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Alex Markoff wasn't really ugly.
Nor was he scarred, horribly disfigured, or any of the other things Kelsey imagined a recluse to be. In fact, the man standing before her couldn't be described as anything less than stunning. He was tall, at least a half a foot taller than her, with a lanky athletic build that took up most of the door frame. Faded jeans hung low on narrow hips while a black golf shirt molded to expansive shoulders. With his right arm engulfed from biceps to fingers in a plaster cast, she wondered how he managed to put on such a well-fitting garment.
Storm-cloud-colored eyes bore down on her from above finely-honed cheekbones.
Nope, not ugly. But definitely unhappy to see her on his doorstep.
Other doorsteps and other unwelcome expressions threatened on the edge of her memory and she shook them away. This wasn't the same. Not at all.
Still, she couldn't stop that all-too-familiar uncertainty from creeping into her voice as she offered up a polite smile. "Hi. I'm Kelsey Albertelli."
When he didn't respond, she added, "Your new assistant."
"From New York. Mr. Lefkowitz hired me to"
"I know who you are."
His voice matched his physical stature. Kelsey nearly stepped back from its impact. Or was it the barely veiled hostility?
Driving up the Taconic Parkway with the windows rolled down had blown her topknot loose, and strands of brown hair were falling into her line of sight. She tucked a few of them behind her ear. "Good. For a moment, I thought maybe Mr. Lefkowitz's office forgot to close the loop."
"No, he closed it. Several times."
Kelsey nodded as an awkward silence settled between them. More strands of hair fell in her face. She tucked them back and waited to see what Markoff would say next.
The answer was nothing. He simply turned around and retreated into the house leaving her standing alone on the threshold.
Can't say you weren't warned. "Doubt you'll get much of a warm welcome," his editor had said. Clearly an understatement. "Just remember, he doesn't have a choice. You work for me, not him."
"Don't worry," she'd assured him. "I'm sure I'll be fine. Nothing I can't handle." For the right price. Thanks to Grandma Rosie, she was all about the paycheck these days. She'd have to work three or four jobs to earn what Mr. Lefkowitz offered. Besides, it wasn't as if she hadn't shown up unwanted on a doorstep before.
Coincidentally, that was thanks to Grandma Rosie too.
Since Markoff left the door open, she assumed he intended her to follow. By the time she realized and crossed the threshold, he was several paces ahead, and she had to rush to catch up.
"You're certainly tucked away up here," she said, reaching his shoulder. "You don't get too many sets of directions saying 'turn right at the big pine tree' in New York City. I think I turned right three times at three different trees."
"It's the one at the fork," he replied.
"I know that now." She emphasized the word. "Still, in most places when they give you a landmark, it's a building or a sign or something. Not a pine tree. I missed your driveway the first time driving by too. You can barely see your mailbox behind the bushes. But then, I imagine that's the point "
Her sentence faded off. She was rambling. She hated rambling. Nervous chatter to fill up silence. Drove her insane. She'd had enough of it as a kid to last a lifetime. Got to the point, in fact, where she wanted to scream at the social workers to shut up. Yet here she was doing the same exact thing. Anxiously trying to break the ice with a man whose resentment at her presence poured off him in waves.
Still, she refused to feel intimidated. "Mr. Lefkowitz said you write all your drafts longhand. I assume that's what I'll be typingyour longhand draft, that is." Her gaze flickered to his plaster-encased arm. "I hope breaking your arm hasn't affected your progress."
No sooner did the words leave her mouth than he stopped short, turning his gray eyes on her. Kelsey found herself rooted to the spot by their intensity. "Did Stuart tell you to ask that?"
"II" Kelsey honestly didn't know how to reply.
"You tell Stuart Lefkowitz he'll get his manuscript when he gets it. Bad enough he's foisted a damn typist on meI don't need a babysitter too."
"I wasn'tthat is, I'm not" Scrambling to catch up once again, Kelsey found herself wishing she'd asked a few more questions during her job interview. That's what you get for being motivated by money.
When she first learned she'd be typing manuscript pages for Alex Markoffthe Alex Markoffshe thought the assignment sounded exotic. She'd been in high school when Chase the Moon debuted, but she remembered the book sitting on teachers' desks, and she remembered reading excerpts from it in literature class. Alex Markoff was The Author of the Decade. The one writer everyone clamored to read.
She stole another look at her new boss. Maybe she should have looked at a book jacket before arriving. His looks might not have caught her so off guard. It wasn't that he was stereotypically handsomein profile some might consider the nose a tad long or his jaw too angularbut the strong features suited him. Hard to believe she imagined him disfigured. Then again, how else was she supposed to picture a man who went from bestselling author to hermit?
She really should have asked more questions during the interview.
Looking to her surroundings for answers, she could only see that Nuttingwood was as dark and masculine as its owner. It reminded her of an English cottage from some old black-and-white movie, all stone and ivy. The front room was similar in appearance, small with antique furniture and hunter green furnishings.
Turning the corner, however, Kelsey suddenly found herself thrust into a large space dominated by windows and French doors. Outside lay a sprawling garden awash with color so vivid it made both the dark wood interior and the green Berkshire mountains pale in comparison. Through the glass she could see birds darting back and forth amid the flowers, many of which she didn't recognize.
"Wow," she said under her breath. It was like standing in the New York Botanical Garden.
Footsteps pulled her from her reverie. Markoff had headed across the open space to a door on the opposite side. Following, Kelsey found herself in a room similar to the one she left, though smaller and with fewer windows. It was no less spectacular, however, thanks to a pair of French doors that opened onto a terraced rose garden. Adirondack chairs encouraged visitors outside, while inside a pair of plaid overstuffed rockers battled back with a comfortable invitation of their own. Cluttermostly magazines, books and paperslittered the end tables and bookcases. A few crumpled balls of paper lay on the floor. For some strange reason, they seemed more like decorations than mess, complements to the room's lived-in atmosphere.
"Great office." In her mind, she could imagine him scribbling away by the window.
Markoff simply pointed to a large wooden desk tucked in the corner. "You can work here."
"No computer?" The desk was barren of electronics.
"You can use your own and save to a flash drive."
"Okay." Good thing she had brought a laptop. Wonder what else she'd need. "Do you get Internet up here on the mountain?"
"Why?" That laserlike intensity had returned to his eyes, and they now bore into her suspiciously, as if she'd asked him for the National Defense codes. "Why would you need Internet access?"
"So I can keep in contact with New York. Mr. Lefkowitz will want updates."
He made a noise in the back of his throat, a sort of quiet, guttural growl. Kelsey immediately recalled his babysitter comment. Just her luck to step into some sort of bad blood between editor and writer. "If you don't, I can find a place in town"
"Great." She'd worry about access another time when he was in a better mood. If he had a better mood.
A stack of yellow notepads lay on the desk so she turned her attention to them. "This is what I'm typing, I presume."
"Type exactly what's written," he replied. "Don't change a thing. Not a single word. If you can't read something, leave it blank. I'll fill in the word later."
Kelsey picked up the top notebook. Lines of gray masculine scrawl filled the page. Great. He wrote in pencil. And changed his mind a lot too. With all the arrows and slashes, the paper looked more like a sports play than a story. Looked like there would be a lot of blanks.
"Anything else?" she asked. One thing she learned as a temp was to learn an employer's quirks and rules upfront. Knowledge made adjusting to that much easier, and she figured Markoff's typing guidelines were merely the tip of the iceberg.
She was right. "I don't like loud noise," he continued. "No music, no loud voices. If you need to call your boyfriend or whoever"
"I won't be calling anyone." Her quick answer must have caught him by surprise, because his stormy eyes blinked. "No boyfriend, no family." Why she felt the need to supply the information, she didn't know.
A shadow flickered across his face, momentarily quieting the turbulence in his eyes. The change threw her off balance. Without the glare, his face went from intense to downright arresting. It was most unsettling. Tucking her hair behind her ear, she looked away to the ground.
"Well, if you do need to make a call," she heard him say, "please go outside. Or better yet, wait until after work hours."
"Speaking of which, what hours did you have in mind? I mean, do you have a preference? So I don't disturb you?"
Because he didn't care or because she would disturb him no matter what? "Then if it's all right with you, I'm a morning person. I like to get an early start on the day."
Silence engulfed them once more, awkward and uneasy. Kelsey adjusted her appearance: her satchel, the hem of her T-shirt, anything rather than let Markoff's obvious displeasure get under her skin.
"Well then," she said, forcing a cheery note, "since we've covered where I'm working, what I'm working on and when, all that's left to settle is where you'd like me to sleep." Again, she found herself prodding his non-response. "Mr. Lefkowitz said you agreed to let me stay here." Amazingly.
"Upstairs," he replied. "The bedrooms are upstairs."
"Is there a particular room ?"
"I don't care."
"As long as I don't steal yours, right?"
Her attempt at levity fell flat. More than flat, based on how his expression darkened.
"I appreciate you being so accommodating. The Berkshires are a popular spot apparently, because summer rooms are at a premium." She was babbling again. "Mr. Lefkowitz had his office call every hotel first."
"I'm sure he did."
Was that skepticism in his voice? What on earth? Did he think she chose to stay up here in the middle of nowhere? She took a deep breath and smoothed back her hair. "Look, Mr. Markoff, I know this arrangement wasn't your idea." She kept her voice as level and calm as possible. "And I'll be the first to admit the arrangements are less than ideal "
"Be that as it may, I'm here for the summer. I promise I'll do my best to stay out of your way as much as possible."
The blunt answer stung more than Kelsey expected. She tightened her smile, hiding the reaction. "It might help if we set some ground rules right now. For example, as far as meals go."
"The kitchen's in the back. You're on your own for food."
Now why didn't that surprise her? "And the bathrooms?"
"The main one's upstairs, across from the guest rooms. You'll find towels and a tub. There's limited hot water."
"Guess that means I should catch the first shower."
He wasn't amused. Again, the reaction hurt. She chalked it up to a new location and old ghosts. It's only for a summer, she told herself. Any situation could be endured as long as it was short-term and she kept her personal distance.
"Don't worry," she amended. "I'm not one for lingering under the spray." Or anywhere she wasn't wanted, for that matter. Since he nodded in response, she assumed he approved the answer.
Meanwhile, she could tell Markoff was eager to end their meeting. So he could stomp off and rue her presence, no doubt. "My laptop is in the car. Why don't I go get it and start working. I'll print out the finished pages and leave them for your review."
As she spoke, she moved toward the door. Unfortunately, Markoff moved toward the desk at the same time and they inadvertently ended up in each other's personal space. The scent of wood and cloves drifted toward Kelsey. A warm earthy aroma that made her want to close her eyes and inhale deeply. Instead, she looked up to meet eyes that were stormier than ever.
Awareness, strong and instinctive, spread through her. "Sorry, I didn't realize you were " For some reason her brain wiring had suddenly gone haywire, and she was having trouble putting words together. "I mean, I was heading."
She slipped past him, into the vacant doorway. "Why don't I go get my laptop?"
Alex didn't respond. Good thing, since it took till she reached her car and some deep breaths of fresh air before the weird flustered sensation left her brain.
"Get a grip on yourself," she muttered to herself, unlocking the door. "You're going to be here all summer." Surely she wasn't going to spend the next three months rattled by her boss, was she?
When she returned a few minutes later she heard a voice coming from the office.
"For crying out loud, we're talking a couple extra months. Three tops. You can't wait an extra ninety days?"
Who couldn't wait? Markoff's voice was razor-sharp, cutting through not just the air, but her as well. "And I suppose I broke my arm on purpose too," she heard him say. "That why you sent the babysitter? To make sure I didn't hurl myself down another hill?"
Babysitter. He meant her. That meant he was talking to Stuart Lefkowitz. Trying to get rid of her perhaps?
Crossing the main space toward the doorway, she stopped shy of the entrance and peered through the crack. Markoff had his back to her. She could see his shoulder muscles rippling with tension beneath his shirt. When he turned, she saw a similar tautness playing across his profile.
"Did it ever occur to you," he said, "that I can't write with someone breathing down my neck twenty-four seven?"
Alex's jaw twitched while he listened to the voice on the other end. Suddenly, his eyes grew disbelieving. "What did you say? Yes, I know what 'breach of contract' means. You wouldn't "
There was silence, followed by a slow controlled intake of breath. Incredulity had changed to outright fury. "Fine. You'll get your damn book."