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Follow me on Facebook for plenty of more chances to win books and prizes. Keep reading for the first chapter of Virgin for the Fourth Time: Barrington Billionaire's Series: Book Four.
“I think requesting to meet in North Carolina was a bit dramatic,” Bennett Stone said as he sat down in the empty chair across from her.
Zoey Henderson wasn’t about to dispute that fact. Visiting Thomasville hadn’t been on her bucket list, never mind meeting Bennett here. Yet, when she left her appointment in New York yesterday, she needed time alone to think, to clear her head, and to process what the doctors had discussed with her. That wasn’t going to happen in Boston. So she took I-95 and headed south. The Florida Keys sounded like the perfect place to unwind in February. Although, when she encountered a major detour taking her off the main highway, she’d been too deep in thought to pay attention to which turn she needed to take. It was too late when she realized she was lost and eventually ready to give up.
Calling any of her brothers would have them swooping down to her rescue. That’s what she was trying to avoid. They didn’t know about New York. She needed someone she could trust, someone who understood confidentiality. Unfortunately, that also meant calling the one person her brothers didn’t want her around. I hope calling him wasn’t a mistake. The last thing I need is anyone finding out what’s going on. At least, not until I’m ready to tell them.
A strong gust of wind blew off her wide-brimmed hat, and her dark hair whipped in front of her face. As she struggled to pull the unruly strands back into place, she saw Bennett trying to retrieve it. Each time he bent to grab the hat the breeze took it away again. If she weren’t here to discuss a serious matter, one potentially regarding life and death, she could’ve enjoyed the sight much more.
When he handed it to her, he sat beside her instead of across from her. “What’s going on, Zoey? Are you in trouble?”
Over the last two years, they’d crossed paths several times. Today he was all business, which was the first time she’d seen that. In the past, he’d flirted with her. That was probably just to piss my brothers off. I get it, but damn, a little flirting would be nice right now.
One thing she did understand? No man wanted her. Most fathers would do anything to protect their daughter’s reputation, but her father was on the opposite spectrum of what was considered normal when it came to raising children or anything else for that matter. Why would I think Bennett would be any different than what he’d read? After all, it was in black and white for the entire world to see. Thank you, Dad, for making my life a living hell. Zoey tried to brush those thoughts out of her mind. She hadn’t asked him to meet her for personal reasons. If anything, she should be grateful for his strictly professional manner. Then why am I also disappointed?
“Trouble? No. But I need your help.”
He arched a brow as he watched her. Bennett made her feel uneasy. Most people asked questions, but he wasn’t like most. Instead, he studied her. She felt her pulse quicken as though she had something to hide. That was the truth. She did. Otherwise she wouldn’t have asked him to meet her in such a secluded area. Her brothers hired him for a reason. Bennett wasn’t the laid-back, easygoing guy he often portrayed. In fact, looking at him now she saw a powerful, intimidating man who made her question her judgment in calling him.
“Coming here to meet was probably a mistake.”
“Only because you’re here on business. Let’s keep it that way. Tell me what’s going on. Why do you think you need my services?”
“Do you question my brothers when they hire you? Or is it just because I’m a woman?”
“Hell, no. I’m not chauvinistic. I understand why your brothers need my expertise and my protection. You’re different. I can’t see you pissing anyone off enough that they’d want to hurt you.”
Is that the only reason my brothers hire him? There has to be more to it than all that delicious muscle he has to offer. My brothers aren’t fools. They surround themselves with the best. That’s why Bennett’s my only choice.
“You’re right. But I’m not a pushover either,” Zoey said firmly as not to appear weak. “Remember, these men you’re talking about are my brothers, and I can hold my own with them.”
“Yet you dragged me here. Why? Hmm. I’d say because you don’t want your brothers to know. Am I correct?”
Darn him. He’s good. I need him. “Can I count on your discretion?”
“I won’t tell them, but I haven’t said I’ll take the job either.”
“My money not good enough for you, Mr. Stone?”
“Money doesn’t determine who I work for. If I don’t like who you are or what you want me to do, then I won’t take the job. No matter how much you want to pay me.”
He almost looked as though she’d insulted him. Good. A man with integrity. Maybe he won’t tell my brothers. “Nothing illegal. But I need you to understand, no one can know what you’re doing for me.”
“Understood. So what do you need? Protection?”
She shook her head. “No. I need you to find my mother.”
Zoey could tell he hadn’t expected that request.
Bennett sat back and asked, “Wouldn’t one of your brothers know who she is?”
“No one has ever spoken about her. It was . . . forbidden, growing up. My father was a . . . difficult man.” Even now she couldn’t bring herself to speak badly against him. God knows she had many valid reasons she should, but that wasn’t her. Zoey held all her pain inside, never allowing others to see it and unfortunately never dealing with it either. Taking this step to find her mother on her own was significant in itself, and something she couldn’t afford to fail at. “We don’t even have a name or photo. When my father died, I searched everywhere, hoping to find a clue, but there was absolutely nothing to go on. For some reason, he didn’t want us to know who she was.”
Bennett didn’t question what she’d said about her father. She could only assume that meant one of her brothers had shared information, or lack of any, with him already. For all I know one or all of them are looking for our mother too and are trying to hide it from each other. We are that family that holds everything inside, even things we shouldn’t. It wouldn’t surprise me if Bennett was already on the payroll.
“I sense an urgency in your voice.”
Zoey snapped her head away. She wanted him to do his job, but she didn’t want him knowing exactly why she needed the information. “Isn’t it enough to want to know who my mother is?”
His voice was softer than she’d expected when he spoke next. “If it were just that, then you wouldn’t be here with me. So let’s start from the beginning and with the truth.”
“I just want to find my mother.” No matter how hard she tried to look him straight in the eyes, she couldn’t. She looked down at her hands that were clasped in front of her. “Okay. I need to find her. There are questions that I can’t answer, and I’m hoping she can.”
Once, again he watched her. Hiding anything from him was going to be difficult if not impossible.
“It’s personal, Mr. St—”
“Bennett, can’t you just take the job as is without asking why?”
“I could. But I won’t. Knowing why is the only reason I may take it. It sounds as though you need a private investigator instead of me.”
“I want you.” She reached out a hand and grabbed hold of his forearm. Zoey couldn’t believe how desperate she sounded.
He looked down at her hand, then back into her eyes, and said, “So let’s get back to the truth.”
Zoey let out a deep breath of defeat. Her options had run out. Going home would only mean she’d have to ask her brothers for help. And they’d want to take full control. She was almost thirty-four and didn’t need anyone pulling more control away from her than she’d already lost. Why had her brothers decided it was their role to be her personal protector? She needed them when their father was alive, but now, when no protection was needed, they were worse than ever.
“I met with a specialist, and they’re asking for family medical history.”
“I’m having a few medical issues right now, and this is going to be important for them to help pinpoint what it is I . . . may have.”
“You’re sick, and you don’t want to tell Logan? Isn’t he a world-renowned physician?”
“Yes, a neurosurgeon. But I don’t want any of my brothers knowing yet. Once I have some facts, I’ll work out who I’ll share the information with.”
“I might be overstepping here, but you do know your brothers love you and would want to be there for you?”
“They’d argue about what’s best for me and browbeat me until I did it their way. It’s like having six fathers telling me what to do. I love them, but this is my life, and right now I need to do this for me. Can you understand that?” She could feel her hand tremble on his arm. It wasn’t just the fear of him ratting her out to her family, but it was also what the results may be.
“What exactly are we looking at health wise?”
“Does it matter?”
“To me, yes.”
She didn’t want to say it out loud. Doing so was only making it all feel more real than it already did. They’d done various blood tests to eliminate what it wasn’t, but still no answer to what it was. Her brothers had used Bennett in various ways for over the last few years. She knew he would be meticulous and would leave no stone unturned when working for them. She trusted him, but she never let people into her personal life. Surely knowing personal medical information shouldn’t be required to find her mother. This was going to take a certain level of trust on her part. She never let anyone into her personal life, not even her brothers. Yet Bennett was the one person she believed could pull off what no one else had. Although her brothers didn’t say they had tried to find their mother, she knew they had. “I have some lymph nodes which have become enlarged in my right axillary armpit. Also, my right kidney is not functioning fully. I continue to have reoccurring kidney infections. The ultrasound, X-ray, and CT scan don’t show anything, yet I have continual pain on that side.”
“And a family history will help narrow down the diagnosis?”
“Exactly. So you understand why this is so important to me?”
“I do. What puzzles me is why you want to do this alone?”
“I’m not. I’m doing this with you. That is if you’re taking the job.” Bennett shook his head, and she instantly panicked, thinking he was going to say no. “Please, Bennett. I need you to do this for me. I can’t trust anyone else.”
“I take it you’ve checked your birth certificate? And your brothers’ as well?”
She nodded. “No one listed under mother.”
“And hospital records? Records of birth filed with the city and state?”
“Blank as well. No city or state listed. I’m surprised we even have a date of birth, because every other detail is missing except my father’s information. It’s like a fairy tale where a stork delivered us.” If it wasn’t such a painful subject she might find telling this story humorous. But nothing about her childhood was funny. She pulled a paper from her purse and handed it to him. “Here is mine. My brothers’ look similar.”
She sat quietly as he looked over the copy of her birth certificate. Although his expression didn’t change much, she noticed his jaw twitch ever so slightly. Guess he’s never seen such a thing either. Maybe now he’ll understand why I need him.
“And you weren’t adopted?”
“No, I wasn’t. Well at least . . . no. I know I wasn’t.” She’d never thought about that before. Was it possible? If she was, her brothers would’ve found some record of it long ago. Besides, they looked like family.
Bennett acknowledged her answer, but she could tell he wasn’t fully convinced. It didn’t matter. She might not know who her mother was, but she knew her father. There have been many times I wish I didn’t, but James Henderson was my father.
“How are you going to explain me to your brothers? They’ve made it very clear you’re off limits.”
Off limits? That’s putting it lightly. They might as well put a sign on me that says trespassers risk getting shot.
She was thrilled she had at least piqued his interest. Good thing I brought proof of how crazy this is. Step one complete. The rest is on him. That is why I’m hiring him. But surely there won’t be much cause for him to be around me. He’ll be researching. “Hmm. You don’t strike me as a person who plays by someone else’s rules.” Zoey meant to challenge him on that. And from his reaction it worked.
“No one stands in the way of something I want. Don’t forget that, Zoey.” He got up, but before leaving her, he said, “I’ll take the job, but from this point on, you hide nothing from me. Understood?”
Bossy. She nodded. “What do you need from me?”
“DNA samples from you and your brothers.”
“And how do you expect me to get that without raising suspicion?”
“You’re going to host a Valentine’s Day party for your family and show off your new boyfriend.”
“I’m what? And who is this mystery man of mine?”
He pulled her up into his arms and looked deep into her eyes. She wanted to pull away, but couldn’t. There were many times she’d fantasized about him, but she knew a man like Bennett would never want her.
His lips were so close to hers, she parted them, waiting, wanting. But he didn’t kiss her. Instead, Bennett said, “I’m your latest lover, Zoey. You pull together the party, and I’ll do the rest.”
Before she could regain her composure, he let her go.
“That’s only three days away.”
“I move quickly. If you want my help, we do this my way.”
And now you take the control away from me. Zoey wanted to tell him what he could do with his assistance, but she had to push past her frustration and remember he was result driven. And that was the only thing important right now.
“Then I guess I better get back to my hotel. I’ve got a party to plan.”
As she walked past him, she heard him say, “Good, my love. See you at the party.”
Zoey didn’t even turn back as she rolled her eyes. There is no way that man is going to make it out of that party in one piece, acting like that. He won’t be collecting DNA. He’ll be spending the night in the emergency room.
She was glad he didn’t probe any further. The last thing she needed was for him to find out these issues were caught during in vitro testing. Her biological clock was ticking. Zoey was willing to accept that no man would want her with her tarnished reputation, but that didn’t mean she should go without a family too. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen until I know what’s going on with my health. I’m going to get those answers one way or another.
Zoey Henderson. Beautiful, off limits Zoey Henderson.
Bennett watched her as she walked back toward the hotel across the street. He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. What the hell was I thinking? I’m her new lover? That’s a bullshit line even for me.
He knew he should follow Zoey and tell her not to plan any party. Bennett was damn good at what he did. He’d spent many hours undercover to obtain what he needed. However, this wasn’t one of the instances where being undercover was required. He had access to most of the family. He didn’t need DNA for all five brothers, but when he’d seen the copy of the birth certificate he knew something was off. Zoey might not question if she was adopted, but he never ruled anything out. The DNA testing would do exactly that.
When he said he’d pretend to be her lover, he’d been testing her to see how badly she wanted his help. The Zoey he’d come to know over the last two years never would’ve accepted that option. No snappy retort took place. Instead, she hurried off worried about how she’d pull a party together in such short notice. At one point, it looked like she wanted me to kiss her. Kiss. Her.
There’s still something she’s not telling me. Until I know everything, I’ll look, but the answers are staying with me.
Bennett was in no rush to head back to an empty hotel room. Instead, he pulled out his cell phone and started researching the family history. Finding a mother of six children of one of the most influential families in New England can’t be too hard.
If her brothers had searched before, why hadn’t they found anything? He could understand if it was one child who never had seen the woman, but there was no way Brice couldn’t remember her. Brice would’ve been six years old when Zoey was born and ten for the youngest, Dean. He knew something but for some reason wasn’t sharing. That alone was a red flag.
He came up with a lot of articles regarding the father, James Henderson, but not one mention of him with any woman, never mind the mother of his children. How could one man father six children and there be no evidence or knowledge of the mother? There was no marriage certificate on record, and all their birth certificates listed the father only. He’d never witnessed such a thing.
These people weren’t hatched or dropped off by aliens. They have a mother. So why not list her? Were they closed adoptions? They look enough alike to be siblings but that doesn’t mean they are.
After two hours of research turned up nothing tangible, he closed Google and slipped his phone back in his breast pocket. Bennett hadn’t been sure he wanted to take on this assignment. Honestly, it sounded like something that’d bore the shit out of him. He should’ve remembered he was dealing with the Hendersons. They weren’t the average family by any means. What looked like run-of-the-mill details always had more twists than a roller coaster.
Zoey’s situation wouldn’t be any different. Hell, I know better. Usually, the one you don’t expect is the one who’ll throw you for a loop. He thought of how her deep brown eyes were practically pleading for his help. When she’d grabbed his arm, he was already lost. He’d been attracted to her since their first meeting two years ago when Brice hired him to ensure the safety of his family and Lena. He’d thought her easy on the eyes. But the more they spoke, he’d realized she was so much more than she appeared to be. He wouldn’t call her fearless, but she liked to challenge authority. He found that sexy, and it made things a bit complicated. But rules were rules, and he knew better than to get emotionally involved with a client.
I know better than getting involved with someone I find . . . interesting. I need to tell her I can’t take this job. I know people to recommend. Hell, even my buddy, Beckett Davis, would be better for this than I am. The Hendersons know him as well. She should’ve called him. It would have been better for everyone if she had.
He was about to give Beckett a call when he saw a familiar number calling in. Well, that’s fast.
“Bennett, it’s Dean Henderson. I’ve got another job for you. I need you to look into something for me.”
Gee. Should I even guess? Your mother? “Did you piss someone off again so soon?”
Dean laughed. “I’m about to, and she can be a tyrant when angry.”
“Yes. My sister, Zoey, just informed the family she’s having a Valentine party and we must all attend.”
“Not lucky for the bastard she’s bringing with her. I want to know everything you can find on this man. Leave no stone unturned. Got it?” Dean’s voice lacked all hint of humor.
Bennett restrained his laughter at the situation. It had only been a few hours, and her brothers were already scouring for information. She was right, they were overbearing. Whoever was going to take this assignment was not just finding her mother; they needed to act as a buffer for Zoey. Whatever she was going through, she needed some space to deal with it . . . her way.
Damn it. No one is going to be able to handle those guys without raising suspicion. They won’t question me. They won’t like it, but they won’t question it.
“She’s a grown woman, Dean. Just ask her.”
“I don’t want a name. I want information. Everything.”
“When is this party?”
“Three days. I’ve seen you pull off bigger requests in less time.”
Oh, that I can. But you’re not going to like the answer. I think I’ll wait to tell you.
“Your usual fee.”
“Should I ask why?”
“Nope. But you’ll have the information by the party. Guaranteed.”
Bennett disconnected the call and looked toward the hotel. This job might be fun after all. Not only getting to bust on Dean’s ass, but being Zoey’s lover will be icing on the cake. Even if it’s all for show.