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Tristan Barkley knew danger when he sensed it. As he whipped open the sliding glass door and scanned his expansive backyard, he sensed it in spades.
His heart beat like a war drum against his ribs while the hair on his nape prickled and every muscle in his body bunched tight.
Where was Ella? What trouble was she in?
He'd phoned to speak with his housekeeper twice this morning. Ella wasn't aware of his last-minute plans to attend a gala event in Sydney tonight. Home a day early from a weeklong trip to Melbourne, he'd wanted to be sure his tuxedo was back from the cleaners.
But when she hadn't answered his calls, he hadn't been concerned. Perhaps she was out shopping. Ella Jacob was fanatical about having her boss's every need and want satisfied. It was one of the reasons he valued heror rather, her dedication to her jobso highly.
However, when he'd arrived home a few minutes ago, he'd noticed her car keys hanging on their hook. A second later, his gut wrenched at the sight of her practical leather handbag and its contents strewn over the kitchen counter. Her uniform had been turned inside out and discarded on the cold marble tiles. One black lace-up shoe lay near the timber meals table, the other had been left upside down near this door.
Now as he shaded his eyes against a single ray piercing the brewing black sky, his heart squeezed like a fist in his chest.
If anyone had entered his house uninvited if someone had dared to hurt Ella
He strode onto the lawn and movement beyond the northern courtyard caught his eye. Tristan narrowed his focus and zeroed in on a trespasser's fluid backstroke as the intruder sliced through the cool blue of hisOlympic-size pool. Twenty-twenty vision said the long, tanned limbs were female. A flash of a pink swimsuit, and the curves it partially concealed, confirmed she was of his generation or younger.
Tristan let out a territorial growl. There'd been a recent spate of robberies in his neighborhood. The police suspected the work of a couple. One poor grandmother had been assaulted and tied up in her own home. Was that woman in his pool the girlfriend of some brazen burglar? he wondered.
He charged forward even as another scenario came to mind. Might be that Ella had simply invited a friend over. Although, come to think of it, he'd never heard her speak of friends. Or family. And that didn't explain the handbag, her uniform. It didn't explain where she was.
His long strides picked up pace.
Once he yanked that woman from the water, hell 'n' Hades, he'd have some answers then.
He reached the pool's edge at the same time the woman in pink climbed out, her hair falling like wheat-colored silk down her back. Her glistening body might have belonged to a swimsuit modelbuxom with shapely, tanned legs that seemed to go on forever.
Tristan braced his own legs shoulder-width apart and crossed his arms. Unsuspecting, the woman straightened fully, sliding her hands back over her hair, like some Bond girl from a beach scene. When she finally noticed him, when she looked up with those big blue, suddenly startled eyes
Tristan's mouth fell open and his arms dropped to his sides like dead weights. Then he dragged a hand down over his mouth and blinked several times.
No, this didn't make sense. The hair was the wrong color. That body sure as hell didn't fit. Still, he ground out the question.
"Ella is that you?"
"Mr. Barkley?" The bombshell's cheeks turned as red as the miniature roses spilling from the poolside terracotta pots. "You weren't supposed to be back until tomorrow."
"I rang this morning." Twice.
Driven by testosterone-fueled force, his gaze dipped lower and his blood began to stir. Mother of mercy, he'd had no idea.
She folded her arms over the top of the swimsuit, which only made her amazing cleavage appear twice as deep and ten times more alluring. This couldn't be the same woman
"I rolled my ankle on a run this week," she explained. "I like to keep fit. Swimming's a good alternative." Her wet hair sprayed a cold arc on his business shirt as she threw a look at the pool then back. "I didn't think you'd mind."
His brain stumbled up to speed. Ella, his unassuming housekeeper, ran to keep fit? In a dowdy uniform, who'd have guessed she worried about anything other than making sure the bathroom sparkled and her delicious dinners were set on the table on time. Out of uniform, however, in that amazing swimsuit, she looked nothing short of sensational.
As telltale heat flared through his system, he shook himself and squared his shoulders. That kind of reaction was totally inappropriate. Miss Jacob was the hired helphis housekeeperand she still had more than a little explaining to do.
He cleared the thickness from his throat and stabbed a reproving finger toward the house. "Your uniform and shoes were tossed around the kitchen. Your handbag was tipped upside down on the counter."
What was he supposed to have thought? He'd been worried. Damn near frantic, in fact.
Her sheepish gaze dropped away. "Oh, that."
His brow furrowed more. "Yes. Dammit. That."
Dripping over the tiles, she began to move away. "It's kind of hard to explain."
"Like it's hard to explain how your hair's gone from mousy brown to blond?"
Had he landed in Wonderland? What was going on!
"I've only dyed it back to my natural color." She shrugged and explained, "I'm a woman. I wanted a change. This week I wanted to change it back."
He growled loud enough to be heard. She was avoiding his question. He wasn't a hard boss; he deserved her respect. The respect he'd always received from Ella in the past. Unless
His thoughts froze as a withering feeling dropped through his center.
His voice deepened with concern. "Are you in some kind of trouble, Ella? Trouble you don't want to tell me about?"
When she blinked at him over her shoulder, her full lips slightly parted, she looked so vulnerable.
She curled strands of blond behind her ear. "I'm not in trouble. In fact, it's rather the opposite."
She continued on toward a sun lounger, her step favoring one leg. A very nice leg. Very nice body.
Tristan growled again.
He needed to get to the bottom of this mystery and he needed to do it now!
She picked up a towel from the sun lounger's back and wrapped it around herself, sari style. When she turned toward the house, he barred her way.
His voice was rough, his gaze unremitting. "I need an answer, Ella."
She peered up at him as rivulets of water trickled down her flawless face. Her eyes were the color of Ceylon sapphires. How had he missed that before? Did she usually wear glasses? He didn't think so.
Ella's mouth opened then shut. Finally she blew out a defeated breath. "I was going to tell you tomorrow."
He set his hands on his hips. His patience was wearing out. "I suggest you tell me now."
Her chin lifted slightly. "I'd like to hand in my resignation. I'm giving you two weeks' notice."
Tristan's usually balanced world tilted then slid off its axis. He ran a hand through his hair. Of all the crazy things, this had been the farthermost from his mind.
"You want to leave. Is it the pay?" Her wage was more than generous, but if that was the problem, it could easily be solved. "Name your price."
She was the best housekeeper he'd ever had thorough, autonomous, inconspicuous, or at least she had been until this incident. He wasn't prepared to let her go, particularly not now.
The newly elected mayor of a neighboring smaller city had invited himself to dinner in three weeks' time. A positive impression could only help with an important deal Tristan had been working on, a project upon which he'd spent a vast amount of time and money. Obviously Ella's fine cooking skills wouldn't make or break the deal with Mayor Rufus. However, given the querulous past he and the mayor shared, frankly, Tristan could use all the help he could get.
A quiet strength shone from Ella's jeweled eyes. "Money's not the issue."
A recent memory popped into his head, and then he knew. Of course he knew.
Tristan scratched his temple and replaced the gravel in his voice with a more understanding tone. "Look, if this is about that episode before I left "
The red in her cheeks spread down the column of her throat. Her chest rose and fell as she shook her head and, dodging him, moved away. "That morning has nothing to do with my leaving."
As his sense of control returned, Tristan eased out a relieved breath. Now that he knew what was behind her resignation, he could fix the situation.
He caught up, fell into step beside her and searched for words to handle this delicate matter.
"Admittedly it was an awkward moment," he said. "But there's no need to be embarrassed or do anything rash." His mind went back to that day. "You thought I'd already left for my week away in Melbourne," he recalled. "You didn't expect to see me in the bedroom, particularly without any clothes "
His words trailed off as, head down, she limped faster.
That morning when he'd heard her gasp, he'd swung around and Ella's eyes had grown to the size of saucers. In that moment, he had reflexively stepped closerto assure her not to be alarmed, nothing more. But he'd barely said her name before she'd scurried down the stairs like a frightened deer. After he'd dressed, he'd gone to smooth things over but had discovered that she'd left the house. With him away this week, they hadn't spoken of it until now.
They lived together. Tricky situations were bound to occur, like her walking in on him buck-naked that morning, like his discovery of her swimming today
Which brought him back to the original question.
"A resignation doesn't explain what happened to your handbag." The way it had been upended as if some no-good scum had been in a hurry to get what he'd come for.
Her pace eased as she wrapped the towel more securely under her arms. "My inheritance from my mother finally came through." She flicked him a glance. "Nothing compared to your wealth, but enough that I shouldn't need to worry about money again if I'm careful. The executor organized to have the funds transferred through to my account last night, but when it bounced back this morning, he rang to check the BSB number. After a few minutes, when I couldn't find the book I normally keep in my bag " Her lips pressed together. "Well, I overreacted and dumped it upside down."
Tristan pictured the sceneElla taking the call, the executor perhaps growing impatient when she'd kept him waiting. Her heart could have raced, her hands might have shaken. She was normally so composed and ordered, as was he. But having overreacted himself just now, he could better understand how she might have lost control in that moment.
"And the uniform? The shoes?"
Her face pinched, then she shrugged. "When I ended the phone call and knew the money would be in my account on Monday, I had this overwhelming urge to be free of them. I ripped the uniform off where I stood. Then I kicked off my shoes." She focused on her bare feet as she continued walking, moving slowly now. "I'm sorry. I didn't give any thought to where or how they landed."
Tristan slid his hands into his trouser pockets. So Ella had come into an inheritance. Odd, but he'd never thought of her with parents. She'd seemed such a blank sheet. He hadn't known her business and she didn't ask about his. Not that there was much happening in his personal life these days.
He stood aside as she entered the kitchen through the still open door. "I'm sorry about your mother's passing," he offered.
Her step hesitated as she gave him a look he couldn't read. "She died eight months ago, just before I came to work for you."
As she moved into the kitchen, it struck him again that he knew nothing of his housekeeper's background. She'd shown up on his doorstep, explaining that she'd heard of the job opening. She hadn't presented references, which he usually would insist upon. But he'd taken her on, mainly because of a gut feeling that she would fit. Her reserved demeanor, her unassuming appearance, the way she'd quietly but succinctly responded to his questionsshe'd simply felt right.
As a rule he thought through every detail of a decision. He hated making a mistake. Growing up, his two brothers had called him Mastermind and had ribbed him constantly about his meticulous ways. Those days seemed so long ago. Although his younger brother hadn't visited this house in a long time, he and Josh kept in touch. However, he hadn't spoken to his older brother, Cade, in years. Never planned to again.
Ella made her way to the cushioned window seat and, wincing, sat.
He followed and indicated her ankle. "Mind if I have a look?" He'd been a lifeguard in his teens and early twenties and knew first aid. It could do more harm than good limping around when a joint needed rest.
She gave a reluctant nod and he dropped onto his haunches.
"The bruise is fading," she told him as he carefully turned the one-hundred-percent feminine ankle this way then that. "It wasn't so bad."
"Have you had it seen to?"
"No need. It's happened before, since as far back as junior high when I ran cross-country. I wear an ankle support and try not to overdo it, but I can't give up running. It's always been my release."
Well, this was the most information of a personal nature she'd ever offered. Was it because she was leaving? Because she was finally free and out of that drab past-the-knees dress that usually hid those honeyed shins. Shins that must feel as smooth as they looked.
When his fingertips tingled to inch higher, he bit down the urge, lowered her foot and pushed from his knees to stand.
This was no time to slip up, even if Ella's transformation was one hellova jolt, as was her resignation. He'd gotten used to her living here. Where would she be bunking down two weeks from now?
"Have you arranged somewhere to live?" he asked.
Her blue eyes sparkled up at him. "I want to buy in an affordable neighborhood and rent something in the meantime."