But first he had to get through Monday evening. A night at the Ainsleys’ wouldn’t be pleasant, but neither would it be a total waste of time. With Lauryn on his arm he’d schmooze with the movers and shakers of the community who could aid in his quest for the council nomination.
A win-win situation.
He’d score points with Lauryn and for himself.
And he’d do what he did best.
He’d turn on the charm and land himself a bride.
Yet another dead end.
Lauryn tried to keep her steps from dragging as she followed Adam into the moist evening air and across the brick courtyard toward his car. She’d pinned her hopes on walking in her birthmother’s footsteps tonight. But Adrianna Laurence had never set foot in the Ainsleys’ house. At least, not this one.
Lauryn’s disappointment was almost enough to distract her from the feel of Adam’s hand wrapped around hers. Hot. Firm. Electric.
He’d been attentive all evening with a casual touch at her waist here, a brush of his hand against hers there. It hadn’t taken her long to realize his every move had been designed to convince the other guests they were a couple. And yet he hadn’t said one dishonest word or made a single inappropriate gesture to which she could object.
Much as she disliked the situation, she had to face facts. Being a pawn in Adam’s scheme had its benefits. She’d been the only outsider at the gathering tonight, but because she was Adam’s date she’d been welcomed into her birthmother’s stratum by the same people who’d refused to speak to her a few months ago. People who had very likely known her birthmother.
With a little Garrison grease to oil the hinges she’d made more progress tonight in two hours of chitchat than she had in weeks of knocking on doors and researching microfiche newspaper articles and county documents. She didn’t have her answers yet because it was too soon to ask without risking rejection, but as long as she was beside Adam she could build the tentative connections to find out what she wanted so desperately to know.
Adam opened the car door, but Lauryn didn’t climb in. She pivoted in her flat sandals and studied the ostentatious home. Lights streamed from every window, painting stripes across the dark grounds. “You’re telling me the Ainsleys demolished a perfectly good house and built a new one in the same spot?”
“Five years ago.”
“But why?” She turned back to Adam and realized he’d moved close enough to loom above her—far too close for her peace of mind. The tang of his cologne, a crisp lime scent, teased her senses, and she could see the fine lines at the corners of his eyes. Her body still hummed from his unexpected touches throughout the evening and his proximity overwhelmed her.
One small step and they’d be breast-to-chest, hip-to-hip. Her gaze drifted to his lips. With all the practice he’d had, she’d bet he was a great kisser. If he bent his head—
No kisses. Back up.
But she couldn’t. Trapped as she was between the car and Adam’s lean frame, there was nowhere to run. She forced her eyes away from his mouth and dragged a lungful of the heavily scented night air into her chest, but she couldn’t identify the flowers she smelled.
Had her mother known the names? Had Adrianna been a plant lover? A swimmer? A shopaholic? A night owl or morning person? Tall, short, introvert or extrovert? Had she been a rule follower or a rule breaker? Knowing nothing frustrated Lauryn and left her feeling empty. Adrift.
Adam shrugged. “With the shortage of land and surplus of cash in South Florida it’s a common practice to tear down and start fresh. Sometimes massive reconstruction is due to hurricane damage, but in this case Helene wanted renovations that exceeded the value of the house.”
Alarm streaked through her. “Your house hasn’t been razed has it?”
His eyes narrowed as if he could hear the panic she couldn’t quite keep out of her voice. “No. It’s the original structure. Why?”
Get a grip, Lauryn. She forced a smile. “I…um, love history. I hate to see it erased. We’re close to your place, aren’t we? Would you show it to me?”
He hesitated so long she thought he’d refuse. “Sure. There’s no one staying there this week.”
She slid into the car with so much anticipation and excitement bubbling through her veins that she could barely sit still.
Adam drove off the Ainsley property, down the palm-shadowed street and then pulled into a short driveway blocked by another set of elaborately coiled iron gates and stopped the car. He tapped a security code onto a recessed keypad and the wide gates silently glided open.
Emotion clogged Lauryn’s throat as the car rolled into a circular brick courtyard and around the center fountain. Sensor lights flicked on, flooding the area with light. Scrambling to absorb it all at once, she ticked off details in her mind. Mediterranean style. Four-car garage to the left. Arched windows. Carved columns. Deep, shadowed porches.
Her birthmother’s home. Lauryn’s heart thumped as hard and fast as a helicopter’s blades as she climbed from the car on trembling legs. She wished she could see the house in daylight instead of washed by a weak crescent moon. She wanted to examine every minute detail of the elaborately carved cornices above the windows and doors and under the gables and eaves.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“Like I said, it’s a good investment. By the time I unload it, the property will have doubled in value.”
Panic burst in her veins. He couldn’t sell. Not yet. “You’re going to sell it?”
“When the market and price are right.”
She wiped her dampening palms on her simple black sheath and followed Adam onto the front porch, tangling and untangling her fingers while he unlocked the door.
How many times had her birthmother crossed this threshold?
He entered, hit a light switch and then punched a sequence on an alarm system concealed by a small mirror. He gestured for her to join him, but she couldn’t move. A weird form of near-paralysis locked her muscles. She was so close to uncovering the truth. So close to the diaries and answers.
If they were here.
But what if she didn’t like what she learned? What if her mother wasn’t a nice person? What if her mother had died of some hideously debilitating and hereditary disease? And what if Lauryn possessed some flaw that made her unlovable?
Her father and Susan had loved her hadn’t they? Maybe. Her parents had lied about so much that Lauryn didn’t trust herself to recognize the truth anymore.
“Lauryn?” Adam’s expression asked why she delayed.
She scrambled for a response. “This luxury is about as far as you can get from the military housing I grew up in.”
“Didn’t seem to bother you at the Ainsleys’.”
“I guess I was too nervous about meeting all those people to be overwhelmed by the house. I, um…don’t get out much.” Not anymore.
She forced her feet forward and found herself in a soaring circular two-story domed foyer. She slowly turned around in the center of the Mariner’s Compass pattern inlaid into the marble floor like a glossy stone quilt, and then crossed to the wide staircase sweeping up and around the foyer to the second floor.
Had her mother crept up and down these stairs, avoiding the squeaky treads in the middle of the night? If marble treads creaked, that is.
Had the wild streak that had landed Lauryn in so much trouble as a teen come from Adrianna Laurence? Lauryn certainly hadn’t inherited it from her father, a regimented career military man, or learned it from her adoptive mother, a serene saint of a woman who never raised her voice or her hand no matter how obnoxious Lauryn had been.
“Want the ten-dollar tour?” Adam’s voice intruded.
She blinked. “I thought that was a ten-cent tour.”
“Inflation,” Adam replied straight-faced. “If you don’t have cash, I’ll accept a more creative payment.”
His gaze dropped to Lauryn’s lips and her mouth dried. She cleared her throat and looked away. “I’d love a tour.”
She had to get into this house without him dogging her footsteps. Maybe she could convince him to give her a key to drop stuff off for the VIPs and steal a few minutes to explore. “How many bedrooms?”
“Six bedrooms, seven and a half baths, plus servants’ apartments over the garage.”
Six! It would take hours or days to search each closet for loose floorboards and that was assuming the closets were empty and she wouldn’t have to shift stuff out of the way first.
“This is definitely the kind of house to raise a family in.” Her mother had grown up here, an only child, and according to what little Lauryn had uncovered, had moved back home after one semester at Vassar. Had Adrianna taken the diaries to college with her? Had she brought them home?
“Come on.” He turned and headed through an archway.
Lauryn hustled after him. “Did you make many changes after you bought the estate?”
He strode past a stream of rooms, flipping light switches as he went. “Other than updating the electrical wiring, no. The previous owners kept the place well-maintained. I even bought some of the furniture in the estate sale.”
Lauryn stumbled. She barely caught a glimpse of the book-lined library, home theater, massive kitchen, two-story living room and beamed-ceiling den as she hustled to keep up with Adam. The grandeur of the house blew her mind. She wanted to beg him to slow down, to let her soak up the details like a sponge, to ask which pieces of furniture had been the Laurences’.
Had her mother sat on that sofa or at that writing desk? But asking would require explanations. And explanations could lead to rejection. It was too soon to launch her appeal.
He didn’t stop until he reached a circular sunroom jutting from the back of the house like a peninsula. Three of her tiny apartments would fit in this room alone.
To her right a wall of windows overlooked an expansive pool and patio illuminated by subtle landscape lighting. The left side revealed tennis courts, and beyond the seawall at the back of the property stretched a private dock with a long, low and fast-looking boat floating in the channel.
With one sweep of his hand Adam extinguished the interior and exterior lights and the outside view vanished. Pale moonlight cast the sunroom in a mysterious combination of shadows and wavering silvery light.
“Ready to go?”
No! Not yet. “You’re not going to show me the upstairs?”
He closed the distance between them in two lazy strides, lifted his hand and cupped her cheek. Surprise held her motionless. Shadows sharpened the angles of his face. His thumb brushed over her lips. Desire sparked instantly in her veins and judging by the sudden widening of Adam’s pupils and the flare of his nostrils he felt something, too. The air suddenly turned hot, humid and heavy.
“If you want to get me into a bedroom, you’re going to have to accept my proposal and sign the agreements first.”
Her thoughts screeched to a halt. She could not let herself fall for Adam Garrison. She’d given up bad boys and shallow relationships a long time ago. And while Adam wore designer clothing instead of torn jeans, he was still a heartbreaker through and through.