Quentin cleared his throat. “If you think I’m meddling, Ally, just consider it payback for your meddling in my life. That was a nice little performance last year, orchestrating to throw me and Elizabeth together.”
“That was different.”
Quentin’s expression showed skepticism. “Oh, yeah?”
Connor knew that, partly thanks to Allison’s machinations, Quentin and her best friend Liz were now married and the parents of one-month-old Nicholas.
Allison straightened away from the desk that she had been leaning against and folded her arms. “You and Liz were made for each other, Quent. Besides, you can’t say you’re unhappy with the way things turned out.”
Quentin cocked his head and leaned back in his chair. “So that was different because you had my best interests at heart, is that it?”
Connor nodded at Allison, then looked back at Quent. “Obviously, unlike Allison here, who had your best interests at heart, Quent, you’re just a dirty, rotten interloper of the first order.”
Allison sighed in exasperation. Her brother and Connor were cut from the same cloth, despite the fact that one had been born to wealth and the other still had the air of a dangerous bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Neither would back down in a situation like this.Connor looked at her levelly. “Somehow I didn’t think you’d be backing down easily despite seeming docile as a lamb when I drove you to work this morning.”
“You do know me better than that,” she tossed back.
“Let’s call this one a draw, petunia.” He said it calmly, but his fixed look conveyed the message that he would not be thwarted next time.
“Why don’t you join us for lunch?” Quentin offered. “Connor and I agreed to do lunch today a long time ago, but, as it happens, you’ve been the number-one topic so far.”
She glanced at her watch. “Thanks for the offer but I need to get back.”
She’d succeeded in communicating her displeasure to her brother, but it was clear that neither he nor Connor was going to be moved to seeing her point of view—such as the need for Connor to remove himself from her house.
Since staying any longer would probably be an exercise in futility, she supposed that it made sense to agree to Connor’s offer of a draw and retreat from the field of battle. But if Connor thought he’d won, he was in for a big surprise.
Connor moved toward her. “I’ll go with you.”
“You’re having lunch with Quent, remember? Besides, it’s broad daylight with plenty of traffic.”
“Quentin and I can have lunch another time,” Connor shot back. “Besides, we’ve said all we needed to say. My guys are starting on the security system for the house this afternoon and I need to get back.” He nodded at Quentin. “You don’t mind if I take a rain check, do you?”
Quentin looked quizzically from one to the other of them before, she could swear, a smile played at the corners of his lips. “Not a problem. Not a problem at all.”
Her brother’s expression made her wary, but she didn’t dwell on it as Connor came toward her, obviously intent on following her out the door. “Suit yourselves.”
“I’ll pick you up at work when you’re done,” Connor said in a tone that declared he would brook no argument. “Give me a ring on my cell.”
“Naturally,” she responded sarcastically, though silently she admitted that she’d unintentionally summarized part of the problem: she was afraid that having Connor around might seem all too natural all too quickly.
On Sunday, Allison drove to Carlyle to have brunch with her family. Her brothers and her sister-in-law had all converged at her parents’ impressive brick colonial.Connor came with her, as she knew he would have even if he hadn’t gotten a separate invitation from her parents.
He was still camped out at her townhouse, but she hadn’t given up hope of dislodging him. Even if Quentin technically still owned the townhouse and Connor could claim to be acting at his request, that didn’t mean she was without options. She wasn’t prepared yet to take the drastic step of moving out herself, but she could refuse to cooperate with Connor and ignore him as much as possible.
The main topic of conversation during brunch was, of course, her nameless antagonist. In comparison, the fact that she was living with Connor seemingly went over without anyone so much as batting an eye.
Her mother seemed to summarize the general feeling by commenting, “We’re so grateful to you, Connor, for providing your security services. It does give me some peace of mind.”
Her brother Matt added, “Lots of luck, Connor. And, if I know Allison, you’re going to need it.”
Connor merely cocked an eyebrow but Quentin and Noah grinned knowingly.
Allison tossed a quelling look at her brothers—a glance that indicated their hilarity was definitely not appreciated.
By the time brunch was over and she joined her sister-in-law Elizabeth in the family room, she was gritting her teeth. If there was anyone who could sympathize with her plight, however, it would be her best friend.
She flopped into a wicker chair facing Liz. “Can you believe it? Grateful? Peace of mind?” She opened her eyes wide in mock disbelief.
Liz, who’d just taken the rocking chair to breast-feed Nicholas, looked up. “I know, I know. But, Ally, really, aren’t you the least bit scared by all this?”
“You mean the threats?” Allison shrugged. “Yes, of course. But I can’t let fear paralyze me. Otherwise I might as well resign my job tomorrow.”
Liz nodded understandingly.
“But don’t tell my brothers that.” She blew a breath. “If they knew I was the least bit bothered by this, they’d probably hide me in a hut somewhere with bodyguards posted at all sides.”
Liz chuckled. “Oh, Allison, they mean well. Quentin, for one, is genuinely concerned about your safety.”
“I know. I just wish they’d give me a little more credit. Besides, there are practically four of them. Connor could give the other three a run for the money in the overprotectiveness category.”
Liz gave her a sympathetic look.
Allison sighed in exasperation. “Connor’s made himself at home in the townhouse. Yesterday he was inspecting door locks and checking windows. He already has his people installing a home alarm system with a direct alert to the police.”
The alarm system had made her more comfortable, she conceded. It was just who was supervising the installation that bothered her.
“Hmm.” Liz looked down at the nursing baby. “There was a time when you would have done somersaults for attention from Connor.”
Allison made a noncommittal sound in her throat. Liz knew all about her teenaged humiliation at Connor’s hands. “I got tired of dining on the crumbs of that table a long time ago.”
“I’d be shocked if a daughter of mine were dining on the crumbs of any table,” Ava Whittaker said as she entered from the doorway leading to the family room.
Allison watched as her mother—looking elegant as always, her coifed hair as dark as Allison’s own but tinged with some gray—sank into a nearby wicker chair. “Mom, how could you say that in there?”
“Say what, dear?” Her mother bestowed an indulgent gaze on the baby.
Allison waved a hand. “Grateful, Mom? Peace of mind? Whatever happened to ‘a woman is perfectly capable of taking care of herself’? Usually I can count on you at least in this family.”
Her mother had practically raised her children alone while her father built Whittaker Enterprises. When the youngest of her children had reached her teens, Ava had gone to law school and eventually become a respected family court judge. Allison’s mother was her hero, her role model.
Her mother’s gaze drifted back from the baby to her. “Of course I know you can take care of yourself. But there’s nothing wrong with thanking Connor for his help when you may be in real danger.” She paused. “In fact, I hope you haven’t forgotten the manners I tried to instill in you and have already thanked him yourself. Have you?”
Allison quashed the niggle of guilt. Her mother had a sneaky way of turning the tables on her. “The way all of you were falling over yourselves to thank him, you’d think he’d taken on his worst client ever.”
Her mother raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Allison, you know we meant nothing of the kind. Your brothers were just teasing, and usually you’re besting them at their own game.”
“Yes, well, think of the inconveniences that Connor has to put up with!” Allison sat up in her chair and pretended to think for a second before snapping her fingers. “I know! I made him pace downstairs waiting for me to get ready this morning.” She glanced at Elizabeth, who was looking mildly amused. “You know how I love long, hot showers.”
Her mother tried and failed to look as if she were seriously concerned.
Allison glanced from her mother to Liz and back. “Hasn’t it occurred to anyone in this family that I’m, for all intents and purposes, living with a man?” She covered her mouth in a mock gasp, then threw up her hands. “I mean, if it had been anyone but Connor, your reaction would have been the opposite of peace of mind and, guaranteed, Matt and Noah wouldn’t have been wishing him luck.”