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"Hi, I'm your new housekeeper."
Tanner King looked the woman up and down, then once more, taking in her lush curves, heart shaped face and full lips. Late twenties, he guessed, she had long, blond hair tumbling around the shoulders of her yellow T-shirt and her faded jeans hugged her short, shapely legs like plastic wrap on a new CD. Her pale blue eyes sparkled and when she smiled, a dimple winked in her left cheek.
His body stirred and he shook his head, both at her and at the completely physical response the woman engendered. "No, you're not."
"What?" She laughed and the sound of it rolled up and over him, sending blasts of heat through his body so fast, Tanner thought it had been way too long since he'd been with a woman.
He shook his head and said, "You're no housekeeper."
One of her blond eyebrows lifted. "And you know this because..."
"You're not old enough, for one."
"Well," she said, "as nice as that is, I can assure you I am old enough to clean a house. So who were you expecting? Mrs. Doubtfire?"
He instantly thought of that old comedy with the man dressed up like a fat old woman and nodded. "Yeah."
"Sorry to disappoint." She grinned at him and that single dimple of hers made another appearance.
Oh, she hadn't disappointed. That was the problem. There was nothing about this woman that was disappointing. Except for the fact that there was no way he was going to be able to hire her. He really didn't need the kind of distraction this woman so obviously was.
"Let's start over," she said, holding out her right hand. "My name's Ivy Holloway and you're Tanner King."
It was a long second or two before he shook her hand and quickly let her go again. He didn't much care for the buzz of something hot and sinful that had zipped up the length of his arm the moment he touched her. Which was proof enough to him that this was a bad idea.
Nothing had gone right since he had moved into what should have been a perfect house two months before. Why he was surprised at this latest setback, he couldn't say.
Sunset was spilling over the valley, twilight shifting slowly to night and the woman's soft, blond hair lifted with the cool breeze sliding off the mountain. She was watching him as if he were from Mars or something. And he supposed he couldn't blame her.
This is what happened when a man with a penchant for privacy moved to a tiny town where everyone knew everything about everybody. He had no doubt that the town of Cabot Valley was curious about him. But he was in no hurry to satisfy that curiosity. He'd come here hoping to find some peace and quiet where he could work and be left the hell alone.
Of course, the peace and quiet thing had already disintegrated. He lifted his gaze to the borders of his property where acres of Christmas trees spread out as far as a man could see. It looked placid. Serene. And was anything but. Frustration simmered inside him briefly before he deliberately tamped it down again.
"Look," he said, moving to block the doorway by slapping one palm on the doorjamb, "I'm sorry you had to come out here, but you're not exactly what I was looking for. I'm happy to pay you for your time."
In Tanner's experience people--especially women-- were always willing to be paid off. Former girlfriends received tasteful diamond bracelets and housekeepers who would clearly not work out could get a nice check. No harm. No foul.
"Why would you pay me when I haven't worked yet? "
"Because this is not a good idea."
"You don't need a housekeeper?" she asked, folding her arms beneath her breasts and at the same time lifting them high enough that he couldn't ignore them--not that he had been. Her breasts were round and full and the tops of them were just visible over the neckline of that T-shirt. Oh, he'd noticed.
"Of course I do."
"And your lawyer hired me for the job. What's the problem?"
The problem, he told himself, was that he hadn't been specific enough when his best friend and lawyer, Mitchell Tyler had offered to hire him a housekeeper. It was Tanner's own damn fault that he hadn't told the man to make sure the woman he hired was old and quiet and well past tempting.
Tanner was already behind on work thanks to all the disruptions around here. He didn't need yet another distraction right under his nose all the time.
And Ivy Holloway would definitely be a distraction.
While he was lost in his own thoughts, the woman ducked beneath his arm and scooted into the house before he could stop her. There was no way to get her out again without just picking her up and carrying her. It wouldn't have been difficult. She was small enough that he could toss her over one shoulder and have her across the porch, down the steps and onto the lawn in a few seconds. But as if she knew just what he was considering, she walked further into the main room. Then she stopped and turned a slow circle, taking it all in.
"This place is amazing," she whispered and he followed her gaze.
Dark wood and glass made up most of the house, affording him a glorious view of the very Christmas tree lot that had become the bane of his existence in the last two months. The main room of the house was massive, dotted with oversized couches and chairs, grouped together in conversation knots that were never used. The hearth was river stone and was tall enough for Tanner to stand up in. Three-foot high bookcases ringed the room like a chair rail and gleaming tables sat atop warm, honey-colored oak floors. It was everything he'd wanted his house to be. Would have been perfect if not for--
"People have been dying to get a look at this house," she mused. "Ever since you bought the place and started your renovations, the town's been fascinated."
"I'm sure, but--"
"It's understandable," she added, throwing him a quick look. "After all, this place was empty for years before you bought it and it didn't look anything like this."
Oh, he knew that. Hadn't he paid a fortune to the King construction crews to spend ten months doing what should have taken two years? He'd known exactly what he wanted, and had one of his cousins, an architect, draw up the plans. Tanner had been meticulous. He'd built this place to be his sanctuary. His corner of the world, safe and inviolate.
He snorted derisively at how quickly his plans had fallen apart.
"Where's the kitchen?" she asked, interrupting his thoughts again.
He pointed. "Through there, but--"
Too late, she was already gone, her boot heels clacking merrily against the wood floor. Forced to follow her, Tanner did just that, managing to tear his gaze away from the curve of her butt only through sheer determination.
"Oh my God," she whispered as if she'd stepped into a cathedral.
The kitchen was huge, too. Bright, with its cream-colored walls and golden oak cabinets. Miles of granite countertop the color of honey topped dozens of cupboards and the big farmhouse sink overlooked a wide window with a view of the backyard. Even in twilight the yard was impressive, with sculpted trees and bushes and late summer flowers splashing the place with color.
"Cooking in here will feel like a vacation," she murmured, tossing him a quick smile. "You should see my kitchen. No counter space and a refrigerator that's older than I am."
She walked to the Subzero fridge and opened the door, cooing a little at all the space she found inside. Then she frowned and looked at him again. "Beer and salami? That's all you have in here?"
"There's some ham, too," he said a little defensively. "And eggs."
"The freezer's full," he pointed out, though why he felt as though he had to explain himself to her was beyond him. "I'm not completely helpless."
She gave him a look usually reserved for particularly slow children. "This amazing kitchen and all you use is the microwave for frozen dinners?"
Tanner scowled. He'd been busy. Besides, he was planning on cooking, or hiring someone to do it. Someday.
"Never mind." Shaking her head, she shut the refrigerator and said, "Okay, I'll pick up some groceries for you--"
"I can buy my own food."
"Oh," she assured him, "you're going to. But I'll do the ordering since that talent seems to have escaped you."
"Ms. Holloway." The two words sounded long-suffering, even to him.
"Oh," she waved a hand at him. "Call me Ivy. Everyone does."
"Ms. Holloway," he repeated deliberately and watched that one eyebrow lift again, "I already told you, your being here is not going to work."
"How do you know?" she asked, running the palm of one hand across the honey granite as if she were petting it. "I could be great. I might be the best housekeeper in the world. You could at least give me a try before you make up your mind."
Oh, he'd like to give her a try, Tanner thought. But not the way she meant. Her scent drifted to him from across the cooking island. She smelled of lemons and he caught himself before he could take a much deeper breath just to taste more of it.
If he had Mitchell here in front of him, Tanner thought he might just slug his old college roommate dead in the face. For years, Mitchell and his wife Karen had been trying to get Tanner settled down with a 'nice' woman. They'd done the dinner party with a surprise guest thing. They'd thrown parties where they could parade a stream of women past him. All in an attempt to bring him out of his shell.
The problem was, he didn't think of his life as a shell. He'd spent plenty of years constructing the defenses around him and he didn't have the slightest interest in letting anyone else in. He had friends. He had his cousins and half brothers. He didn't need anyone else. But try telling that to your married friends. It was as if as soon as a man got married, he wanted every guy he knew in that boat with him. Mitchell was doomed to disappointment in Tanner's case. But damned if he didn't keep trying.
And Ivy Holloway was proof of that. Mitchell had probably taken one look at her and decided that the town beauty was one sure way to get Tanner involved in what was going on around him. It wasn't going to work.
"The thing is," he said before his body could talk his mind out of what he knew needed to be done, "I work at home during the night. I sleep during the day--or try to--" he muttered. With all the noise erupting around his bucolic retreat, sleep was getting tougher and tougher to manage. "So I can't have you making all kinds of noise while I'm working and--"
"What do you do?"
"You said you work at home." She leaned her elbows on the countertop, propped her chin in her hands and asked, "What do you do?"
Her blue eyes were sharp and focused on him. "I design computer games."
"Really? Have you done any I would recognize?"
"I doubt it," he said, knowing full well that King games catered to young men more than women. "I don't design fashion or exercise games."
"Wow," she said softly. "That was patronizing."
Yeah, it had been. He hadn't expected her to call him on it, though. "It's just--"
"Try me," she said with a grin that had her dimple appearing again.
"Fine," he said, challenge in his voice. "The last game I designed was 'Dark Druids.'"
"Seriously?" Her eyes went wide. "That's great. I love that game. And, just so you know, I'm a ninth level Master Sage," she told him with a proud lift of her chin.
Instantly intrigued in spite of himself, Tanner gave her a considering look. He knew exactly how difficult his "Druid" game was and to reach the ninth level was impressive. "Really. How long did it take you?"
She shrugged and admitted, "Six months, but in my defense, I only played at night. So what are you working on now? Is it okay to ask, or is it a big secret?"
Six months? She'd scored that high in six months? He got e-mail letters from players complaining that he'd obviously made the game too hard as they'd only reached third level in more than a year of trying. He almost forgot that he was supposed to be getting rid of her. So she was more than beautiful. Smart, too. A deadly combination.
Still, Tanner had to stop himself from discussing his current game and the roadblock he'd hit the night before. If she was that good, maybe he could bounce a couple of ideas off her. He cut that thought off fast. He wasn't looking for a collaborator. In fact, she was keeping him from working. He was standing here talking to her when he should be upstairs buried in medieval magic--which proved his point that she was too much of a distraction.
"Secret, I guess," she said, clearly reading his expression. "Okay then, never mind. Why don't you go on and get to work and I'll take care of things around here?"
"I don't think--"
"You need a housekeeper," she told him flatly "and God knows, you desperately need someone to cook for you. And I need the extra money. I'll be so quiet, you'll never know I'm here. Promise. So why not just give me a chance?"
Clearly, she wouldn't leave without an argument and he didn't have time for one. It seemed easier at the moment to agree. "Fine. I'll be upstairs in the office. Third door on the left."
"Have fun!" She turned away and started opening cupboards, muttering to herself.
Tanner intended to talk to Mitchell and get him to fire the woman. Soon. She'd already forgotten he was there as she made notes on a tablet she'd found in a drawer. She was humming and the sound of it pushed him into moving. This wasn't going to work out. He'd give her tonight, but tomorrow, she'd have to go.
When he left the kitchen, she didn't even glance at him.
The minute she was alone, Ivy slumped against the beautiful kitchen countertop.
"That went well," she murmured to the empty room. She'd made him angry right off the bat. Though to be fair, she thought, he had already been angry when he opened the door to her. If she hadn't been so quick on her feet, she might not have gotten into the house.
And she'd had to get in. Had to have this job as housekeeper. Yes, the extra money would come in handy, what with everything she was trying to do at home right now, but that wasn't the real reason she was here--in enemy territory. That sounded odd, even to her. She had never actually had an enemy before. But she did now. A very rich, very powerful one.