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"Please state your name," came the computer-generated voice through a speaker mounted on a post. A pair of electronic iron gates emblazoned with a bold letter B and closed-circuit cameras marked the entrance to the fabled Blackstone Farms.
Leaning out the driver's side window, Renee stared up at the camera. "Renee Wilson." Within seconds the gates opened and then closed behind her as she drove through.
New state, new job and a new beginning, she mused, driving past acres of white rail fences, stone walls and verdant landscaped grassland.
She smiled and returned the wave from a man sitting atop a tractor hauling bundled hay, sat up straighter and rolled her head from side to side. She was stiffneck, shoulders and lower back. She'd made the trip from Louisville, Kentucky, to Staunton, Virginia, in a little more than eight hours, stopping only twice to refuel her car and eat.
"Yes," she whispered softly. She had made the right decision to accept the position as the administrative assistant for Blackstone Farms. Living and working on a horse farm would be a new experience for someone accustomed to the pulsating kinetic energy of Miami. And as much as she loved the south Florida city, with its personality and colorful residents, Renee knew she could not have remained there.
She had not wanted to risk running into her ex-lover who'd gotten her pregnant; a man who had conveniently neglected to tell her that he was married, she thought bitterly.
Slowing at a section where the road diverged into four directions, she followed the sign pointing the way to the main house. A towering flagpole with the American flag flying atop a black-and-red one lifted in the slight breeze.
It was late October, and trees were displaying their vibrant fall colors. The odor of wet earth lingered in the crisp autumn air from a week of thunderstorms that had left the Appalachian and Shenandoah Mountain regions saturated and lush.
Renee maneuvered her sedan behind a pickup truck in the driveway leading to Sheldon Blackstone's house. She had been interviewed and hired by his son Jeremy, who would eventually become her boss upon his father's retirement at the end of the year.
She turned off the engine, scooped her handbag off the passenger seat and pushed open the door. Her shoes had barely touched the ground when a tall figure loomed in front of her. Startled, she let out a soft gasp at the same time her head jerked up.
A pair of light gray eyes under curving black eyebrows in a deeply tanned olive-brown face pinned her to the spot. The afternoon sunlight glinted off streaks of red and flecks of gray in a full head of black wavy hair. Her breathing halted, her heart pounded erratically and a lack of oxygen made her feel light-headed. There was no doubt he was Sheldon. The resemblance between father and son was uncanny. But there was something in the elder Blackstone's gaze that unnerved her.
Recovering and letting out a soft exhalation of breath, she extended a hand. "Good afternoon. I'm Renee Wilson."
Sheldon Blackstone stared at the small hand before he shook it, her fingers disappearing in his larger grasp. He wondered how the woman with the delicate features in a nut-brown face and blunt-cut, chin-length hairdo would react once he informed her that she would have to live with him instead of in the bungalow she had been assigned.
Sheldon forced a smile he did not feel. "Sheldon Blackstone."
Renee eased her hand from his firm grip. "My pleasure, Mr. Blackstone."
Sheldon angled his head while raising an eyebrow. "Please call me Sheldon. Around here we're very informal."
The smile softening Renee's lush mouth deepened the dimples in her cheeks. "Then Sheldon it is, but only if you call me Renee."
His smile became a full grin. He found her dimpled smile enchanting. "Renee it is." Cupping her elbow, he led her toward the large two-story white house trimmed in black with an expansive wraparound porch. "I have something to tell you before you settle in."
Renee glanced at his distinctive profile. High slanting cheekbones, an aquiline nose, penetrating light gray eyes and a square-cut jaw made for an arresting visage. She stopped on the first step. "Jeremy told me everything about the position during the interview, including my duties and benefits."
Sheldon turned and stared down at her. "It's about your housing."
Renee closed her eyes for several seconds. She prayed the Blackstones would not renege on their promise to provide her with resident housing or on-site child care.
"What about it?"
Sheldon crossed his arms over his broad chest. "The bungalow assigned to you is uninhabitable. Unfortunately, lightning struck the roof, setting it afire. After we put the fire out, it rained. I had a contractor assess the damage yesterday, and he said he'll have to gut it before it can be renovated."
Renee's eyes widened with this disclosure as she curbed the urge to bite down on her lower lip as she usually did when upset or frustrated. "Are you saying I can't live here?''"
Sheldon dropped his arms and reached for her elbow again. "Let's go inside and discuss your options."
She froze, her eyes widening again. She only had one optionif she couldn't live at Blackstone Farms she'd have to get into her car and drive back to Kentucky. And while Sheldon Blackstone wanted to discuss housing options she wanted to tell him that she was a thirty-five-year-old single woman, without a permanent residence and pregnant with the child of a lying man who had reconciled with his wife.
"Please, Renee, hear me out. Let's go into the house," Sheldon said in a deep, quiet voice.
She stared at him for several seconds before nodding. "Okay, Sheldon."
Renee would listen to what he had to say, but felt uneasy. Why, she asked herself, couldn't she find a man she could trust; they say one thing and do the complete opposite. It had begun with her father. Errol Wilson had been an alcoholic, liar, gambler and a philanderer.
She dated from time to time, and although she had offered a few men her passion, she refused to give any her love. But everything had changed when she met Donald Rush. She offered him everything she'd withheld from every other man, and in the end he, too, had deceived her. With the others she had been able to walk away unscathed with her pride and dignity intact, but her luck had run out. It wasn't until after she'd moved out of Donald's house and spent two months with her brother and his family that she discovered she was pregnant with a married man's child.
Renee followed Sheldon up the porch and into the house. An expansive entryway was crowded with a breakfront and beveled glass curio cabinets. Many of the shelves were filled with trophies, mementoes and faded photographs of black jockeys from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. She walked through a formal living room and into another large room with a leather seating arrangement. Streams of sunlight poured in through mullioned floor-to-ceiling windows.
Sheldon pointed to a club chair. "Please sit down." He waited for Renee to sit before taking a matching love seat several feet away. He crossed one denim-covered knee over the other. He didn't know what it was, but something told him that the woman Jeremy had interviewed and subsequently hired to computerize the farm's business records would not make it through her three-month probationary period. He'd read her resume and although she'd been office manager for one of the most prestigious law firms in Miami, it did not compare to living and working on a horse farm. He wondered how long would it take for her to tire of smelling hay and horseflesh.
He doubted whether he would have hired Renee despite her experience and exemplary references, but that decision had been taken out of his hands. She would eventually become Jeremy's responsibility once he assumed complete control of running Blackstone Farms. The final transfer of thirty years of power would take effect January first.
His gaze moved slowly from her professionally coiffed hair to a yellow silk tunic, and down to a pair of black wool crepe slacks and leather slip-ons with a renowned designer's logo. Everything about Renee Wilson screamed big-city sophistication.
"As I said before you won't be able to live in your bungalow for a few months," Sheldon began in a quiet tone. "However, I'm prepared to open my home to you until the repairs are completed."
Renee sat forward on her chair. "I'll be living with you?" She'd vowed never to live with another man, even temporarily; but she also had to remind herself that Sheldon Blackstone would be her boss for the next two months, not her lover.
The beginnings of a smile crinkled Sheldon's eyes. There was no doubt his suggestion had shocked her. "This is a big house. We won't be bumping into each other. I have a housekeeper who comes in several times a week to clean and do laundry. You'll have your own bedroom with a private bath, and a makeshift office has been set up for you on the back porch. If you don't want to take your meals in the main dining hall, or have them delivered, you may use the kitchen. If you prefer cooking for yourself, just let me know what you'll need and I'll order it from the head chef."
Despite her consternation, Renee affected a smile. "It seems as if you've thought of everything." Sheldon, flashing a rare, open smile, nodded. "My living here with you won't pose a problem for your
" Her words trailed off.
Sheldon uncrossed his legs, clasped his hands together and planted his booted feet firmly on the parquet floor. "Are you referring to another woman?" Renee's averted gaze answered his question. "That will not be a problem for either of us," he continued. "There are two Mrs. Blackstonesmy sons' wives, Kelly and Tricia." Her head came up. "My wife died twenty years ago, and I've never been involved with any woman who either lived or worked on this farm."
Renee let out an inaudible sigh. "Well then, I'll accept your offer."
Sheldon hadn't lied to Renee. There were no other women in his life, hadn't been in months. He had married at seventeen, become a father at eighteen, was widowed at thirty-two and now at fifty-three he planned to retire at the end of the year.
His retirement plans included fishing, traveling and spoiling his grandchildren. He wasn't actively seeking a woman to share his life, but if one did come along who shared similar interests, then he would consider a more permanent relationshipa relationship that was certain not to include marriage. He'd failed once as a husband and didn't want to repeat it.
He hadn't lived a monkish existence since burying his wife, but at no time had he ever advertised his liaisons. All of his encounters were always conducted off the farm. No one, and that included his sons, knew any of the women who shared his bed after he'd become a widower.
"There is a slight problem," Renee said as Sheldon pushed to his feet." "What's that?"
"I've ordered furniture and it's scheduled to be delivered here today."
"It arrived earlier this morning," he informed her, "and I took the responsibility of having everything stored at a warehouse in Richmond."
Renee sighed in relief and rose to her feet. "Thank you."
She'd sold the entire contents of her Miami condominium before moving into Donald's palatial Miami Beach oceanfront home, and the day she left him she'd walked away with only her clothes and personal items.
Sheldon smiled at the petite woman whose head came to his shoulder. "Let me show you to your room."
"I need to get my luggage from my car."
He extended his hand. "Give me your key and I'll get it."
Opening her handbag, Renee handed him the key. A slight shock rippled up her arm as her fingers made contact with Sheldon's. She stared up at him to see if he'd felt the same reaction, but his expression was reserved.
Slipping the key into the pocket of his jeans, Sheldon escorted Renee to a curving staircase leading to the second floor. Her fingertips trailed over the mahogany banister. Their footsteps were muffled in the carpeted hallway.
Sheldon walked past three bedrooms, stopping at the last one on the right. "This one is yours. It has its own sitting room and private bath."
Renee moved beyond Sheldon and into a large, sun-filled space, feeling as if she had stepped back in time. A massive mirrored pale green armoire, the only color in the near-white bedroom, was the room's focal point. An elegant antique, white, queen-size iron bed provided the perfect complement for the armoire.
She made her way to a door in a far corner. A bathroom with an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub, yellow floral wallpaper dotted with sprigs of leaves and berries picked up the pale green hues of an upholstered chair in a corner. Antique wall sconces added the perfect finishing touch. She left the bathroom and reentered the bedroom, noting that the bathroom's wallpaper was repeated in the sitting room.
She smiled at Sheldon as he rested a shoulder against the open door, arms crossed over his chest. His pose reminded her of a large lounging cat. "It's perfect."