly turned away.

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