“Good morning, Miss Landry.”
“I’ve been on hold for fifteen freaking minutes, Mr. Baxter.”
Bennett grinned. She’d been on hold for four minutes. He knew because he’d been watching the time on his phone. He always kept her on hold for at least a couple. But he’d known to expect her to be dramatic about it no matter how long it was. Kennedy Landry wasn’t really the patiently-wait-on-hold type of woman. Kennedy Landry was, however, the type of woman that made a man want to take what tiny semblance of control he could find and grab onto it like it was a lifeboat in the midst of a hurricane.
Kennedy Landry was absolutely like a hurricane, and she’d already pulled him under and drowned him in lust and amusement and fascination and…
Shit, he was half in love with her, and if the only way he had to remind her that she didn’t always have the upper hand in every single one of their interactions was to make her wait on hold on the phone for a few minutes then yeah, he’d do it.
“Well, I’ve been waiting for the reports from last week since Monday,” he told her. “Seems waiting is something we should both get used to.” It was Thursday. She always made him wait until Friday for the reports she was supposed to send on Tuesday.
In part because that meant he’d call her about those reports on Wednesday and they’d fight-flirt for a few minutes. Something they both enjoyed far more than really made sense.
In part because her sending him the reports was ridiculous. He didn’t really need them—he was just curious—and she knew it.
Kennedy hated being told what to do. But she worked for the Boys of the Bayou, the swamp boat tour and fishing company in Autre, Louisiana, and part of her job was to schedule the tours, deal with the customers, and keep track of the payments and receipts. Another part was to compile reports about the number of tourists—where they were from, ages and other demographics, and how much they brought in through tour tickets but also extra purchases such as T-shirts, stuffed alligators, snacks, and so on. And now, part of her job was to send those reports to Bennett, the only one of the five owners who didn’t live in Autre and eat most of his meals at her grandmother’s bar across the street from the tour company’s office.
She hated sending the reports, but only because it meant that she was answering to him on some level. She didn’t like that because she didn’t have him wrapped around her little finger like she did every other man she dealt with on a regular basis.
As far as she knew.
Bennett had been very careful not to let on just how tightly wrapped he already was.
“This call could be about an emergency,” she said in a bored voice that indicated: one, it was not an emergency, and two, she was trying really hard to sound bored and not like she was gritting her teeth.
Bennett loved that he rubbed her the wrong way. It only took about ten minutes around Kennedy to figure out that she ran the show with the men in her life. The only daughter and granddaughter in a family of outdoorsy, hardworking, loud-cussing, Louisiana born-and-bred men, Kennedy not only kept up with them on the hardworking and cussing thing, but she got away with murder. Her oldest brother, Sawyer, tried to make her toe the line, but even he was a sap for his baby sister, and it was rare that Kennedy didn’t get her way.
She knew how to handle blue-collar Cajun men, that was for sure.
Bennett wasn’t a blue-collar Cajun man.
Well, he was Cajun, on his mother’s side. But she’d married into money—a lot of money—very much on purpose and had long ago given up things like crawfish sucking and cursing in French. She had married into a white-collar, British-descended family in Savannah, neck-deep in politics and law and class and wealth and snobbery, while Kennedy had been neck-deep in, well, the Louisiana bayou. And everything that went along with that.
Bennett fucking loved the bayou. And everything that went along with that.
Especially the sassy, goth-dressing, impossible-to-impress Cajun girl who thought that the fact he couldn’t fix a transmission, butcher an alligator, or bait a hook was downright embarrassing.
“If it was an emergency, you would have hung up and called back. Over and over again. Leaving progressively more and more threatening messages about what you were going to do to me when you did finally get a hold of me,” he told her, signing off on the bottom of the letter he’d just finished and moving it to the side.
“I would never do that,” she said.
“No?” When she did finally send him reports, it was always in folders that were named things like I’m Not Your Fucking Secretary and If You Ask Me to Get You Coffee It Will Definitely Have Turtle Shit in It.
“If I really needed your attention, I’d start texting. Photos. Naked photos.”
His entire body reacted to that. He cleared his throat. “I would definitely—”
“Of my grandfather.”
Bennett paused. Then groaned. He knew her grandfather. Leo Landry was a great guy. Funny, down-to-earth, honest, loyal. And someone that Bennett absolutely did not ever want to see naked. Ever.
“You’re an evil woman.”
He grinned, glad that they weren’t Skyping. She amused him. And turned him on. But having her know that for certain was probably not a good idea. Though the naked photo thing wouldn’t leave his mind completely.
“What do you need from me, Kennedy?” Did he purposely drop his voice and make it a little gruffer? Maybe.
Or maybe it just happened around Kennedy naturally.
“I’m being sued. Or maybe arrested.”
Neither of those answers particularly surprised him, actually. “There’s a difference.”
“Are you suing me or arresting me?” Kennedy asked, clearly to someone else in the room with her.
“She’s arresting me,” Bennett heard a man say.
That was Leo, Kennedy’s grandfather.
Bennett heard a scuffling sound and realized that she’d turned the phone onto speaker and had set it on the counter.
Bennett frowned. “Ken—”
“She’s arresting me,” a woman’s voice said.
That was Tori, one of Kennedy’s best friend’s and her brother Josh’s girlfriend.
“But I’m not arresting anyone,” another woman’s voice said. This time a non-Landry.
Bennett sighed. He knew exactly what was going on.
“Ma’am, can I have your name?” Bennett asked. Loudly. Because loudly was the only way to get heard when there were two or more Landrys around.
“Bailey Wilcox. I’m with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries,” the woman told him.
Okay, it was the same woman who’d come down to Autre to investigate the report of a rabid otter. Bailey was a young, beautiful, environmentalist who seemed to have her heart in the right place. She’d just had the misfortune of being assigned to working with the Landry family.
“This is Bennett Baxter. We met the last time you were down,” he said.
“Of course. Hello, Mr. Baxter.”
“Bennett Baxter, my attorney,” Kennedy added.
Bennett rolled his eyes. He didn’t think that was necessary. Bailey was just doing her job and would surely be reasonable about the animals she’d discovered. She’d believed them when they’d explained that Maddie, another of the Boys of the Bayou partners, had come up with the rabid otter story to keep a flirtatious tourist at bay. They’d also claimed that they hadn’t seen the otter in a few days, and after an hour or so of looking around, Bailey had let it all go.
Of course, it wasn’t true that they hadn’t seen him. The otter’s name was Gus and they’d hidden him from Bailey when she’d been there investigating. But after she was gone, Gus didn’t want to move out. He decided that he liked living inside, cuddling with pretty girls, and getting hand-fed treats more than he liked living outside in the bayou. So yeah, he’d kind of become a pet. So they needed to keep him away from Bailey this time, too.
Of course, Bailey would have probably never come back to Autre, if not for the fact that while she’d been looking for Gus, she’d discovered a gray wolf pup. And his brothers and sisters. And mother. Curled up in the closet in Leo’s trailer where the Landrys had been attempting to hide them, too.
The new mom had been injured and Tori, a veterinarian who had been getting into trouble all her life on behalf of animals, had been nursing her back to health. Along with a bald eagle that had a broken wing. Which had also been found in the trailer. Tori had plans to re-release all of the animals. It just hadn’t been time yet. But more than having them in pseudo-captivity, the fact that they’d been hiding them had been…well, frowned upon by the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Clearly, Bailey was now back to see if the re-release had happened.
And clearly, the Landrys had decided on a strategy for dealing with her.
Not that it was a good strategy, or a particularly well-thought-out strategy, but the Landrys were more the follow-your-heart types of people than they were careful planners.
Bennett almost snorted out loud at that. That was an understatement.
The Landry family was crazy. He meant that affectionately, mostly, but it was true. They were unpredictable and, as this woman was about to find out, united. She was never going to be able to find out who, exactly, was responsible for housing the endangered wolves. Kennedy, Leo, and Tori were all going to take responsibility, and Bennett knew there were about a dozen more people who would also step up to help confuse things. No one would ever turn on anyone else, and there would be no material evidence that it was one versus another. This woman would either have to fine or arrest all of them, or none of them.
Bennett didn’t really think Bailey was going to arrest anyone. The wolves weren’t in danger and were back in the shed where the mother wolf had first chosen to set up house. Clearly Tori had been taking care of her and she was better off than before the humans had intervened. The wolves were also free to leave whenever they chose.
All of which he would argue to, well, whoever he needed to argue it to on behalf of the Landrys. If it came to that.
Bennett pulled up his email. He had some people he could contact about this. People who would call Bailey off. But he hesitated. He wasn’t so sure that the Landrys actually needed his intervention.
“Well, Mr. Baxter,” Bailey said. “There’s really no need to involve you. I’m not here to arrest anyone.”
“You’re not?” Kennedy asked. “You said that it’s illegal for me to keep my dog.”
“That’s not a dog,” Bailey said. “It’s a gray wolf. Gray wolves are threatened species and it’s illegal to have them as pets.”
“But I didn’t know it was a wolf,” Kennedy told her.
Bennett rolled his eyes. That was bullshit. They all knew it was a wolf.
“I told you it was a wolf the last time I was here,” Bailey said.
Bennett could sense her exasperation. The feeling happened to a lot of people who hung around with the Landrys.
“I don’t remember that,” Kennedy said, “I thought it was a dog.”
“You mean I thought it was a dog,” Leo said. “Had a friend back when I was growing up who had a dog that looked just like that.”
“Me, too,” Tori piped up. “I’ve seen lots of dogs like that in my veterinary practice.”
Bennett didn’t even need to see the woman to know that her expression clearly said, “Bullshit.”
“Then I am here to inform you, again, that it is a gray wolf and it’s illegal to keep them in captivity,” Bailey said.
“So you are here to give us trouble,” Kennedy told Bailey. “Do the people who work for the great state of Louisiana not have anything better to do than to harass good, hardworking, animal-loving people who—”
“Ms. Wilcox,” Bennett cut in smoothly before Kennedy could complete that thought out loud. “What do you need from us?”
“I’m just following up from last time.” She sounded tired. “Just making sure that the wolf has been released as instructed.”
He was ninety percent certain that Bailey Wilcox had actually wanted to stop by last time to see Chase Dawson again. Chase had spent a couple of weeks in Autre with the Landrys, especially Mitch Landry, learning about airboats, fishing…and Louisiana girls.
Bennett wasn’t sure how they’d met, but Bailey had asked about Chase when she’d come to check on Gus and had seemed disappointed to find out that he was now back home and in medical school. Bennett thought maybe he was the only one to notice Bailey’s preoccupation with Chase, however. She’d come across as a nerdy scientist who was all about rules and regulations, and the rest of the family had regarded her as the enemy out to get Gus. Bennett thought maybe she was just a girl with a crush looking for a good excuse to hang out along this part of the bayou. But Bennett knew better than to judge a book by its cover, so to speak.
After all, Kennedy Landry seemed like a sassy spitfire who thought she had no use for a guy in a suit. But Bennett thought she’d had some dirty thoughts about his neckties in actuality.
And one of these days, he was going to make her admit it.
“You’re referring to the dog that looks like a wolf?” Bennett asked. He was going to cover for the Landrys. In part because he really liked them and knew they weren’t doing anything wrong. They hadn’t captured the wolf and they weren’t keeping it captive. They were caring for it, for now. But also, because this meant he was about to enter into a contract to serve as Kennedy Landry’s legal counsel. Which meant she would owe him.
He already knew how she was going to pay her bill.
“Mr. Baxter,” Bailey said, with some obvious exasperation. “You know it’s not a dog.”
“Actually, I don’t. I’ve never seen the animal.” That was true. He’d seen Gus, but he’d only heard about the wolf and the eagle. “And even if I had, I’m certainly no expert in dog and wolf breeds,” he said. Also true. “Furthermore, I would, in any case, defer to the expertise of Dr. Victoria Kramer who is, after all, a doctor of veterinary medicine. She’s far more qualified than I am or, I would guess, you are, to make a judgement about this, wouldn’t you agree?”
There was a long pause.
Finally Bailey said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Are you going to charge anyone with anything?” Bennett asked.
He could practically hear Bailey taking a deep breath.
“I’m issuing a warning. Again. But a formal one this time. In writing. Gray wolves cannot be kept as pets. Anyone who does is subject to fines, community service, and yes, even jail time.”
She wasn’t wrong about any of that.
“But you would have to prove that a gray wolf was, in fact, knowingly being kept as a pet,” Bennett told her.
Again, there was a pause. “Yes.”
“And you would need to see the animal actually in confinement on someone’s property,” Bennett added.
“Which would require a search warrant,” Bennett said. “Do you have a search warrant with you right now?”
“I do not.”
“Then I guess, for today, this is settled.”
“Mr. Baxter,” Bailey said. “I’m not here to cause trouble.”
“You’re just doing your job,” Bennett agreed. “And I’m doing mine.”
“So we can assure everyone there that no one is being sued or arrested,” he added, with a smile.
“The wolf is mine!”
Suddenly a male voice came booming over the phone line.
Bennett groaned. Owen Landry had just joined the group and was trying to be helpful.
“So it is a wolf?” Bailey asked.
“Well, it’s a— Ow!”
Bennett heard scuffling noises.
“Fuck! Dammit, Kennedy! What the hell?” Owen bellowed.
“Sorry,” Kennedy said. Her tone lacking any contrition whatsoever.
“You fucking threw a shoe at me!”
“I saw a spider,” Kennedy told him.
“On my face?”
“On the wall behind you.”
“You missed the wall and hit my face!”
“I was just trying to get you to move so it didn’t jump on you,” Kennedy said. “You should be grateful!”
Bennett sighed. Did he really want to get involved with this woman? With this family?
“You hit me in the nose on purpose?” Owen asked.
“I was aiming for your crotch,” Kennedy told him. “Guess I hit the bigger thing.”
Bennett could picture her smirk and felt the familiar urge to kiss it right off of her, even though he wasn’t there in person.
Yeah, he wanted to get involved with her. He couldn’t explain it except to say that his family had been very…un-Landry-like. Maybe it was his Cajun roots, something in his genes or his blood, that drew him to the bayou and the craziness of this family.
“You weren’t spanked enough as a child,” Owen told Kennedy.
“You’re probably right.”
Bennett could also picture the way she lifted one shoulder in an adorable and infuriating so-what gesture.
“There’s still hope she can find the right guy to do it,” Leo piped up.
Owen snorted, Tori laughed, and Bennett scowled. Hard.
They were joking. Giving each other shit was how the Landrys showed love. Well, that and food. But there was no way anyone in this family would stand for a guy laying a hand on Kennedy.
Hell, none of them actually believed that the right guy even existed who could spank Kennedy Landry.
But even the thought of it really pissed Bennett off. Which made no sense.
Kennedy definitely hadn’t been told no enough. She was absolutely a handful. She was…Leo’s granddaughter who he loved dearly and he’d never want someone touching her inappropriately. Not that spanking was always inappropriate, of course. Between consenting adults who were into that kind of thing it could be very appropriate. But this all insinuated that they thought Kennedy needed someone—or that someone had missed their chance in the past—to intervene to change her behavior. That there was something they wished was different about her.
That was not okay with Bennett.
And he needed to cool the fuck down.
It was a joke. He knew that. Kennedy knew that.
Him getting worked up on her behalf over something that wasn’t even serious was ridiculous.
“Yeah, maybe, but if it’s discipline, I don’t think the person you’re spanking is supposed to like it,” Kennedy said, in her typical smart-ass, you’ll-never-make-me-blush way.
Bennett usually grinned at that attitude of hers. Not now. For a new reason. This all insinuated that some other guy had spanked her and everything in Bennett rebelled at that thought as well.
He definitely needed to cool down.
Instead, he sent a quick message to his assistant that he was heading to Autre in an hour. Getting to Autre would typically mean flying from Savannah to New Orleans. That trip on a commercial airline could take four or five hours with a layover in North Carolina, but thanks to his family’s private plane and a small airstrip outside of Autre, Bennett had been making the trip much faster and more easily over the past couple of months since becoming an owner in the tour company.
Today would be even easier. He’d been working in New Orleans on and off for the past month, hoping to transition his work from Georgia to Louisiana permanently. He was only about twenty minutes away from Autre at the moment.
“You’re a brat,” Owen told Kennedy.
“Wow, news flash,” Kennedy replied.
“Okay, so I’m going to go,” Bailey said. “Um…just…yeah, so you’ve got your warning. And stuff.”
She definitely didn’t sound like any kind of badass officer of the law, and Bennett relaxed a little about her pursuing the wolf thing. Hell, she might not want to come back to Autre at all. Chase Dawson wasn’t even here anymore, and even if he was, he might not be charming enough to make it worth putting up with all of this crazy.
Of course, that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t send someone else.
As soon as he heard the door shut on the other end of the line, Bennett said, “Kennedy.”
He could tell she’d picked the phone up and taken it off of speaker.
“Have you been spanked before?”
Okay, that was not what he’d intended to say first. Or maybe at all.
She clearly hadn’t been expecting it, either. It took her a moment to reply.
“You’d have to catch me first, Baxter,” she said.
That would not be a problem. “That’s not what I asked you.”
“One time, Bennett,” she said, her voice low, almost as if she was trying to keep others from hearing. Which was very unusual. Kennedy always wanted everyone to hear her. “You try to spank me one fucking time, and I’ll take your balls off with a snapping turtle.”
Exactly. That was the woman he knew. The woman without one damned submissive bone in her body. The woman that needed the right man to appreciate her, to encourage her, to never try one thing to change her. “So that’s a no on it happening before?”
“Bennett… I swear to God…”
“It’s a yes or no question, Kennedy,” he snapped. Jesus, the woman was so fucking difficult.
“No. And you absolutely do not have an invitation.”
“I’m not asking for one,” he said shortly. “God, that’s the last thing you need.”
There was a pause on her end as if maybe—holy miracles of miracles—he’d actually made her speechless. For a second or two.
“The last thing I need?”
“You ever met a gator that stopped fighting just because someone got a good hold on her?” he asked. “No. Some things are just wild and will fight no matter what. Trying to hold them down is not how you handle them.”
“Surely you’re not comparing me to a big, ugly, stupid lizard.”
He smiled in spite of the fact that he still felt, however irrationally, pissed off. “A fucking badass predator that everything else is, rightly, damned scared of.”
“It’s weird that you’re so attracted to me if I’m so scary, isn’t it?” she asked after a moment.
He almost laughed. She wasn’t shy, that was for sure. Not that he’d ever hidden his attraction. “Not weird at all.”
“You probably feel it takes a guy with pretty big balls to think he can take on a girl like me.”
“Maybe I find the fact that you’re a fighter who doesn’t let anyone else tell her who she is or how she should be, pretty fucking hot.”
She paused again. Longer this time. Bennett gave himself big points. Twice in one day was unprecedented, he was sure.
“It’s really too bad you wear a suit and tie to work and don’t know what to do with a crankshaft and piston.”
Yeah, Kennedy had made a big deal out of the fact that he wasn’t her type. Supposedly.
“You keep telling yourself that.”
He shook his head. “You’re welcome for saving your sweet ass with the wildlife lady.”
“Next time someone shows up like that and you do actually need my help, text me. I won’t leave you on hold.” He felt kind of shitty about that now.
“Oh, I know I could have done that.”
Okay, that was good.
“But this way Bailey had a chance to hear about the growth Leo had removed from the back of his neck,” Kennedy said.
Bennett frowned. “Wait, Leo had a growth on his neck?” That didn’t sound good.
Bennett sighed. “Got it.”
Yeah, there was no way Bailey was coming back down here to face this group. Unless she had a specific mission. Or someone with her. Tori and the rest weren’t out of the woods for sure, but they’d definitely scared Bailey off for today.
“And you making me wait also made you feel a little bad, so that was like sprinkles on top,” Kennedy added.
“Not bad enough not to expect payment for services today,” Bennett told her. “In case that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Payment? You’re not on retainer or something?”
“Not for this.” He wasn’t on retainer anyway. He was a partner in the business, for God’s sake. Their legal issues were his. And he was trying not to think about that too hard because the Landrys were a bunch of wildcards, to say the least.
“So how much is this going to be?” Kennedy asked.
“We’ll talk about it when I get there.”
“You’re coming here? When?”
He could picture her expression now, too. She was trying to look annoyed because she was trying to convince everyone around her—and herself—that she was annoyed. But it was mixed with a bit of anticipation, because they both always enjoyed their flirtation and banter, along with a dash of mischief, because she loved to give him shit and was trying to think of ways to do that when she saw him.
“I’ll see you soon,” he told her, making sure there was a hint of promise in his voice.
He hung up, chuckling. And definitely in a hurry to get to Autre.