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David Falcon dragged his hands down his face as a woman took a seat across the desk from him.
"Well?" she asked.
"What's to think about? I just interviewed my twelfth candidate in two days, and I finally realized I'm delusional to hope I can find someone who fits my needs." He tipped his chair back to look at Denise Watson, the efficient, thirtysomething director of At Your Service, a prestigious domestic-and-clerical-help agency nicknamed by many clients as "Wives for Hire." They were seated in her interview room.
"If you have to compromise on something, what would it be?" Denise asked.
He'd been doing a lot of compromising latelyfor three years, in fact. He wasn't interested in more of the same. "I'm not giving up on the ideal yet. You've got other candidates, right?"
"From my own staffing pool. As you pointed out, you have specific and complex needs. I'd be happy to advertise and screen them for you."
"What are your thoughts about the one remaining?"
She set a folder on the desk in front of him and smiled. "I've learned not to second-guess the client."
He half smiled in return. "Send her in, please." He skimmed the woman's résumé. Ten years' experience as a domestic, seven in clerical jobs. He speculated on her age midthirties to forty, maybe? There were too many questions he wasn't allowed to ask legally, tying his hands, leaving him only intuition and guesswork about her age. He was twenty-nine. It was critical that she be older than him.
"Hello. I'm Valerie Sinclair," came a quiet but level voice.
He looked up. The woman was either extraordinarily well preserved or had lied about herwork experience. She didn't look a day over twenty-five. She wore a dress and jacket that was way too formal and warm for a hot August day in Sacramento, as if trying to look older. And her hair, a rich, shiny color, like chestnuts, was bundled up in some kind of bun or whatever that style was called, but couldn't take away from her young age. Her eyes were hazel and direct. No rings on her slender fingers; her nails were short, clean and unpolished.
"I'm David Falcon. Please, have a seat," he said, wondering how she'd passed At Your Service's background check. She had to have lied
To hell with the law, he decided. If she could lie about her work experience, he could ask the questions he wanted to. "How old are you, Ms. Sinclair?"
She stiffened. "I'm twenty-six."
"How is it you have seventeen years of work experience? You started working when you were nine?"
"Eight, actually. Not legally, of course, but my mother has been housekeeper for a family in Palm Springs since I was five. I was put to work early."
"In the beginning, dusting and sweeping. New responsibilities were added as I could handle them."
"Your mother allowed you to be used like that?"
"Used?" She smiled slightly. "Didn't you do chores as a child? The family wasn't in residence full-time. We lived on-site. It was my home."
David didn't know what to think. On the one hand it seemed that child labor laws were violated. On the other, her point was well takento a point. "Did you receive a salary?"
"An allowance from my mother, which increased as my responsibilities did. I don't think it's worth a lot of discussion, Mr. Falcon. My understanding is that you're looking for someone to run your household and also be your administrative assistant. I listed the domestic work so that you would know I had a lot of experience in that field."
David studied her. She was soothing, he decided. Her feathers didn't ruffle easily.
"May I ask the nature of your business?" she asked.
"My brother and I own Falcon Motorcars."
"I've never heard of that make."
"They're custom-made. Our clients aren't the average car buyers, so we don't need to advertise. Most buyers are European, which is why I've been out of the country more than I've been home the past few years. Which is also why I'm looking for someone to take charge of things here, personally and professionally."
"Denise said you want a live-in."
A wife without the sex was what he wanted. Someone experienced, efficient and of a certain age. "That's a requirement. Is that a problem?"
"Not at all."
"Given the time difference between California and the continent, you might be awakened during the night to take care of business for me, or work until midnight, or get up at four."
"I can do that."
"How are your computer skills?"
"Denise tested me on five different programs. I assume the results are in my folder."
He found the report and read it, letting her wait, testing her patience. She didn't fidget. "Why did you leave your last job?"
"Sexual harassment." She said it as easily as she might have said she'd gone to the grocery store.
He flattened his hands on top of the folder. "Did you file suit?"
Again that slight smile touched her lips. "I was accused of sexual harassment."
David looked her over once more. Was that the reason for the buttoned-up outfit she wore? Beneath it was a slender, attractive body, he could tell. And maybe with her hair down and some makeup on, she would look sexy. She didn't want to look sexy? "Were you guilty?"
"Quite the opposite."
He let that information sink in. "He was harassing you?"
She nodded once, sharply, the only outward indication of how much the situation bothered her.
"Why didn't you report him?"
"I did. That's when he turned it around to me instead. Look, it's dead and buried for me."
"Is it? I would imagine it's followed you and made it difficult to find a job," he said, knowing how such things worked.
She hesitated, then gave a taut smile.
Pride. He understood it all too well. "Let me share my recent experiences," he said. "My last housekeeper stole from me. My last four administrative assistants left because of pregnancy or child-care-related issues, each of them at just about the time they were fully trained. Frankly, I'd pretty much decided this time around to hire a woman beyond childbearing age. You don't fit that qualification."
Her stark disappointment flashed, but he couldn't let that interfere with his decision-making process. "As much as I'd like to hire you"
His cell phone rang. He would've ignored it, except it was his brother Noah, the only caller David couldn't ignore.
"Excuse me a moment," he said, then left the room.
Valerie waited for David Falcon to shut the door before she closed her eyes. As much as I'd like to hire you. His mind was apparently made up. Her hands shook; her mouth went dry. She was at the end of her already short rope. If she didn't get this job she didn't know what she was going to do. She'd used every penny of her meager savings. Her credit card was maxed out. How could she convince him to hire her?
She was this close to being homeless, although a homeless shelter might be better than the apartment complex where she lived, in a part of town where drive-by shootings weren't uncommon. This job would mean a steady income and a safe place to live. For her and
"Sorry about that," David said, returning. "As I started to say, as much as I'd like to hire you, given your job skills, I'm hesitant. I would need your assurance that you won't be taking off to get married anytime soon. I need to know you're not pregnant or intending to get pregnant anytime soon. I would be hiring you to take care of memy house and my businessnot a baby."
Valerie clenched her hands. She still had a chance. Say the right thing. Say the right thing. "I'm not even dating anyone, so the issue of marriage is nonexistent. Which would also, therefore, mean no pregnancy or babies in sight. However, I do have a daughter, Hannah. She's eight." Valerie saw his eyes dull with disappointment. "She's a quiet, obedient child, I promise you."
She waited for lightning to strike her for the fib, then continued to plead her case. "My daughter doesn't require the care that a baby does. You won't even know she's there."
Valerie had her own reasons for not letting Hannah get close to him, anyway. "Just give me a chance to prove myself," she said, trying not to beg.
He leaned back in his chair, his gaze never leaving hers. She didn't look away, either. Please hire me. Please.
"Let's try it for a month," he said at last.
Emotions tumbled through the desert of what her life had become. She couldn't even speak.
"I'll pay your rent for where you're living now so that you have a place to go back to if it doesn't work out."
She wouldn't move back to that hellhole under any circumstances. She swallowed against the still roiling emotions. "It's not necessary. I was going to look for a new place anyway."
"All right.You'll be living in a cottage behind the main house, and it's fully furnished, including all the kitchen things. I'll arrange for some movers and a storage unit for your belongings."
A cottage? Their own space? "My apartment came furnished. I have very little to transport." She and Hannah had moved so many times, they had the routine down pat.
"You're making this very easy, Ms. Sinclair."
"Valerie. It's my job to make your life easy."
"If you can pull that off, you're a miracle worker."
He stood; she did, as well. Apparently when he made up his mind, that was that.
"How soon can you start?" he asked.
"Where is your house?"
"In Chance City, close to Grass Valley and Nevada City. Are you familiar with the area?"
"Not much. I know it's a Mother Lode location from the gold rush era."
"Right. It's beautiful country, but the house itself is a little isolated."
"Isolation doesn't bother me." They would be about an hour north of Sacramento. Clean air, and stars at night. Trees. Their own cottage. "I can be there tonight."
"I'll send someone to help."
"I can manage, thanks." She smiled, hopefully diverting him from becoming insistent on helping her. She really didn't want anyone associated with him to see where she lived.
The tiredness in his face smoothed outhis very handsome face, she finally realized, admiring his tall, athletic body.
"Whatever expenses you incur in moving out, I'll pay. Just let me know how much."
"And if everything works out, I'll buy out your contract from At Your Service. Falcon Motorcars would become your employer, so you'd have benefits."
Benefits. Valerie wished he would leave so that she could sit down. An internal earthquake had her trembling. She was surprised he couldn't see it.
She'd been without health insurance for the year that she hadn't been able to find permanent work. "Feel free to start putting through the new-employee paperwork," she said.
"You're very sure that things are going to work out."
"Three things you'll learn about me, Mr. Falcon. I'm competent, I'm reliable and I'm loyal. I also know I have to prove myself."
"You can call me David." He pulled a large envelope from his briefcase and handed it to her. "You'll find a map to the house inside this envelope, and some general instructions. A few forms you need to fill out. A key to the cottage, in case I'm not there when you arrive." He gestured toward the door. "I'll walk you out."
"I think we both probably have to talk to Denise."
"Right. I'll go first." He shook her hand. "See you later."
"Thank you for the opportunity," she said. Now go away.
He walked out the door.
She sank into the chair, her knees giving out. He stuck his head back around the corner. "You like dogs?"
"Yes." She tried to stand.
"Don't get up," he said, eyeing her intently. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. My foot got caught in the chair leg."
He waited a couple of beats.
"Is your daughter good with dogs?"
"She loves them, but she's never had one of her own."
"I have a great old-lady dog. I've had to foster her with my brother and his four kids because I've been gone so much. She looks at me with accusing eyes every time I leave their house without her. I'd like to bring her home."
"By all means."
He slapped the doorjamb and nodded. "Thanks."
He disappeared, but she held herself together, in case hesurprised her by returning
"One more thing," he said, again appearing in the doorway. "Can your daughter swim?"
"Good. I have a pool. I don't want to have to worry about her."
"She'll abide by the rules."
"Okay." Then he was off again.
She stared into space. He had no idea what having this job meant to her. None. She didn't care if she had to work 24/7. Didn't care if she lost sleep or weight or her mind. Well, maybe she would care if she lost her mind.
It was a good job, out of the city, working for a man Denise assured her was decent and successful. He'd have to sign a contract, the same as Valerie would, spelling out the details of the business arrangement, including that there would be no sexual contact between employer and employee. She could live with that.
All she wanted was to provide for her daughter.
Finally she could do that.
"Over there, Mom." Hannah pointed straight ahead. "See the mailbox? That's the address. But where's the house?"
Valerie braked, slowing, then came to a stop next to the mailbox. Ahead she spotted a break in the abundance of trees and shrubs and assumed it was a driveway. She nosed the car down the gravel road, past a small forest of wild oaks, fragrant pines and stately cedars. Then she came upon a wide firebreak clearing and an amazing house, all glass and logs and rocks, reaching toward the sky, the stark edges softened by clouds, the windows reflecting treetops.
"Awesome," Hannah said reverently. "We're gonna live here?"
Valerie was no less awed. She'd expected a nice house, but not one that should be profiled in Architectural Digest. "Remember we won't be living in the house but in a cottage on the property."
No one came out of the house to greet or question them, so Valerie continued on, following a gently curving path around the house, discovering several buildingsa four-car garage, what looked to be a stable and the building referred to as the cottage.
The word cottage had conjured up visions in Valerie's mind of rosebushes and wood shingles. Instead the structure was a smaller version of the main house, except with cedar-plank siding instead of logs, but with the same large windows, and more space than she and Hannah had ever lived in.
"There's the pool!" Hannah exclaimed, scrambling to unbuckle her seat belt and flinging the car door open. "And a hot tub. Mom, it's got a hot tub. We get to use it, too, right?"
She was out of the car and running toward a free-form pool that seemed carved out of the landscape, with a small, rock waterfall at one end that spilled into both the pool and hot tub.
Gravel crunched under Valerie's feet as she followed Hannah, reaching a flagstone path that branched into others heading toward the cottage, the main house, and through a wild, obviously untended garden to the pool. Lack of interest in gardening, she wondered, or his intent? He must be able to afford a gardener.
Valerie reached her daughter, who'd crouched beside the pool, dipped her hand into it then flicked a few refreshing drops at Valerie. "Can we go swimming, Mom? I'm sooo hot."
They'd spent the afternoon packing their belongings and cleaning their apartment in the 101-degree Sacramento weather, squeezing everything into their small car. They both needed a cool swim before unpacking and settling in. And the man of the house didn't appear to be home.
"Pleeease," Hannah begged, tugging on Valerie's hand.
"How fast can you find your bathing suit?"
"I put it in the last grocery bag we loaded." She grinned, obviously pleased at her planning ahead. "Yours, too. I swiped it from your suitcase as soon as you said there was a pool."