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In his keeping, p.1
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       In His Keeping, p.1

         Part #2 of Slow Burn series by Maya Banks  



  ONE

  GAVIN Rochester stood in the doorway of his enormous living room watching as his wife carefully examined a Christmas ornament before quietly replacing it in the box and tucking it back into the plastic basin they used to store Christmas decorations.

  Her sadness instilled an ache inside his heart that made him physically rub his chest in an effort to alleviate the pain. But some wounds were simply too deep. Permanent and unable to heal. And her pain was unbearable to him because he couldn’t fix this for her. His connections, money, power. None of it meant anything if he couldn’t give his beloved wife what she wanted most. He felt her pain as keenly as if it were his own—and it was. Because he couldn’t stand for her to be unhappy. He’d move mountains just to make her smile.

  She’d changed him. Made him a better man. A man he never thought he could be—never wanted to be. But she changed everything—his world—his place in his world. Suddenly he’d wanted to be a better man. For her. Because it was what she deserved. And he would never place her in harm’s way with his business practices. It was a new experience for him. Living clean. In the light. Having someone who made him want to feel . . . worthy.

  Then she turned from her sad perusal of the lone ornament, and when she saw him, her face lit up, rosy from the shining Christmas lights strung around the tree. He marveled at how, whenever she smiled at him, it took his breath away. It was something that would never go away. His love for his wife was like nothing he’d ever experienced in his life. Staggering. Yet warm, like the flames in the fireplace. Unwavering. Without reservations, strings or conditions.

  She loved him, and that knowledge still had the power to bring him to his knees.

  “That’s the last one,” she said, her gaze drifting one last time to the sole ornament that hadn’t been hung on the tree. Sorrow briefly chased the warmth from her eyes before she appeared to make a concerted effort to collect herself, and the grief filling her features slipped away, but he’d seen it. Knew it to be there no matter the effort she made not to let it show.

  He crossed the room, no longer able to bear the distance between them. He pulled her into his arms and thrust his fingers into her long hair and then nuzzled the top of her head, inhaling her scent as his lips pressed to her glossy brunette strands.

  “We’ll try again,” he murmured, trying to inject confidence and reassurance in his tone. And yet he knew he’d failed miserably. He sounded as dejected as he knew her to be. Not because she’d failed him. He could live his life with only her and never suffer a single regret. But he’d failed her. He was unable to give her a child he knew she wanted with every breath.

  She wanted them to have a family. Love, laughter, to fill their house with warmth he’d never experienced before her. She knew all of that, knew what his life had been like and she was determined to change it. To give him a home. Not just a house. A home with a family and her unconditional love. He had no defense against her. His love defied boundaries or parameters. He knew he would never love another living soul the way he loved this woman.

  She shook her head against his chest, and he carefully pulled her away, gutted by the sheen of tears in her brilliant brown eyes. Even in sorrow she was the most beautiful woman in the world to him. He couldn’t remember his life before she entered it.

  He held the single most precious thing to him in the world in his arms, and he was powerless to give her what she wanted most. A child.

  “No more, Gavin,” she said, her throat working up and down as if the words were painful to speak. “I can’t take another loss. I can’t do it anymore.”

  The utter despair in his beloved wife’s voice was more than he could bear. He was precariously close to losing control over his own emotions. Only his vow to be an unyielding rock for his wife kept him in check.

  She needed his strength. Not his weakness. And the hell of it was, he only had one weakness in his life.

  Ginger. His wife, lover and absolute soul mate.

  He would have laughed at the idea of fate and soul mates. The professor of his Human Resources and Development class had once said that the concept of there only being one person out there for you was utterly false. That you could fall in love—and love—many different people in your life.

  He’d believed the exact same thing until one day a beautiful chestnut-headed, brown-eyed, adorably shy woman had walked into his life and his existence had been irrevocably changed. He’d known since the very first time she’d shyly accepted a dinner invitation with him that he was already in so deep that he had no hope of ever finding his way out. He hadn’t wanted to.

  Gavin was a man who was decisive, could handle any issue flung his way. He had the total package, or so women liked to tell him.

  Good-looking, charismatic, dark and brooding and wealthy.

  He was no naïve fool. The last attribute was his most compelling one. The women he’d been with hadn’t likely given thought to anything beyond the tag that was solidly fixed on his forehead.

  Billionaire.

  He’d actually laid eyes on Ginger the very first time, ironically, when he’d been out with another woman. He’d had his entire evening planned, in fact. Nice dinner, intimate atmosphere, flirt with his date, whose name completely escaped him now, and then go back to her place to have sex before returning to his own apartment.

  No one came to his home or invaded his private sanctuary. Sex was always at his date’s place or in a hotel, and he always left afterward. To some women that made him a cold bastard, but he was hardly hypocrite enough to indulge in postcoital cuddle when he’d made it clear that there would be no emotional entanglements.

  He hadn’t stayed when he’d dropped his date off, much to her disappointment. His mind had been too occupied with the sweet, smiling waitress with big brown shy eyes who blushed when he stared at her for too long.

  He wasn’t normally so ill-mannered or lacking in social graces, but he’d been captivated by her from the moment he’d laid eyes on her, and so the next night, he’d gone back to the restaurant. Alone. He’d made certain he was seated in her section of tables and he’d proceeded to be the most demanding of customers, commanding her attention every few minutes for some trumped-up need.

  It had taken three agonizingly long weeks before he’d been able to talk her into going out with him to dinner. Three weeks of self-induced celibacy because he’d known that she would be the last woman in his bed forever, so he hadn’t minded the wait.

  It had then taken him six more months of dating before he took things further than heated good-night kisses and feeling the warmth of her soft body against his while he held her.

  It had been the best six months of his life.

  The night he’d finally taken her to bed and very gently made her his, he’d proposed and she’d cried all over him.

  It had taken him three more months of her practically living with him to talk her into accepting his marriage proposal, but once he’d gained her acceptance, his patience had fled. He’d hustled her in front of a judge at the very first opportunity and had claimed her for all time.

  After a blissful year of having her entirely to himself—and he was extremely possessive and selfish of his time with her—she’d begun talking about having his child. He hadn’t thought he could be happier than he was, but then he’d begun imagining sweet little girls who looked just like their mama and he’d been determined to fill their home with a dozen if that was what she wanted.

  And that was where they’d hit a brick wall.

  She’d gotten pregnant right away, to both their delight. Only for her to miscarry a few short weeks later. And so had begun their nightmare of endless hope and then dismay. The final straw had come when she’d become pregnant again earlier this year, after four miscarriages. She’d made it beyond the stage where her previous pregnancies had ended. They’d begun to become excited and hope bloomed that they’d finally, finally managed to make it happen.

  At five months pregnant, after having learned that she was having what he wanted most—a little girl—and they’d bonded with the child, felt her first movements and had even begun to decorate the nursery, something they’d never allowed themselves to do before, tragedy had struck and she’d miscarried. The worst part was that she’d had to deliver the baby, a tiny, perfectly formed baby girl.

  Ginger had been devastated. For months she’d been listless and adrift, and he’d never felt more helpless in his life. He loved her so much and he would have taken any amount of pain he could from her, but it had been hell for her, and after she’d healed physically, she’d never mentioned trying to have another child again.

  Even now when he offered his gentle encouragement that they’d try again, she refused. He couldn’t blame her, but he hated the idea of him not being able to fix this for her. In his world, nothing was impossible. Money, while not a cure-all, certainly made lots of things happen, but all the money in the world, all the power in the world didn’t help his beautiful wife achieve her heart’s desire.

  As if sensing the dark direction of his thoughts, she reached up to cup the hard line of his jaw, her smile achingly sweet and eyes full of understanding.

  “You’re all I need. All I want,” she said simply. “Swear you’ll never leave me for someone who can give you children. Swear that to me and I’ll never ask you for more.”

  He was genuinely shocked to his bones. He stared at her in absolute befuddlement, growing angrier by the second. Not at her. But at himself. Because if he’d made her feel as secure as she needed then she’d never question such a thing. That thought—fear—would never have entered her mind.

  He framed her beautiful face in his hands and simply held her there, staring into the hypnotic brown of her soulful eyes.

  “I only care that we can’t have children because I know how much it hurts you,” he said hoarsely. “I’d do anything at all to spare you this, Ginger. I’m so damn sorry I’ve failed you.”

  She put a finger to his lips. “Shhh. Gavin, you haven’t failed me. You’ve given me child after child. It’s me who’s failed you, because I can’t carry them. My body rejects them.”

  Her eyes closed as she said the last, and tears leaked silently down her cheeks.

  “I couldn’t bear it if you ever grew to resent me for that,” she continued in a broken voice. “I never want you to look at me and see what I can’t give you. Something another woman could.”

  He pulled her tightly into his arms, wrapping himself around her until she relaxed and melted against his body.

  “There will never be another woman for me,” he said gruffly. “I’ll never want for more than you can give me. I swear it on my very life, Ginger. My heart and soul belong to you. You own them—and me. And I hope to hell I own yours as well.”

  “I love you,” she whispered. “Now do me a favor and put the angel up for me, and our tree will be complete.”

  But it wouldn’t be and they both knew it. A simple ornament lay nestled in a box where the other ornaments were stored. Baby’s First Christmas and the year engraved on the commemorative sterling silver baby spoon.

  If all had gone as it should, she’d be delivering in a matter of days. A Christmas baby, she’d exclaimed in delight, when the doctor had given them the due date. Even now she would be swollen and heavy with his child, and he’d be rubbing her feet for her and holding her in his arms feeling their daughter kick and roll between them.

  Ginger pulled away and carefully unwound the bubble wrap from the delicate porcelain angel tree topper. Using the step stool, Gavin reached up and carefully put the last decoration in place.

  “It’s perfect,” she whispered, eyes bright with tears.

  He kissed away every single tear and then pulled her into his side so they could stare at the tree she’d taken such painstaking measures to make beautiful. His wife loved Christmas. Their first holiday together would long stand out in Gavin’s memory because, before her, Christmas had been just another day for him. An inconvenience since most places were closed for the holidays and people were out of town or simply unavailable.

  But when Ginger came into his life, she’d forever changed him. She’d laughingly dragged him out of his Connecticut home to get the biggest, most glorious live tree they could find.

  That was yet another change she’d wrought. Though he owned a grand house with rolling acreage and complete privacy, he’d always hated to stay in it alone. He’d spent most of his time in his Manhattan apartment. Until Ginger.

  Now it was rare that he ever stayed over in his apartment and if he did, he ensured she was there too. He hadn’t spent a night away from her since the very first time they’d made love. She’d turned his house in Connecticut into a . . . home. Warm, inviting, full of love and happiness.

  “I love the tree,” he said honestly. “You did a wonderful job, just as you do every year.”

  “Is it possible that I’ve turned the Grinch into Father Christmas?” she teased.

  He chuckled. “What do you think? I didn’t personally spend an entire day trying my best to kill myself by attaching lights to every exposed area of the outside of the house because I hate the holiday.”

  “You do hate the holiday. But you love me,” she said cheekily.

  He laughed. “I’m getting better. And I don’t hate anything as long as you’re a part of it.”

  Her entire expression softened and love warmed her eyes. She turned, tilting her head to receive his kiss when their doorbell rang.

  They both frowned and Ginger drew away, her gaze flitting toward the foyer.

  It was nearly 11 p.m. Who on earth would be at their door at this hour? For that matter, how would anyone have gotten through their security gate without their knowledge?

  Gavin immediately grew serious. “You stay here and don’t move. I’ll see who it is.”

  “But . . .” she protested.

  He silenced her with a quick squeeze and then reached into the drawer of the sofa table, drawing out his pistol. He tucked it out of view and then gave her another look that told her not to move and then strode toward the front door.

  He frowned when he glanced through the speakeasy window that could be opened but was barred to prevent anyone on the outside from opening it. No one was standing there, but the motion light had been activated and still shone over the glistening snow-covered landscape.

  Pulling the pistol from its hiding place, he eased the door open and stared into the still night. Cold air washed over him, the wind whistling in his ears. There was a full moon casting a glow over the white layer of snow. Only the sound of trees swaying and the crack of ice as branches broke disturbed the serenity.

  He damn near tripped over the object at his feet. He took a hasty step back and glanced down, stunned to see what looked suspiciously like a . . . baby carrier?

  He immediately dropped to his knees, carefully pulling back the blanket that covered something inside the carrier. When he lowered it enough to take in the contents, his breath escaped in a startled gasp.

  “Gavin, what is it?”

  Ginger’s worried voice reached him and before he could tell her to stay back, the baby chose that exact moment to begin wailing, though it came out more of a whimper of distress than a true sob.

  His wife gasped and crouched down beside him, reaching for the precious bundle before he could think to do the same.

  “Oh dear God, Gavin! Someone left a baby out here to freeze?”

  The horror in her voice was evident. He was still too flabbergasted to collect his scattered thoughts.

  “Bring the carrier in,” Ginger said crisply, as she hoisted the baby higher in her arms and rose from her kneeling position on the porch.

  He followed her in but something told him he should be out there looking for the person who’d left the baby. They still had to be on the premises. He owned quite a bit of acreage and it would take several minutes to get off his land no matter which direction they’d come from.

  But he was drawn to the picture of his wife standing by the fireplace, carefully unwrapping the baby and then tucking the downy head beneath her chin as she swayed in an effort to comfort the crying child.

  “Is there a note?” she asked anxiously. “Anything at all to explain what in the world someone was thinking to do such a terrible thing? It’s Christmas! You don’t abandon a baby in this kind of weather at Christmastime!”

  Distress radiated from her in tangible waves. He quickly tossed the contents of the carrier and indeed, an envelope fell to the floor next to the blankets and two tattered stuffed animals.

  “Read it to me,” she urged, though she never looked at him. Her gaze was solidly fastened on the baby in her arms and for a moment he couldn’t breathe.

  He was looking at what could never be for them. The pain was nearly overwhelming. Ginger looked at the baby with such tenderness and love as she rubbed her hand over the baby’s back in an effort to soothe him or her. Hell, was it a boy or a girl?

  He tore open the envelope with shaking hands and quickly scanned, fully prepared to spare his wife anything that could hurt her. But what he read shook him to the very core.

  I can’t take care of my baby. She would always be in danger with me. She needs someone to love and protect her. I’m counting on you to raise her as your own and never let anyone know the circumstances of her past. You likely think I’m the most horrible mother on earth to give my baby to complete strangers, but it’s because I love my daughter that I give her into your care and keeping and ask you to love her as I would and raise her as your own. She can never know about me or her biological father. Swear to me you’ll keep my secret. My heart is breaking, but only the knowledge that you’ll provide for her as I cannot gives me the strength to do what is best for her. She was deeply loved. Please never doubt that. I only ask that you love her every bit as much as her father and I do.

  When Gavin finished reading the letter, his hand was shaking noticeably and Ginger sank onto the couch, holding the baby tightly against her chest as she stared incredulously at her husband.

  Then he quickly went to sit beside her on the couch, reinforcing her hold on the tiny bundle because she was shaking every bit as much as he was.

  She pulled the blanket down to expose the baby’s face and Gavin lost his heart on the spot. A beautiful baby girl stared back at him as Ginger gently stroked her finger down one soft cheek.

  And as quickly as he’d lost his heart, he made a decision. A decision that would forever change the course of his and Ginger’s lives. Calm descended even as his mind began working at incredible speed, swiftly calculating their options.

  “I want you to pack a bag,” he said, the betraying note of uncertainty leaving his voice and in its place implacable resolve. “We’re leaving the country and we’ll be gone for a while.”

  His wife’s eyes widened. “What are we going to do, Gavin?”

  His gaze was steady as he stared back at her. He curled his hand around her knee, not wanting to take her hand away from the baby.

  “We’re going to do as we were asked and raise her as our daughter.”

  TWO

  FIVE MONTHS LATER . . .

  GAVIN had always had an understanding for what money and power could achieve, but it wasn’t until Arial, the name they’d chosen for their precious baby girl, that he fully appreciated or felt there was a purpose for the wealth he’d accumulated his entire adult life. As though he’d always been preparing for something so important. In the moment that innocent baby girl had arrived on their doorstep, he’d known that his wealth would finally serve a greater purpose.

  It had all come down to this and to what he had been able to provide his wife—and now his daughter.

  Ari was theirs. There was a paper trail he’d meticulously crafted documenting his wife’s pregnancy and the fact that after so many miscarriages he’d taken her away and kept her in complete isolation and privacy to give birth to their daughter.

  A birth certificate listing date of birth, his and Ginger’s names as the parents, even the small clinic he funded where she’d been “born.”

  Now, for the first time, they were returning to the United States with their daughter, assured that Ari’s past was airtight. That all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed. All they had to do was resume their lives, but even with the confidence that Ari’s past was unshakable, Gavin wasn’t fool enough to ever even think about relaxing his guard. Their lives would be forever altered, and he didn’t have a single regret for the changing course of their destinies. He had all a man could ever hope for—wish for. It was all finally his, a fact he gave thanks for every single day since that snowy Christmas night when Ari had entered their lives.

  He’d carefully explained to Ginger the changes to their lives that would occur, that they would have to exercise complete caution in every aspect of their day-to-day lives. He’d worried that Ginger would feel imprisoned, that she’d grow tired of living such an isolated existence, but he should have known that his wife—like him—would do anything at all to protect their daughter.

  An unbreakable bond had been formed that night when Ari had been left on their doorstep. It was inexplicable and instantaneous, as if she’d always been meant to be theirs. And that bond had only strengthened until neither of them could remember their lives before Ari was a part of their family.

  The very first thing Gavin had done in his preparation to return to the United States was to quietly sell his house in Connecticut, because he wanted no trace of their past before Ari. No chance of Ari’s mother showing back up at the same place she’d left her baby, asking for her back.

  He’d systematically worked during the months they were out of the country to remove them from the public eye. He’d sold off several of his businesses and invested the proceeds so that his family would always be secure.

  He’d bought a huge home under a dummy corporation that could never be traced back to him and made sure that the security was impenetrable. And then he’d worked to turn it into Ginger’s dream home. A place she would love and wouldn’t be upset over being confined to so much.

 
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